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POLITICS: U.N. Readies for Draft on Small Arms Control Treaty

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 24 2007 (IPS) - Against the backdrop of a new national poll calling for stricter gun control in the wake of the mass killings of 32 people on a U.S. university campus last week, the United Nations is getting ready to formulate a new international treaty regulating the proliferation of small arms worldwide.

“There is not yet a draft,” said Jennifer Abrahamson of Oxfam International, one of the lead organisations campaigning for the treaty, along with the London-based Amnesty International and International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

“What’s happening now is that governments are due to turn in their blueprints of what they believe a draft should look like,” she added.

The hard deadline is the end of April, but submissions by the 192 U.N. member states will be accepted through Jun. 20.

“This is the first real action that will lead to a treaty,” Abrahamson told IPS.

According to last week’s poll, conducted by the New York Times and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television network, most Americans favoured stricter control of handguns in the wake of the killings of 32 people in a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech campus.

But there was no widespread support for a total ban on handguns, the weapons used in the Virginia Tech shootings in the town of Blacksburg, Virginia.

The proposed treaty, which was supported by 153 of the 192 member states in a resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly last December, does not envisage a total ban either.

But the treaty is expected to call for a regulation of the production and sale of small arms, including handguns.

A U.N. expert panel has identified small arms to include assault rifles, pistols, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missile and rocket systems, hand grenades and anti-personnel landmines.

At a U.N. press conference Monday, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson stressed that the handguns that had played a devastating role in the tragic deaths in Virginia Tech had been purchased legally.

Asked about the countries, including the United States, which had expressed reservations on the resolution calling for a treaty, Robinson said that “policy issues were internal to the United States.”

But she hoped that the sense of personal loss felt by Americans and others, as well as the response from the Virginia Tech community, could bring home the terrible cost being paid in many countries around the world.

“The campaign should try to engage the United States and those countries that had abstained in the vote so that they could recognise the need to control arms – just as nuclear weapons had been regulated – with varying degrees of success,” said Robinson, a former president of Ireland.

Asked who the sceptics of the treaty are, Abrahamson said that besides the United States, these include China, Russia and several Arab states.

But she pointed out that several other major international treaties “have gone through without the United States and other sceptics.” A good example is the treaty banning landmines.

With respect to how confident Oxfam is about the success of such a treaty, Abrahamson said: “What is important now is that governments do their part (particularly the 153 nations that agreed to the treaty in December 2006) by submitting their plans – plans which are rooted in international humanitarian and human rights law.”

She said the treaty business is very time-consuming. “We are hoping that a treaty will be completed by 2010 which, historically, is quite quick.”

“We hope that the process is completed within the United Nations,” the activist added.

If this is derailed for some reason, she said, the movement will continue outside the United Nations, as did the landmine treaty. But for now, barring the detractors, there is strong consensus to continue forward with a treaty, she emphasised.

Helen Mirren, an Oscar-winning actress and an arms control activist, said Monday that “From Kenya to Brazil to Sri Lanka, there are more weapons than ever before, and they are easier and cheaper to obtain.”

She noted that in December 2006, 80 per cent of the world’s governments voted to start work on developing the international Arms Trade Treaty. “All governments now have a responsibility to make an effective Arms Trade Treaty a reality,” she added.

Joseph Dube, a spokesperson for the IANSA arms control coalition, said there is a very real risk that sceptical governments, such as the U.S. administration, could seek to water down the treaty, rendering it too weak to save lives.

But “The over a million people around the world who support this treaty will not allow that to happen,” he warned.

Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry of the UK, who is also the current president of the U.N. Security Council, told reporters that in Africa, only HIV/AIDS was a bigger killer than small arms.

While much of the industry behaved responsibly, he pointed out, illegal trafficking is a major problem and has to be curbed.

“The scale of the problem requires a U.N. multilateral response,” he said.

Progress on elaborating the proposed treaty had been encouraging, he said, but he added that he was under no illusion that the next two or three years would be tough going, as “governments conveniently hid behind the negotiations and refused to fully disclose their positions.”

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