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POLITICS: Nations Set to Wrangle Over Arms Treaty

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 2007 (IPS) - Driven by concerns over the continued loss of civilian lives in armed conflicts, rights advocacy groups are reiterating their call for a worldwide crackdown on the illegal trade in guns and other small weapons.

The demand comes as diplomatic talks start this week over the future of a proposed treaty that would require global rules and regulations to check the flow of illegal weapons. The proposal to create such a treaty was adopted by the General Assembly last year after more than 150 countries voted in its favour, 24 abstained and one opposed.

Many among those that refused to endorse the resolution are large-scale manufacturers and suppliers, including the United States, which is estimated to have an over 35-percent share in the global market of light weapons.

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.

Gun control campaigners told reporters Tuesday that in addition to gathering more than one million signatures on a petition, they have also gotten strong support from a number of former U.N. military commanders for the campaign.

"It is very significant that these generals are supporting the treaty," said Jeremy Hobbs, director of the London-based Oxfam International, which is part of the Control Arms campaign.

Oxfam and other humanitarian groups lobbying in favour of the arms control treaty say it would prevent small weapons transfers if they are used, or likely to be used, in violation of international human rights law.

"It&#39s about people. It&#39s about their struggle for life," said Janine di Giovanni, a well-known European war reporter who has covered various bloody conflicts around the world for well over 20 years. "These weapons destroy entire societies."

According to the U.N. and Oxfam researchers, in 2005, small arms alone were responsible for the deaths of over half a million people -10,000 per week on average.

Like Giovanni, all the former military commanders who joined the arms control campaigners at U.N. headquarters appeared to hold a unanimous view that strict and comprehensive international rules against the illegal gun business is a must to save innocent lives.

Major General Patrick Commaert, who has led U.N. forces in many countries, told reporters that while his job required disarming the warring parties, he knew the flow of weapons would continue.

"It was like you are mopping the floor, but the tap is on," said Commaert, who is fully supportive of those calling for the adoption of the treaty to control illegal arms supplies.

Like Commaert, Dr. B. S. Malik, former chief of staff of the Indian army&#39s western command, also expressed his support for the treaty, but noted that a number of governments and industry were creating hurdles to its adoption.

"This trade is very lucrative. The industry makes money out of peoples&#39 difficulties," he said, adding that many governments were more interested in their defence needs while the industry cared only about economic gains.

Currently, about 25 percent of the 4-billion-dollar annual trade in small arms is either illicit or not recorded as required by law, according to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

Arms dealers in several African countries continue to violate embargoes – whether imposed by the United Nations or the United States – by using false documents or bogus certificates.

Such violations, according to U.N. researchers, are mostly carried out by an international network of middlemen involved in the illicit brokering of small arms. Most of them are operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and Cote d&#39Ivoire.

Last month, a new U.N. study pointed out that by the middle of this year, about 40 countries had enacted national laws and procedures against arms brokering, which constitutes only about one-fifth of the U.N. membership.

In accordance with last year&#39s resolution, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has received proposals on how to develop the treaty from at least 97 countries, say diplomats involved in negotiations.

Last year, Ban&#39s predecessor Kofi Annan had described the proliferation of small arms as a "grave" problem, noting that their spread fuels not only conflicts, but also refugee flows, undermines the rule of law and spawns a culture of violence.

Ban plans to form a group of government experts who will come up with their recommendations on the treaty formation in 2008. Activists hope that a treaty could be drafted by 2010, which would be a relatively short period of time for such a complex process.

The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained an aloof, if not outright hostile, posture toward the treaty.

"The United States has not yet decided whether it will or will not participate in (the review), and thus we will have no submission at this time," Richard Kidd, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told The Associated Press last month.

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