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DISARMAMENT: Binding Treaty Eludes Small Arms Trade

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 8 2008 (IPS) - The international community, which successfully negotiated treaties outlawing anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, has made little headway in drafting a U.N. convention to control the proliferation of illicit small arms.

"Unfortunately, the world community is still far away from this goal," says Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Centre for Peace and Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Despite the availability of over 600 million small arms in open and underground markets, there is no international treaty to control the reckless spread of these light weapons, according to the United Nations.

"Governments have a clear choice," Goldring told IPS. "They can either continue with business as usual, which costs an estimated 1,000 deaths each day due to gun violence, or in the alternative, reach legally binding agreements to restrain the illicit trade," said Goldring, who is also adjunct full professor in the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University.

The U.N. argues that small arms – including assault rifles, grenade launchers, pistols and sub-machine guns – are primarily responsible for much of the death and destruction in conflicts throughout the world.

After protracted negotiations, an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines was signed in Canada in Dec. 1997, while a new cluster munitions convention will be ready for signature at a ceremony in Norway in early December this year.

Judy Isacoff of the Washington-based Africa Centre for Strategic Studies says the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) remains one of the most pressing security challenges in the Great Lakes Region in East Africa.

"Not only do these weapons prolong violent conflicts, but their uncontrolled spread also poses a grave danger to long-term stability and development, both domestically and within the region as a whole," she added.

The Centre is conducting a workshop on "Small Arms and Light Weapons" in Kampala, Uganda, from Aug. 17-22, to examine the factors that sustain the spread of small arms and to design strategies for curtailing the supply of, and demand for, these weapons.

Addressing the biennial meeting on small arms last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that member states have made "considerable progress" in combating the illicit trade in small arms, "but many challenges still remain."

Perhaps the biggest single challenge is the creation of a new international treaty on illicit small arms.

While U.N. member states were locked in negotiations for five days last month, at least 5,000 people were shot, says Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

"This illustrates the severity and scope of the problem," she said, pointing out that gun violence is a global problem "that can only be tackled if all countries work together, with common guidelines across the world."

Both the 2005 biennial meeting and the 2006 review conference on small arms failed to reach "consensus" on a final document. In effect, consensus had been defined as "unanimous agreement", so that even a single country could block progress.

A Third World delegate told IPS that the U.S. has frequently played this role in recent years – hampering agreements – though it was by no means the only country doing so.

At last month's meeting, he said, Iran was the primary impediment to progress. The U.S. delegation was absent during most of the meetings, ironically, enabling the conference to make significant progress.

When unanimous agreement proved impossible, participants in the meeting called for a vote on the outcome document. Voting had not previously occurred as part of this process. In the end, the vote was nearly unanimous, he added. Of the 136 countries voting, 134 supported adoption of the substantive report of the conference and no countries voted against its adoption. Only Iran and Zimbabwe abstained.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Goldring said the U.N. took an important step forward, by agreeing on more substantial measures to control the global trade in small arms and light weapons. She said member states focused on increasing international cooperation to build national capacity and to help prevent illicit brokering.

They also worked to provide standards for more effective stockpile management and disposal of surplus weapons – with a preference for destroying surplus weapons.

Delegates discussed roughly two dozen additional issues, including the need for legally binding commitments on these issues. "In the end, substance won out over process," said Goldring.

Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania took a huge risk by refusing to accept line-by-line edits of the draft report, according to Goldring. No one claimed that the document was perfect, but participants understood that it was far stronger than any document likely to be produced through the usual negotiations, Goldring added.

Ambassador Cekuolis' innovative approach prevented the document from being weakened. It also helped ensure inclusion of gender issues and endorsement of civil society's important role in the small arms process, she pointed out.

Meanwhile, the 63rd session of the U.N. General Assembly, which begins in mid-September, will consider a resolution on small arms that will provide for a continuing process of review and consultation on national, regional and global levels.

The next biennial meeting on small arms is scheduled to take place in 2010.

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