To address what many countries and non-governmental organizations,
or NGOs, have called “the scourge of small arms,” the
United Nations—after nearly two years of planning—this
summer convened a two-week conference on illicit trade in small
arms and light weapons.
Conferees agreed to a final program of action including measures
to prevent, combat and eradicate the illegal trade at national,
regional and global levels through international cooperation and
information sharing. They were unable, however, to reach a consensus
on rules on private ownership or arms transfers to non-state actors.
In the opening session, one of the U.S. representatives to the
conference—Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton—made
it clear that the United States had serious reservations about a
supranational organization dictating domestic laws to govern individual
gun ownership. The United States, he said, also was concerned about
the conundrum of dealing with regulations on trade with non-state
actors, meaning terrorists, guerrillas and liberation movements.
The idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s
freedom fighter makes trade with non-state actors, illicit or otherwise,
a foreign-policy issue that individual countries need to decide
based on national interests, according to U.S. policy experts. Representatives
from African nations, such as Nigeria, preferred to retain provisions
in the document that would restrict small-arms transfers to governments.
The Chinese delegation took exception to the idea proposed by Japan
and the European Union that small arms should not be exported to
nations guilty of human-rights abuses. To reach final consensus,
the conferees agreed not to include these two issues in its final
recommendations. Several delegates, in their final remarks, said
they regretted that these issues could not be addressed because
of the wishes of a single delegate.
A regular feature in recent years at some U.N. meetings, NGOs were
allowed to have their say. It was reported that more than 170 NGOs
were represented at the conference. One NGO representative suggested
that a way to measure the success of the UN’s new program
would be the number of lives saved as a result of its implementation.
A representative from the Arias Foundation said that controlling
the illegal trade in small arms was a right-to-life issue. Members
of Amnesty International and Oxfam were concerned about the possibilities
of human-rights abuses if small arms were allowed to reach non-state
The flip side of the issue is that non-state actors may be attempting
to overthrow a non-democratic government that is guilty of human
rights abuses, some conferees noted. If states are prevented from
supporting non-state actors, that may not help improve human rights,
but instead may help keep corrupt, undemocratic governments in power,
these conferees warned. This, they said, could put organizations
such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the unusual
position of supporting an authoritarian government.
Also addressing the conference were spokesmen for pro-gun organizations.
A representative from the U.S. National Rifle Association voiced
concerns about several of the U.N.’s small-arms transfer initiatives
as they affect domestic laws governing the individual’s right
to own firearms. The NRA is one of the few activist groups in the
international small-arms debate that has recognized NGO status at
the United Nations.
The NRA, along with other non-governmental organizations, had been
preparing for the U.N. conference attending international meetings
and exchanging views at meetings with U.N. representatives and other
NGOs concerned with small-arms transfer issues in Austria, Switzerland,
Italy, Japan and the United States. This series of meetings provided
opportunities for opposing activist groups to exchange views on
issues including gun-ownership rights and the marking of weapons
As a result of early discussions on weapons markings, a topic of
interest to the United Nations and disarmament groups, an ad hoc
working group representing manufacturers took shape. The manufacturers’
group—in coordination with the World Forum on the Future of
Sport Shooting Activities, an international pro-gun activist group
heavily sponsored by European manufacturers and the NRA—has
been working on an education program to assist members of NGOs interested
in understanding the technology of small arms.
At private meetings held prior to the U.N. conference, the group
met with international experts to reach an agreement on the definition
of military small arms. It was believed that distinguishing military
weapons from civilian firearms would help to restrict the U.N. discussions
regarding regulation of individual ownership.
At what became a raucous meeting of leading military and civilian
arms experts in London, the group revealed its proposed definition
for a military weapon to be any weapon with a fully automatic firing
capability. It rejected the notion that simply having been used
as a military weapon restricted the weapon to the military realm.
There was some contention even within this group of experts about
whether this definition would protect the rights of all individual
gun owners, since the United States continues to allow individuals
with the appropriate licenses to own fully automatic weapons.
Individual nations agreeing to the document now will move to implement
the proposed program of action at the national and regional levels.
Governments agreed to develop methods to exchange information, to
devise and implement laws to improve control of export and transit
of small arms including improvements in authentication of end-user
certificates, and, where possible, to develop effective measures
to collect, demobilize and destroy small arms in post-conflict areas.
According to Peter Batchelor, co-author of a special survey of
small-arms transfers at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International
Studies, the results of the conference provided a “platform
for future action at the national, regional and sub-regional levels.
It was especially important to governments in Asia and Africa.”
But because of the U.S. inclination to keep the “two-dimensional
issue” of trade with non-state actors out of the program of
action, he said, this remains an important issue to be addressed
in the years ahead.
The conference concluded with an additional agreement that the
United Nations should convene a follow-up meeting on small arms
no later than 2006.
Virginia Hart Ezell is president of the Institute for Research
on Small Arms in International Security and a reserve lieutenant
colonel in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps.