UN conference reaches consensus on watered-down plan to combat small arms trafficking

Saturday, July 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ More than 170 nations reached consensus Saturday on a watered-down plan to combat illegal small arms trafficking after giving in to U.S. demands to drop a call for governments to limit weapon sales and restrict civilian gun ownership.

The compromise left many African and European delegates as well as human rights groups and antigun campaigners angry at the United States.

Conference president Camilo Reyes of Colombia announced the agreement as dawn broke, ending a marathon two-week U.N. conference that went into overtime Saturday. Exhausted delegates left for a few hours of sleep and were expected to return at noon to formally approve the deal.

``I am happy to tell you that we have a document that reached consensus,'' Reyes said. ``It has been an extremely difficult process. ... We could have obtained a better document, but I think that we have a good start.''

``First and foremost,'' said U.N. Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Jayantha Dhanapala, the consensus means ``that collectively everybody recognizes that there is a problem _ that they all commit themselves to establish a framework of law in their own country to combat the problem.''

The program of action, which is not legally binding, calls on governments to ensure that manufacturers put unique identifying marks on every small arm and light weapon and keep records so illegally trafficked weapons can be traced. It also calls for laws to ensure government control over the transfer of small arms, including legislation to regulate small arms brokers.

Governments are also urged to make the illegal manufacture, possession, stockpiling and trade of small arms a criminal offense. It calls for surplus stocks to be destroyed, public awareness campaigns on the consequences of the trade, and international support for disarming combatants after conflicts.

The conference was the first U.N. meeting on small arms, which were the weapons of choice in 46 of the 49 conflicts fought during the 1990s _ conflicts in which 4 million people died, 90 percent of them civilians.

According to U.N. estimates, between 40 percent and 60 percent of the more than 500 million small arms and light weapons in the world are illegal. The trade in these illicit pistols, assault rifles, machine-guns and other light weapons is valued at about $1 billion annually.

The United States, whose constitution guarantees an individual's right to own guns, made clear from the outset it would oppose any U.N. plan that even hinted at interference with that right.

In the final make-or-break negotiations, the United States said it could not support consensus unless a call to governments ``to seriously consider legal restrictions on unrestricted trade in and ownership of small arms and light weapons'' was dropped.

The United States also said it would reject any measure that would bar governments from supplying small arms to ``non-state actors,'' such as rebel groups.

This issue proved even more contentious in the final hours, with the United States standing alone in confronting a united Africa.

The continent, torn by conflict, demanded that language calling for small arms to be transferred only to governments _ or government-approved entities _ remain in the final document.

``If you send arms to non-state actors, you are sending them to rebels who are trying to overthrow governments,'' said Nigerian delegate Sola Ogunbanwu.

But under intense pressure, Africa dropped its demand in order to get consensus among all countries for the plan. The United States prevailed, but many African and European delegates who backed them were visibly angry.

``The U.S. should be ashamed of themselves,'' said South African delegate Jean Du Preez. ``We are very disappointed.''

Mexico's chief delegate Luis Alfonso de Alba called the U.S. action ``regrettable.'' He paid tribute to the African nations, saying the conference would not have reached a consensus ``if it wouldn't have been for the will, the principles, the compromise of the African group.''

Human rights groups and antigun campaigners were also angry at the Americans.

``It's unbelievably selfish that the most powerful nation in the world that produces more than half of all the small arms in the world is prepared to jeopardize the safety of millions of people in other countries purely for the sake of pandering to its own domestic lobbying interests,'' said Rebecca Peters of the Open Society Institute.

The organization was one of 320 from 70 countries that are part of The International Action Network on Small Arms, which is working to combat illicit trafficking.

Chief U.S. negotiator Lincoln Bloomfield, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, refused to answer questions on the agreement. But he said it ``sets the basis for cooperative action to address the very serious problems caused by flows of illicit small arms and light weapons in areas of instability.''

The United States made one concession early Saturday: It dropped its opposition to a follow-up conference and agreed to holding one by 2006, diplomats said.

This was a critical victory for an overwhelming majority of delegations, who did not want the conference to be a one-time wonder and considered a follow-up conference key to further global action.