- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

NEW YORK Chinese negotiators, overriding U.S. objections, last month won an 11th-hour exemption to an international treaty that would require every firearms manufacturer to mark its weapons with a universally recognized code.
Under the U.N. protocol, firearms are to be permanently marked with a serial number that identifies every weapon, including its manufacturer and country of origin. Governments would then be required to keep track of subsequent sales in an effort curb the transport of illicit weapons into conflict zones around the world.
But a last-minute intervention by China would allow its manufacturers to use geometric symbols and Chinese characters instead of universally recognized letters and numbers.
The United States has formally objected.
"It seems to perpetuate a unique system of marking that … cannot be easily communicated by computer or even by phone," one U.S. official said this week. "We want law enforcement to recognize a number when they see it."
The American official noted that Russian and Egyptian manufacturers, among others, could also have demanded to use unique codes, including Cyrillic and Arabic symbols. However, Russia has indicated its willingness to use Western characters.
Final details of the protocol which will come before the General Assembly for approval within the next few weeks were negotiated in Vienna last month after years of preparatory work. It will take force when ratified by 40 countries.
The agreement is a part of the larger U.N. Transnational Organized Crime Convention, which the United States supports. The new protocol seeks to limit the scope of weapons trafficking by making it easier to trace firearms and limit the activities of weapons brokers, among other initiatives. It is legally binding on those nations that sign it.
A similar weapons agreement is now under discussion in New York, but that document would not be binding.
Although weapons of mass destruction get more headlines, disarmament officials say illicitly obtained small arms and light weapons kill more people every year. Easily transported, concealed and operated, weapons such as revolvers, rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are amplifying and extending conflicts around the world. And there is big money to be made in their manufacture and movement.
The Chinese amendment was introduced just as the Vienna conference was breaking up, said participants, who noted that there wasn't even time for the new language to be printed and distributed.
"This happened at the 11th hour, and there was tumult in the hall," said one participant. "The interpreters were leaving, everyone was getting ready to go home."
Members of the European Union are also concerned about the exemption, according to participants, who say that China is at least tacitly supported by Pakistan and Iran.
"China is taking all the goodies home from Vienna," said Loretta Bondi, an advocacy director for the Washington-based Fund for Peace, which monitored the proceedings. "They opposed strong provisions on marking and on brokering, they narrowed the scope [of the discussions] and they got away with everything."
Many of the same issues are under discussion in New York, where ministers will meet July 9 to 20 to finish a nonbinding agreement to prevent illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.
A final round of preparatory talks has just concluded in New York, with the participants still at odds over such fundamental points as which arms would be covered, how comprehensively to trace legal weapons shipments, and whether to prohibit the sale of arms to "non-state actors," such as resistance groups.
The French and Swiss have jointly introduced a proposal requiring that all weapons be subject to the same marking and tracking procedures, something the United States is unlikely to support because it would affect firearms used by American civilians.
"We think it's overkill," said one U.S. official.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide