- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

NEW YORK U.S. officials attending a U.N. meeting on the spread of illicit small arms have pledged to protect legitimate gun owners from international disarmament efforts.

Specialists from scores of nations are meeting here to develop a non-binding agreement aimed at halting the flood of illicit small arms and light weapons into the world's conflict zones.

Specialists hope that by choking off the supply of easily transported, easily hidden weapons, armed struggle ultimately will become less lethal and more difficult to prolong.

Because almost all illegal guns start out as legal guns, some observers are concerned that efforts to crack down on stolen or improperly transferred weapons ultimately will be felt by legitimate gun owners.

"We have a couple of key redlines," one State Department official said of the discussions. "Number one, for obvious reasons, whatever comes out of this conference should in no way impose controls on who owns firearms, or what types of firearms. We don't feel that anything that imposes on domestic private ownership is something we will sign on to."

The U.S. delegation at the conference includes representatives from the State, Defense and Treasury departments, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The National Rifle Association and other firearms-related organizations both pro and con are attending portions of the two-week meeting. So are international human rights monitors, children's advocates and similar nongovernmental groups.

The session is largely procedural, but the final conference, to be held in New York July 9-20, is expected to produce a document setting out clear goals regarding the permanent marking, recording, certification and transit of small arms, with the goal of keeping legal guns from going bad.

The proposed agreement would resemble a legally binding treaty on transnational organized crime that is being developed at U.N. offices in Vienna, Austria.

"Something we would not want to see happening is to have this forum undercut the treaty prospects in Vienna. We're working very hard to keep that exercise on track," said a member of the U.S. delegation, who acknowledged that some nations would rather handle thorny issues, such as permanent marking, in the non-binding New York forum.

Diplomats and observers alike caution against expecting much from the final agreement, which defines "small arms and light weapons" as including handguns, grenades, mortars, anti-tank guns and assault rifles.

Speakers in the opening days of discussion last week repeatedly urged delegates not to allow national interests and rich profit margins to dictate a toothless resolution.

Observers and diplomats say the African delegations seem to be pushing the hardest for a strong treaty, while the arms-producing nations specifically the United States and other permanent Security Council members are hitting the brakes.

Sub-Saharan African has been more affected by conflict than any other region. Internal conflicts are simmering ominously or openly raging in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Sudan. Many of these conflicts threaten to spill into neighboring, often unstable, nations.

"We have high hopes of the July conference but at the same time rather low expectations," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch. "We consider it unlikely in the extreme that the conference will accomplish anything more than very minimal objectives, if those."

Specifically, Mr. Hiltermann blasted the Security Council's five permanent members for undercutting disarmament efforts in the developing world.

He said Russia and China "are completely opposed" to a meaningful treaty, while France "slips weapons to its allies in African conflict zones … asserting its neo-colonial interests by other means."

The British approach to weapons exports "comes up short on ethics," he added.

Mr. Hiltermann said it was still not clear what position the incoming Bush administration would take on the treaty.

"We don't know where it stands," he said last week. "I would not be surprised if it was counting on Russia and China to torpedo this conference for it."

U.S. officials say they are committed to curbing the spread of illicit small arms, but they don't want to do it by creating new U.N. offices, authorizing a lot of global meetings or banning specific weaponry.

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