- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

While rockets and missiles and heavy artillery dominate the escalating violence and warfare between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, it should not be forgotten that small arms and light weapons also kill people, mostly women and children. Some 1,500 people per day and more than 500,000 in a year are victims of armed violence and its devastating consequences in humanitarian and developmental terms. These grim statistics are not based on hunting accidents.

Focusing on the responsibility of the state in favor of collective interests and speaking for the European Union, Austria’s State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Hans Winkler promised a “fight against the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons that has become even more urgent in the context of the intensified international action against terrorism.”

Since commercial weapon transfers are already heavily regulated, the highlighted crisis in Lebanon clearly illustrates that the transfer of weapons from states to nonstate actors have become central to arms proliferation.

To address this global problem the international “United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects” convened at U.N. headquarters this month. Concluded with deep regrets by most of the participants and crocodile tears from some who overplayed their hands in a backslash against democratic forays and globalization, the conference lacked the political will to reach a consensus, a U.N. requirement and failed. There was no follow-up.

Some 140 nations had assembled to review the progress since its last conference in 2001 with the aim to tighten small arms transfer controls and develop global guidelines to get a handle on the illicit arms trade and the illicit use of end-user certificates posing a threat to peace and socioeconomic stability. The goal was to underline national responsibilities under relevant international law and an agreement on prohibiting transfers of small arms not expressly authorized by the competent authorities in the country of export, import or transit.

For the European Union, this meant global standards on marking, tracing and recordkeeping of small arms and light weapons,ammunition, the integration of small arms measures into development assistance and brokering regulations. International arms brokerage has proven to be the weak spot of the arms trade, when legally manufactured or owned small arms are sold to unauthorized end-users and licit weapons turn into illicit merchandise.

The high number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) this time allowed to voice their cause from the presidential dais, the Nigerian initiative for international legislation, regulations and procedures to ban the transfer of small arms to armed nonstate actors and reports that eight countries of the African Great Lakes region are formulating laws relating to illegal firearms seemed to bode well for a successful outcome of this get high powered U.N. summit.

Buoyed by progress reports of massive destruction of small weapons around the world and successful initiatives for marking weapons for tracing, the mood in the great assembly hall was positive until the conference’s last day. Therefore, most delegates were surprised by the directorate’s confession that because of the lack of compromises no consensus could be reached on the president’s prepared nonpaper and no concluding document could be issued.

Relatively smooth sailing was registered for concrete measures to strengthen implementation at national and regional levels, but the section on international cooperation and assistance proved the ultimate stumbling block. Underestimating the influence of the gun lobby and the powerful patron of sport hunters, the National Rifle Association, which raised its usual argument that civilian ownership of firearms should not be limited by international law and persisted in interpreting efforts to control small arms as an attempt to disarm U.S. citizens, few seemed to have listened to the statement by the U.S. delegate.

The United States, it was learned, strongly supports more effective controls on arms imports and exports but opposes any international effort to limit access of U.S. civilians to legal firearms. It was a position cast in stone that spelled the end of hopes for international cooperation and appropriate legislation and regulation.

Nobody could have been more disappointed by the collapse of the U.N. process than U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had pinned his hopes on a positive outcome to boost budding African small arms control initiatives and counter the spread of ethnic warfare — and boost his own standing.

Where do we go from here — that was the question not only raised by disappointed NGOs but deeply concerned delegates representing the international community. Considering the urgency of this basic human rights issue, participants looked for a process independent of the United Nations. The Canadian initiative on the eradication of land mines came to mind. Some delegates thought the time had come to return the brief to the ministerial level. Others remembered actions by the Eminent Persons Group, an NGO that had formed an informal consultative mechanism between major small-arms-producing and -exporting and -importing states with the objective of advancing voluntary measures to curb the illicit proliferation of firearms.

Over all, there was solid agreement: This issue is far too important to wither away. A mechanism to identify suitable solutions will and must be found.

Viola Herms Drath, a delegate to this United Nations small arms conference, is a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the recipient of the 2005 William J. Flynn Initiative for Peace Award for her seminal work promoting German unification.

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