|FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Volume 54, Number 3-4
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US Government Fails to Lead on Small ArmsBy Tamar Gabelnick
At the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, held from 9-20 July in New York, the US government blew a great opportunity to mend its international image on arms control. The UN Conference was organized to develop an action plan to combat the black market trade in small arms and light weapons. Governments have become increasingly interested in this subset of the conventional arms branch which ranges from pistols to grenade launchers _ because they are the preferred tools of insurgents, organized criminals and other threats to state security and peacekeepers in the field.
The US government has been quite active in addressing the problems surrounding the spread of small arms since the issue reached the international radar screen in the mid-1990s. In addition to preparations for the UN Small Arms Conference, it signed the OAS Convention on Small Arms in 1997; pushed hard for a strong Firearms Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, finally signed in February 2001; promoted passage of one the world's only laws regulating the operations of troublesome arms brokers; began a $2 million a year program of small arms destruction in post-conflict countries; and partnered with several African nations to improve regional capacity to prevent arms smuggling.
Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made no fewer than four major speeches signaling her commitment to reducing small arms proliferation. Secretary of State Powell has not yet made this a priority issue, but his interest in gun-ravaged Africa should make him a natural candidate. He also responded to a House of Representatives letter requesting his attendance at the UN Conference by saying he was committed to a "successful outcome," and that the US Delegation "has forcefully advocated, and will continue to advocate, that the Conference Program of Action include strong language" on export controls.
But US government actions in New York turned it from leader to renegade on the small arms issue. Egged on by gun rights lobbyists inside and out of the official delegation (three "public" members of the official delegation had ties to the NRA), the US delegation began and ended the Conference with a hard-nosed, anti-UN, pro-gun stance. During his opening statement, Under Secretary of State John Bolton quoted John Ashcroft's interpretation of the Second Amendment, throwing in a jab at international and non-governmental organizations for good measure. He introduced several "red line" issues that the US could not accept in the Program of Action, including problems never mentioned during the three Preparatory Committee meetings. On two of these issues _ restrictions on civilian ownership of guns and a prohibition on transfers of arms to non-state actors _ the US was prepared to walk out of the Conference rather than accept anodyne compromise language suggested by the Conference Chair. Eventually, the vast majority of nations were forced to cede to US demands in order to save the Conference.
In his opening speech, Bolton did make note of strong US export controls and called on other states to "adopt similar practices." But while the US delegation apparently proposed stronger language on some export control provisions, it did not insist on these changes. Rather, it used most of its political capital to insert qualifying language on many measures and to remove calls for international financing of new initiatives.
Given that the end result of the Conference was only a politically _ not legally _ binding document, the negative quality of US leadership was surprising. With the black eye the United States has received from blocking progress on other issues of importance at the global level _ from the biological weapons protocol to the Kyoto greenhouse treaty _ the inability of the US to play a productive role on an issue it normally takes a strong stand on shows either a lack of political savvy or the indomitable influence of the gun lobby on US foreign policy-makers.
Despite an unhelpful US position, the final Conference Program of Action did move the debate on small arms proliferation forward in several other significant areas. It contains repeated references to the humanitarian impact of small arms violence, a relatively new way to frame the issue that will help enlarge the group of government agencies and NGOs involved. It calls on states to assess small arms exports based on their "responsibilities under international law," a critical phrase for NGOs
Trying to get states to integrate human rights and humanitarian law into their export decisions. It also recognizes the importance of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of ex-combatants; the need for international rules on the activities of arms brokers; and the responsibility of governments to keep close watch over their weapons stockpiles and international borders.
Finally, conferees agreed to hold a review conference in 2006, plus biennial meetings along the way. These meetings will allow NGOs and governments to keep the momentum moving on the small arms issue and to revisit the Program of Action formally in a short time frame.
For more information, visit http://www.fas.org/asmp/campaigns/smallarms/illicit.html.