Thalif Deen

The international community, which successfully negotiated treaties outlawing anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, has made little headway in drafting a UN convention to control the proliferation of illicit small arms. “Unfortunately, the world community is still far away from this goal,” says Natalie J Goldring, a senior fellow with the Centre for Peace and Security Studies at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Despite the availability of over 600 million small arms in open and underground markets, there is no international treaty to control the reckless spread of these light weapons, according to the UN.”Governments have a clear choice,” Goldring said. “They can either continue with business as usual, which costs an estimated 1,000 deaths each day due to gun violence, or in the alternative, reach legally binding agreements to restrain the illicit trade,” said Goldring, who is also professor in the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University. The UN argues that small arms — including assault rifles, grenade launchers, pistols and sub-machine guns — are primarily responsible for much of the death and destruction.

After protracted negotiations, an international treaty banning anti-personnel landmines was signed in Canada in Dec 1997, while a new cluster munitions convention will be ready for signature at a ceremony in Norway in early December this year. Judy Isacoff of the Washington-based Africa Centre for Strategic Studies says the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) remains one of the most pressing security challenges in the Great Lakes Region in East Africa.”Not only do these weapons prolong violent conflicts, but their uncontrolled spread also poses a grave danger to long-term stability and development,” she added. The Centre is conducting a workshop on “Small Arms and Light Weapons” in Kampala, Uganda, from Aug 17-22, to examine the factors that sustain the spread of small arms and to design strategies for curtailing the supply of, and demand for, these weapons.

Addressing the biennial meeting on small arms last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that member states have made “considerable progress” in combating the illicit trade in small arms, “but many challenges still remain.” Perhaps the biggest single challenge is the creation of a new international treaty on illicit small arms. While UN member states were locked in negotiations for five days last month, at least 5,000 people were shot, says Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

A Third World delegate said that the US has frequently blocked progress in recent years — hampering agreements — though it was by no means the only country doing so. At last month’s meeting, he said, Iran was the primary impediment to progress. The US delegation was absent during most of the meetings, ironically, enabling the conference to make significant progress.