A major UN conference ended last Friday without agreeing on a document to push for stronger international efforts to curb the illegal trade in guns and other small weapons around the world.

After two weeks of tough negotiations, delegates who participated in the review conference on illegal guns said they were close to reaching a consensus, but talks broke down at the last minute on issues related to the follow-up procedures. Many diplomats blamed the US for the failure because Washington’s delegation insisted that there was no need for any further international review conference on the issue of illegal gun trade.

In 2005, small arms alone were responsible for the deaths of over half a million people.

The US suggested that such meetings should rather be held at regional levels, but a vast majority of delegates supported the view that the issue needs attention at the global level.

Delegates from Guatemala, Japan, Australia, France, Pakistan and many countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the final outcome of the meeting, though they all voiced their hope that the international efforts against the illicit gun trade would continue. The document has been sent to the First Committee of the 191-member UN General Assembly for its consideration and further action.

The review meeting was held to assess progress made by the international community on implementation of the UN Programme of Action, which was adopted by all member states in 2001, with commitments to collect and destroy illegal weapons, curb their trafficking, regulate the activities of brokers and impose import and export controls. Since its adoption, the programme has stimulated a wide range of initiatives at the national, regional and international levels, with more than 50 countries strengthening their laws to control the illegal trade in guns. But at the beginning of the review conference, many diplomats and UN officials agreed that while some progress has been made since 2000, still more remains to be done.

“The problem remains grave,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the beginning of the conference last month. “Small arms are easy to buy, easy to use, easy to transport and easy to conceal.” “Their continued proliferation exacerbates conflict, sparks refugee flows, undermines the rule of law and spawns a culture of violence,” he added.

According to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, about 25 per cent of the four-billion-dollar annual global trade in small arms is “illicit,” or not recorded as required by law. The institute estimates that worldwide, between 80,000 and 108,000 people were killed as a direct result of armed conflicts in 2003.

When asked if the US-based National Rifle Association (NRA) had any role in the failure of the review conference, Prasad Kariyawasam, president of the conference, said, “Yes, the NRA was there in the meeting, but I don’t know what role they played.” Some observers also named India, Pakistan, Russia, Cuba and Iran as countries that obstructed global principles on arms transfers.

Despite the lack of consensus, Kariyawasam still sounded optimistic. “I don’t think this conference is a failure,” he said. — IPS