Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

14th January 2001

Big guns to talk small arms

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NEW YORK— Michael Douglas and Charlton Heston are two Hollywood movie stars who stand on opposite sides of a battle for and against gun control in the United States.

As President of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful gun lobbies in the US, Heston subscribes to the view that guns don't kill people, only people kill people.

The man who played Moses in the "Ten Commandments" also defends the constitutional right of every adult American to bear arms— including perhaps bombs, bazookas and battle tanks. Douglas, who is known to shoot his way out of trouble in movies such as "Romancing the Stone" and "Black Rain", is a strong advocate of disarmament— and believes that guns kill about 40,000 people a year and maim another 100,000.

A Hollywood mega-star who starred in several hit movies, including "Basic Instinct", "Fatal Attraction" and "Wall Street," Douglas has legions of fans worldwide.

But Douglas himself admits that one of his fans is a Sri Lankan who has converted the occasionally gun-slinging movie star into a activist in the field of disarmament and demilitarization.

Speaking at a UN ceremony sometime ago, Douglas paid a compliment to Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, for convincing the movie star to be an advocate of disarmament.

"The person who woke me up to the worldwide problem of small arms in the world was Under-Secretary-General Dhanapala.

Like me, he believes that facts speak for themselves," Douglas said.

As a member of a smaller Hollywood community advocating political and social causes, Douglas has tried to educate the American public and policy makers about the dangers attached to the proliferation of guns and the need for better personal and governmental control over them.

Designated a "UN Messenger of Peace" by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Douglas is closely coordinating his anti-gun campaign with Dhanapala, who incidentally is a former Ambassador to the United States and one of Sri Lanka's most articulate and highly accomplished career diplomats.

Last week, hundreds of anti-gun advocates were in town to attend a two-week preparatory meeting for an upcoming major UN conference on the "Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons" scheduled to take place in July.

Following in the footsteps of Douglas, a coalition of about 280 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from 70 countries launched a global campaign last week urging governments to curb the trafficking in small arms which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds and thousands of civilians worldwide.

The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) said about half a billion of these weapons are currently in circulation outside lawful control.

The preparatory meeting is discussing both substantive and procedural issues relating to the upcoming conference. The conference itself is expected to approve a programme of action to help curb the flow of small arms and adopt political declaration setting out commitments by the UN's 189 member states.

Perhaps the most sensitive issue before the conference will be the question of balancing the sovereign right of States to safeguard their national security with the pressing need to regulate the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

A proposal to ensure adequate and reliable marking of small arms— in an effort to trace their origins— is being opposed by some countries, mostly arms producers who are profiting from the illegal trade.

A UN expert panel has identified "small arms" to include assault rifles, pistols, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank missile and rocket systems, hand grenades and anti-personnel land mines.

The panel pointed out that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the US, Britain, France, China and Russia, account for around 85 percent of the global arms trade.

At the same time, about 40 percent of the worldwide flow of small arms is attributed to illicit trafficking while the majority of illicit weapons originate in the licit trade.

Since 1990 small arms have been the primary choice of weaponry in 47 of the 49 civil conflicts, including the separatist war in Sri Lanka.

The meeting is already showing signs of being divisive. China and Russia, two of the world's major producers of small arms, want the restrictions imposed only on illicit arms, not the legal arms trade.

The other three major powers at the UN, namely the US, France and Britain, are lukewarm toward the process.

"No one is certain where the United States stood," Joost Hiltermann of Human Rights Watch told a news briefing last week, "Perhaps the United States is just waiting for Russia and China to torpedo the process for it," he added.

Hiltermann warned that at the end of July, Human Rights Watch would take a close look to see if UN member states were really addressing the issue —"whether or not the emperor was fully dressed."

"We will give the United Nations a fair shot at this, but if we are not satisfied with the results, we reserve the option to step outside the UN process and pursue an alternative course of action to better protect the human rights of all," he said.

In fact the global ban on landmines was achieved outside the UN process by a coalition of NGOs, called the International Coalition for a Ban on Landmines (ICBL), which later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

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