Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

5th March 2000

Small arms and big disputes

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NEW YORK— The world's ongoing military conflicts— extending from Afghanistan and Angola to Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka — are not being fought with state-of-the-art F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighter planes nor with sophisticated Sidewinder and Sparrow air-to-air missiles.

They are being fought mostly with small arms — 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.

"These small arms are responsible for 90 percent of war casualties," says Michel Rocard, a former French prime minister and head of an Eminent Persons Group, which is campaigning for a mandatory UN code of conduct to curb the flow of small arms to the world's battle zones.

The majority of the casualties in these civil wars are civilians, and children account for a quarter of them.

With 200,000 deaths annually, Rocard told a UN press conference last week, the human toll is rising. "Yet, the international trade in small arms remains largely unregulated."

In a report released here, the Eminent Persons Group, says the majority of small arms producers are located in the First World while the majority of victims of small arms are in the Third World.

Currently, 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. But, not surprisingly, 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 military conflicts.

Last week, the UN began a preparatory meeting for a major UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms scheduled to take place in 2001. The venue has still not been decided.

But the preparatory meeting is already embroiled in several disputes between arms suppliers and arms buyers.

Should the conference, for example, confine itself only to the "illicit trade" in small arms or should it be expanded to curb the flow of licit trade as well?

Should there be a voluntary or a mandatory code of conduct to regulate the small arms trade? Should manufacturers be compelled to mark weapons so as to facilitate tracking them down?

How do you deal with middlemen and shadowy arms brokers who are primarily responsible for feeding guerrilla movements and terrorist organisations?

And what about Article 51 of the UN charter which implies that states have the right to produce and acquire arms with which to defend themselves?

"By themselves, small arms and light weapons can cause no harm," argues Ambassador Savitri Kunadi of India, "They are delivery systems for ammunition and explosives. Therefore, in our consideration of the matter, it is imperative to cover ammunition and explosives also. A narrower definition would be self-defeating."

Joost Hiltermann, Executive Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, says that governments have talked about the need to stem the proliferation of small arms. But so far, he says, it has been all talk — and no action.

It is time, Hiltermann argues, to bar small arms sales to the world's human rights abusers.

Hiltermann says the conference is expected to approve a "plan of action" to curb the transfer of small arms, but the outlines of this plan are still unclear.

Human Rights Watch is not only calling for binding codes on arms transfers but also the establishment of transparency measures, including annual reporting of arms sales, and the creation of a UN Register for Small Arms.

Currently the only code of conduct governing arms sales is being implemented by the 15-member European Union. But critics have accused some of the European countries of exporting weapons to countries who are human rights abusers, in violation of the code.

The existing seven-year-old UN Arms Register, on the other hand, only records the import and export of fighter aircraft, combat helicopters, missiles, warships and heavy artillery — and excludes small arms.

Hiltermann also points out that many of the weapons on the black market at some point were legally transferred by governments or with government approval. "And governments have failed to rein in unscrupulous arms traffickers or enforce arms embargoes imposed on human rights abusers," he notes.

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