Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

22nd July 2001

New target as US shoots down small-arms pact

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  • UN conference struggles to stave off failure 

  • NEW YORK - The sins of world leaders take a life of their own long after they are driven out of power and into oblivion.

    Corruption, human rights violations and political repression. Yes. But gun running? 

    Carlos Menem, the former Argentine president with a roguish past and a palindromic last name, has been arrested and charged with a conspiracy involving the sale of some 6,575 tons of weapons and explosives to Croatia and Ecuador.

    Alberto Fujimori, the ex-president of Peru now living in exile in Japan, has been named as a co-conspirator in the illegal diversion of weapons to Colombian rebels.

    Until recently, both were heads of state in two key Latin American countries, but now living in disgrace.

    A third head of state, the sitting President of Liberia Charles Taylor, has been fingered as the primary arms supplier to rebel forces fighting to overthrow the democratically-elected government in neighbouring Sierra Leone. 

    Last year a UN panel investigating violations of the UN arms embargo in Angola named the presidents of Togo and Burkina Faso as accomplices in the illegal sale of arms to rebel forces in exchange for diamonds.

    The world's illicit trade in small arms estimated at over $1 billion annually has been so lucrative that it has reached the highest levels of government worldwide.

    Clearly, the arms trade is monumental business whether in the Middle East or Sri Lanka and it is in the interests of arms suppliers to keep military conflicts alive.

    The illegal flow weapons usually wind up, not with legitimate governments but with armed rebel groups - known by the UN label "non-state actors."

    These non-state actors include the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, the LTTE in Sri Lanka and dozens of other rebel groups worldwide.

    A UN conference on small arms, which concluded on Friday, failed to reach agreement on a proposal to cut off arms supplies to such groups.

    The strongest opposition came from the United States which has a long history of diverting American weapons to such groups including the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahideen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and the Kurds and other anti-Saddam Hussein forces in Iraq.

    The US is also sensitive to the fact that Taiwan, whose military strength is sourced to American weapons systems, could be technically designated a "non-state actor" at least by China which considers the renegade province an integral part of the mainland.

    Reserving its right to arm non-state actors, the US has vehemently rejected any restrictions on such arms supplies.

    But still the primary source of weapons for such groups, including the LTTE, comes not from governments but from shady arms brokers and gun runners who manipulate the world's lucrative multi-million dollar blackmarket in arms.

    Last week a Washington-based NGO, Fund for Peace, proposed the creation of a new UN covention to regulate and control arms brokering.

    "If governments are serious about stemming illicit arms flows, they should immediately negotiate an international agreeement on brokering that provides uniform requirements and standards, applicable by all countries," the Fund's Advocacy Director Loretta Bondi told reporters. 

    The proposal for an international convention on arms brokering is also being supported by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a broad coalition of some 320 NGOs from 70 countries. Some of the UN member states who have responded positively include Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands who are likely to take the initiative to introduce a draft convention on arms brokering at the upcoming UN General Assembly sessions beginning September.

    At present, only 11 countries have national laws on arms brokering: Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States.

    "The US has the best laws on arms brokering," admits Kathi Austin, the director of the Fund's Arms and Conflict Programme.

    But still Washington has refused to take the lead in establishing or promoting a new convention. Asked why, Austin adduced three reasons:

    First, the US surreptitiously deploys arms brokers for some of its covert activities overseas. Second, the US Congress has always been reluctant to give its blessings to politically or legally binding conventions. And third, the current Republican administration has shown its unwillingness to antagonise one of the most powerful gun lobbies in the country, namely the National Rifle Association (NRA) 

    The convention may be a long way off from being a reality but at least the idea is now being kicked around in the corridors of the UN.

    UN conference struggles to stave off failure

    UNITED NATIONS, Saturday, (AFP) - Delegates to a UN conference on regulating the worldwide small-arms trade worked hard to avoid complete failure in reaching a draft final statement due to US objections.

    Delegates were discussing what conference president Camilo Reyes of Colombia called a final proposal to bridge the gap between those who want stronger measures against the proliferation of small arms, which the UN says kill 1,000 people a day, and US determination to oppose measures barring civilians from owning guns or restricting the legal trade in such weapons.

    "I think there is a chance of reaching an accord," said a UN official, who requested anonymity, adding that discussions have reduced the differences over the final document, but the most difficult issues remain to be resolved.

    The conference was expected by Friday's close to adopt a consensus plan inviting countries to reinforce cooperation to battle the proliferation of small arms that kill an estimated 500 million people annually, 90 percent of whom are civilians.

    Since the conference began on July 9, however, the United States has said it would oppose any measure infringing on the right to bear arms guaranteed in the US Constitution, including constraints on the legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms or measures barring civilian possession of such weapons.

    European and African nations which support tighter restrictions on the small-arms trade have criticized the perceived US unwillingness to compromise, as have several private groups attending the conference.

    The US advocacy group Human Rights Watch denounced the "strong isolationist strain" on the part of the United States, deploring that the conference has done nothing to deter that nation from providing arms to those who violate human rights.

    "We come here hopeful that we can work together and that we can go away from New York with an agreed political program of action," US assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs Lincoln Bloomfield said Thursday, offering some hope for a compromise.

    However, despite Bloomfield's apparently conciliatory comments, non-governmental organizations on Friday found cause to criticize the US refusal to hear any mention of reglementation of legal arms.

    "It (the US) could have accepted it, but so far it refused purely to please the extremist gun lobby," said Rebecca Peters, a senior fellow with the Open Society Institute.

    Some countries say the latest proposal "makes too many concessions to the United States, which does nothing," said a delegate, who requested anonymity.

    Small arms, the weapon of choice in civil conflicts, terrorist attacks and mafia violence, have been used in 46 of the 49 conflicts that have flared since the end of the Cold War 10 years ago.

    With 84 weapons for every 100 people, the United States is home to almost 50 percent of the world's known small arms, which include automatic rifles, high-powered pistols, submachine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons that are easily transported and used by a single person.

    Former French president Michel Rocard, co-president of the Eminent Persons Group, proposed that small arms manufacturers adopt a voluntary "code of conduct" geared to identifying their products."

    I would have preferred a legally binding instrument ... (but) it is absolutely impossible for a long time," Rocard add

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