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Taking Aim at Small-Arms Trafficking

Vatican Joins Voices Pleading for Action

NEW YORK, JAN. 23, 2006 (Zenit) - Sometimes it's the little things that count, and that's true also when it comes to armaments. For two weeks, Jan. 9-20, the United Nations has been reviewing progress made in reducing the trade in small arms.

U.N. estimates reckon there are more than 600 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide. They come from a variety of sources, including illicit trading, leftovers from conflicts, and theft from military and police armories.

The Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network, in a report it published Jan. 11, said that small arms are responsible for more than half a million deaths per year, including 300,000 in armed conflict and 200,000 more from homicides and suicides.

The U.N. meeting in New York was that of a preparatory committee, to prepare a full-scale conference on the question of light arms, to take place June 26-July 7. This later meeting goes by the cumbersome title of "The United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Program of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects."

The Program of Action was adopted unanimously by U.N. member-states in 2001 and essentially consisted in developing and strengthening norms and measures designed to coordinate efforts in curbing the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

Since 2001 the U.N. member-states have approved protocols to coordinate action. The United Nations also formed a body made up of 16 departments and agencies, the Coordinating Action on Small Arms mechanism, to exchange information.

Opening the committee meeting on Jan. 9, Nobuyasu Abe, U.N. undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs, said that significant progress had been made in combating the illicit small arms scourge. According to an official press release, however, he added that these weapons are still a massive problem -- killing, maiming and threatening individuals daily, and destabilizing states and regions and hampering their development.

The Holy See's representative to the United Nations in New York, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, also spoke to the committee Jan. 9. The process begun in 2001, he said, "is having important repercussions on the promotion of disarmament, peace and post-conflict reconstruction, the fight against terrorism, and large- and small-scale organized crime."

The Vatican representative called upon the United Nations to consider the possibility of negotiating a legally binding instrument on the international arms trade, based on the principles of international law, and in particular on the question of human rights and humanitarian law.

Limiting the trade

One group active in pressuring for measures to restrict small arms is the International Action Network on Small Arms. IANSA is a sort of a global network of civil society organizations that are working to stop the proliferation and misuse of small arms.

IANSA wants governments to strengthen some of the existing provisions, such as clarifying the responsibilities of states to regulate small arms transfers. It is also pressuring for the adoption of a set of global principles for arms transfers, based on international law, in order to close the legal loopholes exploited by weapons dealers. Ideally this would lead to a legally binding instrument to control arms brokers, wherever they operate.

IANSA prepared a number of position papers for the meeting just concluded in New York. Among the issues addressed was the question of how to regulate the international trade in small arms.

The problem is not easy to deal with. Almost half the countries in the world manufacture small arms. And almost every country is involved in the international export, re-export, transit or import of small arms. In addition, the vast majority of countries have insufficient controls on the international transfer of those weapons.

The background paper noted that, alongside the right of states to buy weapons for legitimate self-defense and responsible law enforcement, they also have a responsibility to ensure that transferred small arms are not used to violate international human rights or humanitarian law, or to hamper development.

One significant step forward came last July, when the U.N. Firearms Protocol entered into force. The protocol commits states to regulate the manufacture, and trade of firearms through a system of licensing. It also requires firearms to be marked on manufacture and import, with records to be kept for at least 10 years. The protocol, however, does not regulate state-to-state transfers.

Gaps in controls

One area that needs to be addressed, according to IANSA, is controlling the activities of ...

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