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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 arms brokers. These are the intermediaries who arrange or facilitate the transfer of weapons; they usually work with arms transporters, financiers and state officials.

Few countries, noted IANSA, have laws to regulate arms brokering activities. Some regional standards exist, but fewer than 40 nations have any controls over arms brokers in their own country.

When a broker's activities are prohibited in one country, he simply moves his operations to another nation. Part of the problem lies in the fact that a broker is usually not covered by arms export and import laws, because the weapons never enter the country where the broker is operating.

An example of problems created by this unregulated activity is the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Investigators later discovered the existence of brokering networks that armed the perpetrators of the massacres in the Great Lakes Region, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

The arms trade also affects economic development, creating and helping to perpetuate poverty. In fact, 22 of the world's 34 poorest countries are engaged in or emerging from armed conflict, affirmed IANSA. And, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, armed violence is the leading single cause of hunger.

IANSA cited data from the World Health Organization, which estimates for every person killed by a gun, three others are injured. And many of the victims are young men, who should be in their productive prime.

The high cost of violence is clearly evident in the case of El Salvador. Conflict caused a loss of about $1.7 billion in 2003, the equivalent of 5% of gross domestic product, and more than twice as much as the country spends on health and education combined.

Part of dealing with the problem of such conflicts lies in giving ex-combatants an alternative. This means reintegrating them back into communities -- not just removing the weapons.

This, in turn, requires realistic and economically viable alternatives to soldiering, in order to prevent a reliance on arms as a means of securing a living. It is also important to pay attention to the needs of adolescents, by directing their energies into sports, educational programs, employment and leadership training.

The importance of addressing the underlying problems was also dealt with by Archbishop Migliore in his speech to the U.N. committee meeting. He argued that, along with international agreements, the resolution of the problems created by conflicts requires the promotion of a "real culture of peace and life among all members of society."

Last September and October he also spoke at other U.N. meetings regarding questions on weapons and disarmament. The second address, Oct. 3, concluded with the affirmation that humanity deserves "to be free from the scourge of self destruction." A goal that remains a long way off.

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