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Small Arms, Big Problems

Conference Ends Without Final Agreement

NEW YORK, JULY 17, 2006 (Zenit) - A recent United Nations conference reviewed progress on controlling trade in small arms but the countries didn't agree on a concluding document.

Held in New York from June 26 to July 7, the purpose of the meeting was to review the 2001 Program of Action on illicit trade in small arms.

Five years ago, the accepted plan established norms and programs on a number of issues, including preventing and combating the illicit production and trafficking of small arms and light weapons; ensuring effective controls regarding the legal production of those weapons; and norms regulating the holding, transfer and destruction of arms.

In his June 26 speech to the conference, U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, stated that a quarter of the $4 billion annual global gun trade is believed to be illicit.

"These weapons may be small, but they cause mass destruction," he said, noting they are responsible for tens of thousands of lives lost each year.

Conference president, Prasad Kariyawasam, of Sri Lanka, said that in spite of the lack of a final document countries would continue to "confront the scourge of the illicit trade in small arms," according to an official press release dated July 7.

A representative of one of the non-governmental organizations active on the issue, Rebecca Peters of the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), accused governments of letting a few states, "hold them all hostage and to derail any plans which might have brought any improvements in this global crisis."

Her comments were reported by Reuters on July 7.

IANSA identified the main players blocking agreement as Cuba, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia.

The start of the conference saw the publication of a study on the issue of small arms by the Geneva-based "Graduate Institute of International Studies." Details of the study, "Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business," were contained in a June 26 press release by conference organizers.

Limited progress

Establishing transparency among weapons-exporting nations "was key to moving the process forward," said Keith Krause, program director of the Institute's research on small arms.

He said about 77% of the world's weapons were in the hands of 20 states. China, the Russian Federation and North Korea had the world's largest estimated firearms arsenals, standing at 41 million, 30 million and 14 million firearms, respectively. The United States, with 3 million firearms, ranked twelfth.

According to Krause "the balance sheet is not that good after four or five years." He said he saw few states making significant improvements in transparency. For example, Bulgaria, Iran, Israel and North Korea, termed by Krause as significant, though not huge, exporters of weapons, had chosen not to contribute any information to the Institute at all.

But some progress is being made. In Cambodia, more than 131,000 weapons have been removed from circulation, amounting to at least 60% of the weapons circulating outside official government stocks. Ukraine has also agreed to destroy nearly 2 million in surplus weapons and improve the security of other stocks.

Studies cited by the Institute show that in Bogota, Colombia, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the cost of armed violence stands at between $40 million and $90 million per year, including $10 million of lost productivity due to deaths of working-aged men in Brazil, and $4 million in Bogota.

Human rights

The arms trade in general continues to raise concerns. On June 11, Amnesty International issued a report criticizing China for selling arms to countries that abuse human rights. The report is titled "People's Republic of China: Sustaining conflict and human rights abuses; The flow of arms accelerates."

Amnesty International noted that China is emerging as one of the world's major arms exporters. Moreover, its arms sales are an integral part of the trade it is developing with countries. "Over the last 20 years China has supplied a range of military, security and police equipment to countries with a record of gross human rights violations," accused the report.

Although international concern has focused on the transfer of nuclear or long-range missile technology to countries such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, Amnesty International argued that the export of conventional weapons and small arms, "has been contributing to human rights violations including in brutal armed conflicts."

In addition, China is the only major arms exporting power that has not entered into any multilateral agreement which sets out criteria, including respect for human rights, to guide arms export licensing decisions.

Among the cases the report cites is Sudan. China has continued to allow military equipment to be sent there despite well-documented and widespread killings, rapes and abductions by government armed forces and allied military groups.

In Nepal, the report noted, China has supplied small arms and light weapons to the armed forces, which have been responsible for much of the killings and torture, often of civilians, in the internal armed conflict.

Expenditure on the rise

Overall, military spending continues to increase. The world total for all military expenditure in 2005 reached $1,118 billion in current dollars. The data comes from the 2006 yearbook released June 12 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The level of expenditure last year is equivalent o 2.5% of world gross domestic product. Spending in 2005 rose 3.4% since 2004, and 34% over the 10-year period 1996-2005. The biggest spender is the United States, which accounted for about 80% of the increase in 2005. This was mainly due to costs involved with the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. American military expenditure now accounts for 48% of the world total.

Since 2003 the international arms trade is also rising. Global arms exports, according to national reporting, is estimated at between $44 billion to 53 billion in 2004, the most recent year for which information is available.

The five largest suppliers in the period 2001-2005, in order of value, were Russia, the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K.. The combined exports from European Union member states made it the third largest exporter of major conventional weapons. Russia and the U.S.A. each accounted for roughly 30% of global deliveries of major weapons. In 2005 the five largest suppliers accounted for over 80% of arms delivered.

In the period 2001-2005, 43% of Russia's deliveries went to China and 25% to India. The four largest recipients of U.S. exports in 2001-2005 were, in order, Greece, Israel, the U.K. and Egypt.

The SIPRI report noted that there are variations between countries in the definitions that determine what they include and exclude in their reported data. Moreover, the dual-use nature of many current innovations in science and technology is making it harder to identify the financial commitment to military research and development.

Some progress has been made towards greater transparency in nuclear arsenals, according to SIPRI. There remains, however, much uncertainty about global inventories of nuclear weapons and weapon-usable fissile material. For biological weapons, transparency could even be decreasing. Regarding chemical weapons the situation is better, with more data being released by governments on the destruction of these arms and the remaining stockpiles.

"The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is a threat to peace, development and security," stated Archbishop Celestino Migliore in his June 28 address to the United Nations conference on small arms.

The Holy See, he continued, therefore supports efforts to combat the illicit arms trade. He also called attention to the impact of the arms trade on children. Greater attention is needed in the struggle to reduce the demand for small arms, explained Archbishop Migliore. A struggle that is proceeding with difficulty.


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