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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
UN Small Arms Conference Approves Modest Plan

Rebecca Whitehair

Concluding a UN conference July 21, more than 140 nations achieved compromise on a non-binding plan to curb the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, after relenting to U.S. demands to trim measures Washington opposed.

Beginning July 9, UN member states gathered at UN headquarters in New York with a mandate to strengthen international efforts curtailing the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and their illegal trade by adopting a program of action—a final document reached by consensus that is not legally binding and has no enforcement mechanisms.

The conference was scheduled to end July 20, but delegates were forced to work overnight and into the next day in order to reach an agreement.

The final document resolved to “prevent, combat, and eradicate” the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons and outlined voluntary measures states could take at national, regional, and global levels.

Among the steps at the national level, the program of action encouraged states to pass laws controlling the export and transit of small arms and light weapons; regulating arms brokers; criminalizing the illegal manufacture, possession, stockpile, and trade of such weapons; and ensuring that licensed manufacturers mark weapons appropriately for tracing purposes.

Measures at the regional level included establishing regional information-sharing mechanisms among law enforcement, border, and customs control agencies.

The program of action also called on states to cooperate with UN arms embargoes and with one another to identify and trace illicit small arms and light weapons in a timely manner.

The conference convened under a December 1999 General Assembly resolution, which also established a preparatory committee that met in February 2000, January 2001, and March 2001 to draft the conference’s program of action.

Measures contained in the original draft restricting civilian small arms ownership and limiting trade in small arms and light weapons to substate groups were removed due to U.S. pressure.

At the opening ceremony July 9, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs and head of the U.S. delegation, said that the United States refused to support language in the original draft that conflicted with the constitutional right of U.S. citizens to bear arms and that restricted governments from supplying weapons to substate actors, such as rebel groups defending themselves.

The conference’s president, Camillo Reyes of Colombia, expressed regret that no agreement was reached on the two issues the United States opposed, citing them as two of the conference’s “most important,” but congratulated conference delegates for putting aside their differences to adopt a final program of action. Many African delegations, representing regions afflicted by the spread of small arms and light weapons, had pushed for the measures and were disappointed that the final agreement did not include them.

The two controversial measures were among several opposed by the United States at the outset of the conference. During final negotiations, the United States dropped protests against measures calling for a mandatory review conference. The review conference is to be held no later than 2006.

In addition to the review conference, states agreed on other follow-up steps, including meeting biennially to discuss the program of action’s implementation and conducting a UN study on developing an international instrument that would enable states to identify and trace illicit small arms and light weapons in a timely and reliable manner.

The United Nations estimates that, of the 500 million small arms and light weapons in the world, between 40 percent and 60 percent are illicit.

However, Bolton said that the “vast majority” of arms transfers in the world were “routine and not problematic” and that effective export controls best countered illicit arms trade, to which Bolton stressed the United States was committed.

Based on a 1997 report by a UN panel of governmental experts, the United Nations classifies a small arm as a weapon to be fired, maintained, and transported by one person. In contrast, a light weapon is designed for use by a small crew and for transport on a light vehicle or pack animal.