UN opens conference geared towards tackling illicit trade in small arms

UN opens conference geared towards tackling illicit trade in small arms

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Seeking to address the destabilizing - and often deadly - effect of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, the United Nations today began a two-week conference aimed at hammering out a concrete and coordinated response to the threat.

According to its organizers, the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects does not aim to outlaw the legal manufacture or trade of these weapons, nor their legal, private ownership. Instead, ministers from around the world have gathered to adopt a politically binding declaration and programme of action to prevent and combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons - the armaments of choice in the overwhelming majority of recent conflicts which collectively killed some 4 million people, 80 per cent of them women and children.

Opening the Conference this morning, its president, Camilo Reyes Rodríguez of Colombia, said that by convening the forum, the UN had placed on its agenda a problem with devastating consequences for humankind. The Conference represented the possibility to outline, establish and strengthen policies which would benefit the security and survival of many people, he stressed. It constituted a firm step towards the common goal of preventing, combating and eradicating the illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons which had caused so much devastation and suffering "in my country as in so many other parts of the world."

The President of the General Assembly, Harri Holkeri of Finland, said the Conference provided an opportunity for the international community to agree to an effective programme of action containing unambiguous political commitments and practical and firm measures. "People all over the world are looking to this Conference for meaningful steps towards enhancing human security and preventing further suffering and destruction of life," he said. "We must now demonstrate the maximum political will for the common good of all people and especially those who have suffered immensely from the illicit trade in small arms and who will continue to suffer if immediate action is not taken."

In her address to the opening session, UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette conveyed to the participants the message of full commitment and support from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is currently attending an African summit meeting in Lusaka. Noting that while there were international norms on nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, Mrs. Fréchette stressed that the world still lacked "a framework of binding norms and standards to eliminate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons." She called for intensified international cooperation to stem the problem, through regional organizations, institutions such as the World Customs Organization and Interpol, and the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs. In addition, she urged practical disarmament measures, including the collection and destruction of weapons.

Ms. Fréchette also stressed the need to enlist the help of manufacturers "who can make weapons easier to trace by marking them clearly and by selling them only through registered brokers."

The Deputy Secretary-General emphasized that the conference was only a beginning in the effort to crack down on the illicit arms trade - an endeavour which "raises many complex issues." She urged the ministers in attendance to take account of national sovereignty, the responsibility of States to provide security and the right of nations to self-defence, which is enshrined in the UN Charter. In working towards a more peaceful, secure world, she urged them to agree on the strongest programme of action.

Representatives of close to 25 countries or groups of States were slated to address the forum today, including foreign ministers, defence ministers and other senior-level officials.