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The BBC's Jonathan Marcus
on the role NGOs have played in focusing international attention on the dangers posed by small arms"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
US blocks small arms controls
Rebels in Sierra Leone
Illegal weapons fuel conflicts around the world
The United States has said it will oppose any UN plan to curb the illegal trade in small arms that interferes with the right of individuals to carry guns.

US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said a clear distinction had to be made between firearms used for traditional and cultural reasons, and those that are traded illegally and fuel conflicts around the world.

These arms are doing incredible damage in cities and in war-torn areas

Kofi Annan
UN secretary-general
He was speaking on the opening day of a conference in New York organised by the United Nations, which says that light weapons cause half a million deaths a year.

US officials believe that the UN - as an unelected body - should not intervene in matters of national concern.


Gun ownership is a keenly contested issue in the USA with the National Rifle Association striving to uphold the "right to bear arms" as enshrined in the constitution.

Small arms
Revolvers, rifles
Self-loading pistols
Sub machine-guns, light machine guns
Portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns
Portable missile launchers
"We're going to be there standing for freedom," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the NRA.

"They fully intend, as I see it, to put a global standard ahead of an individual country's freedom," he said.

The UN denies these accusations, accepting that small arms are necessary for a country's legitimate right of self-defence.

But the UN says it is also clear that the millions of arms across the world are far in excess of what is needed for national self-defence.

"These arms are doing incredible damage in cities and in war-torn areas, and I hope we can get the manufacturers and governments to work with us in controlling the flow of these illicit arms," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said ahead of the conference.

Illicit sales

To tackle this situation, proposals drafter for the two-week meeting include:

  • Better control of the legal manufacture and possession of weapons
  • Creation of a standardised marking system to trace arms used illegally
  • Tighter export controls
  • Tighter controls over possession and access to small arms by police, armed forces and civilians

According to the UN, some 300,000 child soldiers around the world are carrying pistols and machine guns. Many more are used by people living in deprived and dangerous areas where carrying a weapon is a matter of survival.

Weapons of choice

Anti-aircraft gun in Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Home to 10 million light weapons

Countries beset by violence are prime black markets for such weapons. The UN estimates that Afghanistan is home to 10 million light weapons. Seven million small arms are circulating in countries such as Sierra Leone and Angola and another two million are in Central Africa.

UN statistics show that of the 500 million small arms in circulation:

  • 40% - 60% are illicit
  • They were weapons of choice in 46 of 49 major conflicts since 1990
  • Of four million war deaths, 90% were civilians, 80% of those were women and children

Given the deep differences of opinion over the small arms trade, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has already acknowledged that the impact of the conference will be limited.

"I think that perhaps the document is not going to be as strong as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction," he said.

Whatever happens, the programme of action due to be adopted will not be legally binding, and it will be left to UN member states to decide what aspects of gun control they wish to adopt.

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See also:

09 Jul 01 | Africa
Africa in the firing line
28 Sep 99 | World
UN targets small arms
07 Jul 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Reacting to tragedy in Sierra Leone
16 Sep 99 | Americas
Analysis: Recent gun legislation
23 May 99 | Americas
Clinton urges speedy gun control
13 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Cook urges weapons crackdown
29 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Dissidents look east for arms
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