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Saturday, 21 July, 2001, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
UN reaches small arms agreement
Art of Peacemaking, a sculpture made of weapons at UN headquarters
There are 500 million small arms in the world
An unprecedented United Nations conference on controlling small arms has reached a watered-down agreement after two weeks of intense negotiations.

Delegates worked into the early hours of Saturday to reach the agreement, which sets out a strategy for restricting the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons.

Small arms facts
500 million in the world
40% to 60% illegal
Trade worth $1 billion a year
Light arms the weapon of choice in 46 of 49 conflicts in the 1990s
Source: United Nations
But in the process, they gave in to the United States on two key provisions.

In line with US demands, the agreement does not attempt to limit individual civilian ownership of guns or bar governments from selling weapons to rebel groups.

However, it does call for government regulation of the sale of small arms and for measures to make it easier to track the movements of such weapons.

Other measures include calls for

  • disarming combatants after the end of conflict

  • destroying stockpiles of small arms

  • public awareness campaigns about the danger of the illegal trade in light weapons.
The US delegation insisted on the right of its government to supply arms to what are called "non-state actors".

Restrictions on sales

During the meeting, delegates from African nations fought hard to have sales restricted to governments or government-approved organisations.

"If you send arms to non-state actors, you are sending them to rebels who are trying to overthrow governments," Nigerian delegate Sola Ogunbanwu said.

Lebanese child with a gun
Many small arms are light enough for a child to use
But the Africans gave way when it became clear that Washington would not accept an agreement that called for an end to selling arms to insurgents.

Washington did make one late concession, agreeing to a follow-up conference in 2006 as demanded by many delegates.

But it refused to countenance restrictions on the right of citizens to own guns. The US has a strong pro-gun lobby, and American citizens have a constitutional right to bear arms.

One anti-gun campaigner described the US position as "unbelievably selfish".

Rebecca Peters of the Open Society Institute accused the US of being "prepared to jeopardise the safety of millions of people in other countries, purely for the sake of pandering to its own domestic lobbying interests".

'Serious problem'

The senior US negotiator at the conference, Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield, said the agreement - which is not legally enforceable - set the basis for co-operative action "to address the very serious problems caused by flows of illicit small arms".

US President George W Bush
Mr Bush is indebted to the US gun lobby
Conference president, Ambassador Camillo Reyes of Colombia, said the meeting could have obtained a better document, but described the agreement as "a good start".

The UN says that small arms - which include pistols, assault rifles and machine guns - were the weapon of choice in 46 of the 49 armed conflicts fought in the 1990s.

Four million people died in those conflicts, some 90% of them civilians.

The UN estimates that about half the 500 million small arms in the world are illegal.

The BBC's Greg Barrow at the UN
"Right up to the very last minutes there was a chance that agreement would not be reached"
Loretta Bondi of the Fund for Peace
"There are very powerful interests at stake here"
See also:

20 Jul 01 | Americas
UN arms talks deadlocked
12 Jul 01 | Africa
Plea for small arms curbs
10 Jul 01 | Africa
US blocks small arms controls
09 Jul 01 | Africa
Africa in the firing line
07 Jul 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Reacting to tragedy in Sierra Leone
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