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OneWorld U.S. Special Report

U.S. NGOs Blast Government Stance on Small Arms

Four major nongovernmental organizations have joined forces to urge the Bush administration to reverse its opposition to limiting the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons at the United Nations conference taking place in New York. The conference seeks to create mechanisms to control the flow of small arms to prevent their use in ways that violate international human rights and humanitarian law. In short, the goal is to keep small arms out of the hands of paramilitary forces and others who use weapons in illegal ways.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton stated on the opening day that the Administration could not support the draft Plan of Action to curb small arms sales because it "contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms." Christine Knudsen of the Connecticut-based NGO Save the Children retorted: "The U.N. Plan of Action is not about the Second Amendment or anyone’s right to enjoy hunting and sport shooting. It is about saving the lives of women and children in the world’s poorest countries."

Knudsen spoke of children in two African countries who were forced by violent rebel groups to witness the murder of their parents, and were then abducted, given minimal training, injected with drugs, and forced to take up arms against their own villages. Such groups buy small arms precisely because children can carry them easily. Experts estimate that today more than 300,000 child soldiers are being forced to fight in armies around the world, and the misuse of small arms and light weapons have contributed to some 500,000 deaths a year. Moreover, Knudsen added, "the illicit trade in weapons has contributed to a dramatic increase in the forced recruitment of child soldiers in conflicts around the world."

In the Sudan, said Jo-Marie Griesgraber of Oxfam America, the price of an AK-47 is one chicken. And prices have dropped considerably as the supply of light weapons has increased. Right now the rifle that used to cost 10 cows in Northeast Kenya can be had for only two. The United States is the leading exporter of weapons in the world, and also maintains tight controls for re-exporting U.S. weapons, Griesgraber said, which "makes it all the more galling that Ambassador Bolton would oppose such licensing and regulation at the international level." But, she noted, a member of the National Rifle Association serves on the U.S. delegation to the conference, and it appears that the NRA is dictating U.S. policy.

"If the administration can escape the clutches of the arms industry and their lobbyists, they may learn about the scale of the problem, said Adotei Akwe of Amnesty International. He referred to a July 9 Amnesty report documenting how small arms were used to violate the human rights of peaceful protestors, women, and prisoners who are tortured in at least 100 countries during 2000-2001. Violent human rights abuses using small arms are widespread in 29 countries, he added, making gun violence an important international human rights issue. If the U.N. conference is to have a meaningful outcome, Akwe stressed, all governments must commit themselves to developing legally binding norms and taking concrete steps to halt the flow of small arms and light weapons to human rights abusers.

"This is a critical time for the U.S. to join with the world’s governments to take meaningful and coordinated action to curb the global gunrunning that sustains bloody wars, repression, and torture," Akwe concluded.

Psychologist Lincoln Ndogoni works with World Vision to establish community-based recovery programs for persons living in societies that have undergone severe conflict. He has worked with such victims in Rwanda and Uganda, and knows from experience that it is very expensive and very difficult to help people recover from the trauma of being forced into killing others. Many never recover from the atrocities they have witnessed or even committed. He cited the case of a 25-year old abducted at 13, who later married and had two children, but was haunted by fear that he would kill his children. In Africa there are currently no controls at all on the traffic in light weapons, and thousands of children’s lives are being destroyed. The unchecked proliferation of small weapons "threatens the human resource base and increases the likelihood of completely dysfunctional societies in the future," Ndogoni concluded.

Griesgraber echoed this view, and explained why development and other NGOs feel so strongly about the U.N. Conference and the U.S. position: "Gun violence blocks development." The less violence in a society, the more it can focus on the business of establishing a sustainable development process. "NGOs are working to reduce the demand for guns and the likelihood of conflict by supporting development efforts, but the international community must do its part by reducing supplies," she stated.

"Right now, the U.S. is opposing an agreement with force of law to regulate the international trade in small arms and arms brokers. The State Department wants to create a loophole for "civilian" weapons. That’s a loophole you could drive a truckload of AK-47s through. It doesn’t matter to 12-year-olds in Uganda whether they are abducted by guerrillas with ‘civilian’ weapons or military weapons," Griesgraber concluded.

July 16, 2001

OWUS