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  From the July 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL.48, No.7)

Hope for Gun Control Rests on Conference

Adele Kirsten, Business Day, Johannesburg, South Africa.
March 23, 2001.

More than 500,000 people are killed, by accident or intent, every year across the world. It is estimated that about 300,000 of them are killed with small arms.

These deaths are only one part of the picture in the scourge of the illicit small-arms trade. The violence and conflict fueled by illicit small-arms trafficking impedes economic development, good governance, and human rights. That is one of the reasons why government and nongovernmental representatives from across the world are preparing for the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. The conference, to be held in July, is motivated primarily by a concern to reduce the flow of illicit small arms, especially to areas of conflict.

The conference will provide an opportunity to develop an international strategy to address the serious threat of small-arms proliferation. But this does not mean that there is consensus on the solutions. The terms of reference are contested.

Many states agree that to achieve any meaningful action, the conference will need to acknowledge that the problem must be dealt with from a number of perspectives, including arms control and disarmament, post-conflict peace building, conflict prevention, and socioeconomic development.

That is particularly true for those states that most often bear the brunt of illegal weapons trafficking, many of them in Africa. It is not surprising, then, that the Africa group, on the whole, will push for a broader mandate, including measures to control the legal trade of small arms. They know that most illicit small arms began life as legal weapons and that the diversion of legal civilian and state-owned weapons is one of the primary sources of illegal supply.

Key issues on the agenda include the marking and tracing of weapons; strengthening controls on the accumulation and transfers of small arms and light weapons; promoting the removal of small arms from society; and enhancing information exchange, global co-operation, and support.

The South African government, together with other African countries, is likely to support greater controls over legal transfers, with the view that only increased transparency and better control over the legal arms trade will enable the international community to constrain the illicit trade.

It is also expected that African countries will see the conference as an opportunity to push for relevant regional and national action, cooperation, and coordination to promote these policies. South Africa will be a strong proponent of removing arms from society through programs such as the public destruction of all surplus weapons.

It is encouraging that over the past few years, governments have begun to demonstrate their commitment to developing international efforts to curb and eradicate the flow of illegal weapons. Their commitment is also demonstrated by several other U.N. initiatives, such as the U.N. firearms protocol, which concluded its final negotiations in Vienna on March 2.

This protocol is a big step forward in the international fight against crime and in particular the illegal firearms trade. It will certainly add to South Africa’s capacity to clamp down on the scourge.

The author is the director of the organization Gun Free South Africa.

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