by Joseph P. Tartaro
At the opening of a UN conference on small arms on July 9, the United States said it would oppose any plan that interferes with the legal weapons trade or the right of citizens to own guns.
The Bush Administration believes the best way to curb trade in small arms and light weapons is to get every nation to adopt tough US-style regulations on exports, weapons transfers and brokers, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told delegates to the conference
The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms, Bolton said.
Finding a way to halt the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons will be tough for nations with vastly divergent stances. For some arms sales are a source of hard currency, while others oppose interference in their right to self-defense.
Two hours after the conference opened, the United States rejected several elements of the draft program of action, asked that others be modified and had its own ideas of what constitutes small arms.
If the conference can concentrate on the central issue of the flow of illicit weapons into areas of conflict, then I think theres broad room for agreement, Bolton said at a news conference. But if it drifts off into areas that are more properly the subject of national level decision-making, then I think there will be difficulties.
The more controversial topics at the gathering include controls on the manufacturing, transfer and possession of small arms, standardized export criteria and marking and tracing practices.
Norway called for a legally binding document and Iran said it wanted a halt in weapons supplies to non-states. The United States opposes both.
Britain gingerly took issue with the United States on July 12, warning that a UN conference to curb small arms should not be blown off course by gun lobbying groups.
Saying the devastation wrought by small arms and light weapons was one of the greatest humanitarian challenges, of the day, Ben Bradshaw, the Foreign Offices undersecretary of state, called on the conference to take real and decisive action without giving specifics.
Bradshaw said Britain would donate a minimum of 19.5 million pounds (over $27.3 million US) over the next three years to UN agencies and other disarmament organizations seeking to combat the flow of small arms.
The European Union wants the conference to take steps toward a legally binding convention to control trafficking in small arms and light weapons, as well as have a follow-up conference in five years. The United States objects to both measures and Bradshaw did not mention them.
The United States rejected many hot-button issues, including a proposal that calls for small arms to be supplied to governments only.
The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life, Bolton said, adding that Washington would not accept any measures that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacture of small arms and light weapons.
The conference should be concerned with strictly military arms that are contributing to continued violence and suffering in regions of conflict around the world, Bolton said.
We separate these military arms from firearms such as hunting rifles and pistols which are commonly used and owned by citizens in many countries.
The United Nations defines small arms as revolvers and semi-automatic pistols and rifles, submachine guns, assault rifles and light machineguns. Light weapons include heavy machineguns, mortars, hand grenades, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and portable missile launchers.
A much-heralded 5-ton sculpture was unveiled as part of the opening promotion for the global gun control conference. The sculpture, created by two Canadians, is made of various arms, including submachineguns allegedly confiscated from Nicaraguan children, a 7-inch-long rubber bullet from Northern Ireland, AK-47s used in South Africa and pistols fired by street gangs in Los Angeles.
Bolton told the conference, small arms and light weapons, in our understanding are strictly military arms. Automatic rifles, machine guns, shoulder-fired missiles and rocket systems, light mortars are contributing to continued violence and suffering in regions of conflict around the world.
At the same time, Bolton defended American citizens right to own guns. The United States believes, Bolton said, that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life. Like many countries, the United States has a cultural tradition of hunting and sport shooting. We, therefore, do not begin with the presumption that all small arms and light weapons are the same or that they are all problematic.
He said Americans use these military arms from firearms such as hunting rifles and pistols and that the illicit trade in military small arms and light weapons is what the conference is designed to address.
As US Attorney General John Ashcroft has said, just as the First and Fourth Amendments secure individual rights of speech and security respectively, the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, he said.
Bolton added that the United States opposes a mandatory review of what individual countries had done, nor would the Bush Administration support restrictions on arms trade to rebel groups, which could be defending themselves against a genocidal government.
The vast majority of arms transfers in the world are routine and not problematic. Each member state of the United Nations has the right to manufacture and export arms for purposes of national defense, he said.
Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), a member of the National Rifle Association, warned delegates at the conference not to try to dictate domestic policy in the United States.
If in fact the UN through this effort ... moves in that direction, then I think it will make it more difficult perhaps for the UN to achieve the level of support that it would like to in Congress to further its legitimate goals, Barr said at a press conference.
Most gunowners were pleased with the tenor of Boltons statement, although concerned that lower level State Department stafferssome holdovers from the Clinton Administrationwere left to help draft a compromise agreement.
However, many American politicians, organizations and anti-gun newspapers are quite unhappy with the position the Bush Administration has taken at the UN, particularly after the Clinton-Gore Administration had been a prime mover in organizing the conference.
The Bush administration might as well have sent Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, to deliver its opening address to a United Nations conference, snarled The New York Times. In a shameless subordination of diplomacy to domestic political pandering, John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, told the gathering that Washington would not support an agreement to curb the international flow of illicit small arms if it infringed on the right of Americans to bear arms, The Times continued.
Several protests have been staged against the UN in New York City and elsewhere. Several pro-gun organizationssuch as Gun Owners of America, Second Amendment Sisters and the Tyranny Response Teamalong with members of New Yorks Libertarian and Constitution Parties demonstrated on July 14.
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