5 July 2001


Press Briefing


At a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon, the Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, told correspondents the forthcoming United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects would be an opportunity for the Member States to respond decisively to a global crisis.  The two-week Conference begins in New York on Monday.  Mr. Dhanapala added that while dialogue was critical, the rhetoric of concern must be matched with the substance of practical action –- in this case, on the important issue of the illicit trade in small arms.

Drawing comparison to the just-concluded General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS, he said the Small Arms Conference was another recognition of the multi-faceted nature of the challenges facing the international community today.  In their deliberations, Member States had recognized that AIDS was more than a health problem and, similarly, the convening of the upcoming Conference was a recognition that small arms was more than a disarmament issue.  Indeed, it was a question that encompassed security, humanitarian and development concerns.

He added that the Conference would have before it a draft programme of action that would be at the centre of discussions and deliberations.  Among the issues to be addressed were:  marking and tracing small arms and light weapons; brokering activities; export controls; the links between licit and illicit trade; civilian possession of small arms and light weapons; and transfer of small arms to non-State actors.  While there were differences of opinion on all those issues, Mr. Dhanapala said he felt confident that compromise and consensus would emerge during deliberations which would lead to the successful adoption of a comprehensive programme of action at the close of the session.

He was also confident that what would emerge would be sufficient to embody a number of effective measures to control the problem.  This was the first major international conference on the issue of illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.  It should be envisioned as the beginning of a process.  There was the hope that the agreed programme of action would be reviewed at some point, perhaps within the next five years.  There had also been proposals to hold regular discussions on the status of international efforts to implement that action plan. Whatever was agreed upon at the close of the Conference would be reviewed and expanded over the next few years, leading to further action on the issue of illicit trade in small arms.

Mr. Dhanapala then introduced Joao Honwana, Chief of the Conventional Arms Branch of the Department of Disarmament Affairs, who would act as Secretary-General of the Conference.  He said that the President-designate of the Conference would be Camilo Reyes, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations in Geneva. 

Mr. Honwana said that as it stood, the list of speakers for the Conference included one deputy prime minister, 38 foreign or other high ministers and

12 deputy ministers.  There were currently 120 Member States inscribed on the list.  He added that of the 177 scheduled non-governmental organization (NGO) participants, fewer than a dozen could be considered pro-gun activists.

Mr. Dhanapala said that as long ago as 1997, the United Nations had given the issue of illicit trade in small arms high priority on its political agenda.  The idea of a conference came out of various studies and meetings held over the years on that and related issues, such as munitions and explosives, the feasibility of controlling brokering activities, and the identification of environmentally sound methods of weapons destruction. 

In the meantime, the United Nations had emerged as the central forum for discussion of issues pertinent to the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.  In a measure that would complement the outcome of the Conference, a protocol had been adopted in Vienna this March against the illicit manufacturing in firearms as a supplement to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Mr. Dhanapala said he had been concerned that there were broad misconceptions as to the scope and objectives of the Conference.  The United Nations had received a steady flow of correspondence, particularly from arms rights activist groups in the United States, suggesting that a legally or politically binding outcome of the Conference would interfere with the rights of civilians to legally own and bear arms. 

In that regard, his Department -- in conjunction with the Department of Public Information -- had issued (along with an expansive press kit) a pamphlet entitled “Setting the Record Straight” which addressed some of those common questions and concerns.  He added that the Conference was about finding ways to curb and eliminate trafficking in small arms such as assault rifles, which had without question become the weapons of choice in many of the internal conflicts being waged around the world today.

In response to correspondents’ questions on the concerns expressed by organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the United States, and the role such groups might play in the Conference, Mr. Dhanapala said the NRA was a registered NGO that had been participating in the preparatory process for the Conference.  It was also among the diverse organizations that had been accredited to participate next week.  There were also gun rights advocates from other countries which were scheduled to participate, including, among others, the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia and the International Ammunition Association.  There would be a day set aside for NGOs to address the Conference.  At a press conference last week in Washington, D.C., the United States delegation had welcomed the Conference and pledged support for a positive outcome.

He said he had seen some of the nearly 100 letters and e-mails that had been sent by gun-ownership advocates.  They were mainly irate and “strongly worded” protests, and allegations that the United Nations wanted to take guns away from civilians in conflict with the constitutional rights of United States citizens.  While he would not characterize any of the letters as explicitly threatening, they had been turned over to United Nations security authorities.

Mr. Honwana added that it was not for his Department to determine whether the correspondence was threatening.  It was up to the Organization’s security staff to make that determination.

A correspondent asked if Mr. Dhanapala was worried that there had been several reports that gun manufacturers and lobbyists had pledged to disguise their representatives as various accredited NGOs in order to sabotage the outcome of the

Conference.  He said he was not concerned.  Indeed, he felt that the cooperation and participation of the manufacturing industry was necessary, particularly when the Conference turned to the issue of implementing measures related to marking and tracing arms.  In informal consultations during the preparatory process, the message from the arms manufacturing community had been that it would cooperate on those and other issues.

On the issue of the continuing debate over the distinction between illicit and licit trade in small arms and light weapons, Mr. Dhanapala said the mandate of the Conference was to examine illicit trade.  There were some delegations that felt discussions next week should be confined to the point where licit trade became illicit.  Others believed the Conference should consider the issue in its entirety, from the point of weapons manufacture, in order to ensure that even in legal trade there were safeguards that would prevent the diversion of such arms to illegal actors.  He added that those discussions would likely include debate on the issue of export criteria, which some believed was a matter for national jurisdictions, but others felt such criteria should be applicable to all countries.

Mr. Dhanapala also highlighted Small Arms Destruction Day, which would coincide with the opening of the Conference on Monday.  That event, based on a proposal by the Netherlands, Brazil, Mali and the United Kingdom at the conclusion of the preparatory process for the Conference, would promote the collection and destruction of weapons that had been used in various conflicts around the world.  He also drew correspondents’ attention to a proposal by the United Kingdom which called for the creation of an “international arms surrender fund” to operate under the auspices of the United Nations and aimed at assisting States, particularly in post-conflict situations, to reduce and eliminate excessive accumulations of small arms.

Mr. Dhanapala said that among the 177 NGOs participating in the Conference were accredited with the Economic and Social Council, as well as many that were not.  He also expected a large number of representatives of regional and subregional organizations.  Preparations for the Conference had been informed by regional activities such as the Bamako Ministerial Meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Brasilia meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean States, both held last year.

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For information media. Not an official record.