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UN has illegal arms trade in its sights

Switzerland hopes to end the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons Keystone

Efforts to curb the illegal small arms trade are being assessed at an international meeting in New York. Switzerland has played a leading role in these endeavours.

The United Nations Small Arms Review Conference is examining what has been achieved in the past five years to eradicate this “global scourge” – and what remains to be done.

The conference, which started on Monday, is the first opportunity to take stock of progress since 170 member states adopted in 2001 a programme of action on how to combat the illegal small arms trade.

The agreement set out minimum global standards for ensuring effective export and import controls, collecting and destroying weapons, improving security of stockpiles and information exchanges between countries.

But according to the UN, a thousand people still die every day because of guns.

Swiss representative Anton Thalmann called on member states to make a strong commitment to implement the programme of action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons.

“We need to pay particular attention to the negative effects armed conflicts have on development in different regions,” he said. “Programmes must be set up […] to reduce weapon stockpiles.”

Thalmann also made a case for better surveillance of the small arms trade. He added that the spread of these weapons could only be held in check if there were strict controls of exports.

A preparatory meeting in January ahead of the review conference ended in some disarray amid remonstrations that some countries were failing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.

But Keith Krause, programme director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, told swissinfo that the climate had improved since the beginning of the year and states were taking the issue seriously.

“There are still a lot of gaps but compared with the situation five years ago we have made much progress in a number of areas,” he told swissinfo.

More than 2,000 representatives from governments, international and regional organisations and civil society were expected in New York for the two-week session.

Assault rifles

One of the big success stories since 2001 has been the introduction of a new global instrument for identifying and tracing illicit small and light weapons. These include handguns, assault rifles, machine guns, grenades and portable rocket launchers.

The result of an initiative by Switzerland and France, it was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in December last year. Krause said he would be pushing for practical implementation of the agreement over the next couple of weeks.

Campaigners also want to see movement on new international regulations on arms brokers and arms exports, as well as progress on the destruction of stockpiles.

The Financial Times reported last week that a coalition of the British government, arms manufacturers and campaign groups such as Amnesty International and Oxfam are set to call for a global treaty to regulate arms sales.

“The British are pushing hard to develop a harmonised system of principles and codes of conduct, and the United States has signalled that it is not opposed to this,” said Krause.

During the course of the conference, Switzerland will present “The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development” on behalf of the 42 countries that signed the accord earlier this month. The agreement commits signatory states to taking concrete steps to reduce gun use.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Switzerland has played an active role in efforts to clamp down on the proliferation of light weapons for a number of years.

Switzerland and France submitted a joint proposal to the UN in 2001 for marking weapons so that they could be traced.

The idea was taken up by the UN’s Open-Ended Working Group on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons. Switzerland’s ambassador to Canada, Anton Thalmann, chaired the group.

The Swiss are also members of the UN’s Group of Governmental Experts on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons.

But despite these efforts on the international scene, the Swiss senate refused during its last session to create a domestic weapons registry after intense lobbying from gun enthusiasts.

According to the UN, there are 640 million guns in the world.
Out of 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, 47 were waged with small arms and light weapons.
The gun trade is worth $4 billion (SFr5 billion) a year, of which a quarter may be unauthorised or illicit.
There are at least 1.3 million guns in private hands in Switzerland.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR