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Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons

    Statement by H.E. Mr. Arun Shourie, Minister of State for Disinvestment, Planning, Statistics & Programme Implementation and Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances at the High Level Segment of the UN Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in New York, July 12, 2001.

    Mr. Chairman, Excellencies,

    We congratulate Ambassador Reyes of Colombia on his unanimous election as the President of the Conference and are confident that his vast experience and skills will guide us to a successful result. We also extend our felicitations, to you Ambassador Donawaki as Chairman of the high-level segment and applaud the significant role you have played in bringing this issue to the fore of the international agenda.

    A great deal is expected of this Conference: governments and NGOs have been working towards it for five years and more. If it ends merely in ambivalent generalizations, if it does not lead to, at the least, a commencement of negotiations on specifics, a significant opportunity would have been lost. Indeed, we might even have contributed to exacerbating the problem: our inability to agree on a robust action plan, and to follow that up with concerted action, will give heart to terrorists, international criminal gangs and unscrupulous arms brokers: they will know that they can go on with their diabolic business as usual.

    So we do hope, Mr. Chairman, that the Conference will build on, and not detract from the draft Programme of Action that is before us.

    The problem that illicit small arms and light weapons constitute is well known. During the past decade these weapons have been the weapons of choice in 46 out of 49 major conflicts. They have claimed on an average, 300,000 lives. 90 percent of those killed have been civilians, and 80 percent of the killed have been women and children.

    In India, we are particularly aware of the lethality of these weapons; in the past twenty years about 35,000 innocent persons have been killed by terrorists -- all using illicit small arms and explosives. The seizures of illicit arms and explosives by our security agencies -and surely these represent but a fraction of the quantities to which the terrorists have had access -- would be enough to equip a few divisions of a regular army: the numbers themselves demonstrate the magnitude of haemorrhage of illicit arms with which law-abiding societies are faced.

    Nor are the effects limited to the deaths caused by organised terror and violence. Innocents also suffer because of gun inflicted homicides and random acts of violence: these by themselves account for two hundred thousand deaths every year.

    No country or region has been spared the destructive consequences of proliferation of small arms and explosives. Open, plural and liberal societies are particularly vulnerable to their destablising effects in the hands of terrorists and insurgents. Entire communities are torn asunder. Democratic processes -- elections, for instance -- are perverted. Groups and agencies whose very nature is the antithesis of openness, of democracy, of plurality, are the ones that wrest dominance.

    In a word, the problem is as grave as can be. And we need to act on it "with the urgency of a man whose hair are on fire."

    The first step in tackling the problem is to sharpen our focus. It is true that of the 500 million small arms and light weapons currently held the world over, the illicit ones held by criminals, terrorists and armed insurgents and secessionists amount to around 5 million -- that is, about one percent. But five million is no small number by itself. And these are the ones that today inflict the most devastating effects on societies and countries. Similarly, while three-fourths of the small arms trade is legal, illicit trade in weapons and ammunition accounts for about one and a half billion dollars a year. We should focus on these illicit weapons, on this illicit trade.

    Second, we should move to prevent further additions to the existing stockpile of illicit weapons. For this purpose the international community should develop a comprehensive tracing system. This in turn would entail marking weapons, comprehensively, at the production stage, detailed record-keeping and a ready willingness to share information. A collective approach alone will guarantee traceability and promote transparency. It will also give the signal that is required: that all of us are determined to join hands to roll back this menace.

    Third, while transferring weapons, States must exercise due care and a sense of responsibility. Transfers to non-state actors or unauthorized entities are the catalyst for violence. Such transfers also run the greatest risk of unauthorized retransfers, thus breeding further destruction. An international norm against such transfers is therefore essential and timely.

    Fourth, every study shows that the twin problems of the illicit trade in small arms and terrorism are inextricably intertwined with another lethal pair: the traffic in drugs and money laundering. The work of this Conference, therefore, will be greatly helped by, and should in turn facilitate international initiatives, that are underway on these related problems.

    Fifth, an indispensable element of this programme must be the reconstruction of societies where conflicts have abated. In the years of violence that would have preceded, institutions and trust would have been shattered. People will give up arms more readily when they once again feel safe enough to trust their life and limb in the hands of State institutions. We must collectively strive to wean the fractured society away from the culture of violence to a culture of peace -- through recovery of illicit weapons, and by generating security through new institutional frameworks based on democracy, justice, equity and order in which economic and social development can be sustained. Such action requires international cooperation involving governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society at large -- it requires international cooperation of an even more comprehensive kind than the specific problem we are here to consider.

    Mr. Chairman,

    Arms are the means of delivery; it is ammunition and explosives that kill. In the view of my delegation, therefore, it is important that the measures we develop cover not just weapons but ammunition and explosives as well. Anything short of this will be so incomplete as to end up being self-defeating.

    Mr. Chairman,

    Last year, at the Millennium Summit, we resolved "to take concerted action to end illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons, especially by making arms transfers more transparent and supporting regional disarmament measures". It is time we translated that resolve into a comprehensive Programme of Action. The Preparatory Committee, under the able Chairmanship of Ambassador Dos Santos, has developed a fine foundation for our deliberations in document L.4/ Rev.1. That well-designed document highlights the global nature of the problem and its linkages with terrorism, drug-trafficking and transnational organised crime. It emphasises the need for a comprehensive approach, covering both national and international measures; it pinpoints areas where international understanding, cooperation and legally-binding instruments are necessary.

    Mr. Chairman,

    For this Conference to be a step towards alleviating the problem, the least it must ensure is that, as a consequence of our deliberations here, negotiations commence on two or three specific points: on marking and traceability, for instance.

    Moreover, since a problem such as this will require sustained efforts over many years, we must institute close follow-up, and regular reviews -- so that periodically we take stock of progress that is made, and devise ways to resolve difficulties that erupt on the way. To begin, and not stay the course, will compound cynicism. It will add sinews to evil.

    Mr. Chairman,

    • We know the problem.

    • We know what must be done.

    • Doing that, the technology for doing it is within our reach.

    • What a tragedy it will be, how immense a dereliction of our responsibility, should we fail to do it.

    Let us, therefore, aim not just at approving a document. Let us ensure substantive discernable action.


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