“The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”

Such was the declaration of John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, as he addressed the 180 national delegations assembled at the U.N. for a conference on gun control.

The two-week meeting, coined the Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, runs from July 9-20 and seeks an international consensus to control the manufacture, export and tracking of arms. If that consensus is hard to come by, said Bolton, “the United States [would not] leave the conference,” but would work toward a “constructive” program of action.

Bolton answered hostile questions at the Monday press briefing, stating clearly that the U.S. would not entertain any attempt to “multi-lateralize” the Second Amendment.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who is attending the conference as an observer with the U.S. delegation, said, “We are concerned that the focus of the conference should remain on the international role of illicit arms and not [become] an attempt to involve itself in domestic firearms policies in the United States or, indeed, in any other nation.”

The pre-conference press releases stressed the international commitment to curb arms trafficking for the sake of “peace” and “human security.” An appeal to the horror of war-torn nations, ethnic conflicts, child soldiers and alarming U.N. arms statistics served as the impetus for the conference. Those statistics include: 500 million small arms worldwide, $1 billion in annual illicit trade of arms, and armed conflict as the second cause of death worldwide after AIDS. A dramatic sculpture assembled of weapons reportedly taken from child soldiers and street gangs greeted the arriving delegates.

The president of the U.N. Security Council, Wang Yingfan of China, expressed his hope that the preliminary “program of action” drafted for the conference would be accepted with few amendments. Yingfan claimed the draft was “well-balanced and reflects the major positions and concerns of all sides.”

There’s broad room for agreement,” Bolton told the conference delegates and the 200+ non-governmental organizations in attendance, “if the conference can concentrate on the central issue of the flow of illicit weapons into areas of conflict. …” The U.S. undersecretary made a clear distinction between areas reserved for national policy and those open to an international plan of action.

The tension in the exchange between various delegations highlights the growing divide between the U.S. and many of her traditional allies. When Barr was asked why his position was not more sympathetic to that of the European Union, he replied that his position reflected his constituents in Georgia and other Americans anxious about “an international association diminishing the constitutional rights of Americans.”

The United Nations began its work on the control of small arms – which it labels “a global threat to human security” – in 1996. Financial support for the preliminary study, preparation and coordination of the conference was provided by Canada and Japan; both nations are critical of U.S. gun policies. The International Action Network on Small Arms, a non-governmental organization monitoring the conference, noted during the preparatory session that “the U.S. [is] very isolated,” particularly on the provision proposed by Switzerland that arms be sold only to governments.

Successive U.N. conferences have witnessed the widening gulf between the positions adopted by the U.S. and other Western nations on the International Criminal Court, on human rights issues, including abortion, homosexuality, parental rights and gun control.

Canada in particular seemed to target the United States with remarks aimed at U.S. arms manufacturing and sales. In a statement made to the U.N. General Assembly, the Canadian representative submitted a brief containing these points:

“The action plan accepted at the Conference should: (a) include ‘supply-side’ measures, these principally being agreed standards for State behaviour, as well as assistance in implementing them at the global, regional and national levels; promote responsibility and restraint by States with regard to the export, import, transfer and production of small arms and light weapons. … In particular, the … Conference should not limit itself to the illicit transfers of small arms and light weapons, but should recognize in its work the interrelationship that exists between illicit trafficking and the licit trade of small arms and light weapons.”

Skeptics observe that Canada’s targeting of even “licit trafficking” is “ominous.” Earlier statements by the United States to the U.N. on gun control took issue with a simplistic approach that assumes gun control per se would lessen regional conflicts. In a technical document (A/54/260) submitted to the U.N., the United States makes the following observation:

“The proliferation of small arms and light weapons plays a significant role in exacerbating conflicts and underdevelopment, but it is not the legitimate international trade in arms, or the sale of weapons to law-abiding citizens in stable societies, that contributes most significantly to these problems. The demand for small arms and light weapons is caused primarily by … poor governance, lack of respect for the rule of law, lack of democratic institutions and lack of respect for human rights.”

Although the document produced by the U.N. conference is referred to as “non-binding,” many legal scholars point to the reality of the binding nature of international agreements adopted in a formal forum. Their concern is underscored in this portion of a transcript from the preparatory negotiations:

“Various delegations, including the U.S., submitted new proposals. The U.S.’ amendment called for substituting ‘political commitments’ in place of ‘measures,’ a term, it argued implies a legally binding commitment.” (Emphasis added)

When the U.S. and Russia asked that certain words be deleted so that the document would not contain language that could be interpreted too broadly – such as the sentence that called for eliminating the “spread” of arms – Canada objected. The U.S. preferred the word “trafficking,” which connotes illegal arms rather than “spread” of arms that are, in many cases, legal. The Netherlands delegation urged parties to recognize that nations can manage to curb the illegal arms trade only by taking control of the legal arms trade. A preparatory statement filed by France marks that nation’s hope of producing a legally binding instrument: “We are even now considering the drafting of an international convention with legally binding effect relating to one specific aspect of this question: the marking of small arms and light weapons.”

Experts on both sides of the ideological divide over gun control point to the complicated nature of small-arms proliferation. Drug trafficking, ethnic and political conflicts in non-democratic nations and international terrorism constitute the bulk of illegal trade in weapons.

Robin Cook, secretary of foreign affairs in Great Britain, claims the supply of arms worldwide is so great that weapons are cheap.

“Five million dollars will buy approximately 20,000 assault rifles – enough to equip the army of a medium-sized state,” he stated.

The number cited for the supply of small arms – usually between 100 million and 500 million – is misleading, however, since most of the weapons belong to governmental agencies, police and legitimate armies.

Defenders of the right to bear arms have amassed their own statistics. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, wrote, “The purpose of this conference is to demonize the private ownership of guns and get governments to confiscate all privately owned guns. … Don’t be misled by the term ‘small arms.’ U.N. documents define small arms as weapons ‘designed for personal use’ (such as your Browning pistol, your Ruger rifle, or your Winchester shotgun), while light weapons are for use by several persons as a crew.”

In the debate over gun control, opposing passions often give rise to sound bites.

“Small arms, too, are weapons of mass destruction,” says Louise Frechette, the deputy secretary-general for the U.N. small arms conference. (Secretary General Kofi Annan is attending a summit of African states.)

The U.N. seeks to reward persons and communities that voluntarily turn in weapons. During the conference, Manhattan’s channel 78 is broadcasting a U.N. documentary film that promises tools and building materials in exchange for surrendered guns.

“Entire communities have been provided with new schools, health care services and road repairs,” Frechette boasted.

Despite diplomatic and public relations pressure, the U.S. seems resolved to defend its interests.

“The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life,” Bolton said. Furthermore, Washington would refuse any “measure that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacture of small arms and light weapons.”

Barr observed that if the conference moved in the wrong direction, “I think this will raise fears in the antennae of members of Congress who are concerned with some moves by international bodies to dictate domestic policies in the United States.”

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