UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations opens a first-of-its-kind special session in New York Monday geared toward reining in the international black market in small weapons in war zones and other conflict areas.
Even before it began, the conference was drawing heated protest from American gun enthusiasts, who believe that the conference poses a threat to U.S. citizens' right to bear arms.
Among the proposals on the table are calls for governments to pass laws to control the legal manufacture, transfer and possession of small arms and measures that would require manufacturers to mark all weapons so they can be identified and traced.
A proposal to allow the supply of small arms and light weapons only to governments is also likely to come under fire, as is one prohibiting trade and private ownership of small arms designed for military use.
But getting the 189 U.N. member states to agree on ways to fight and ultimately eradicate trafficking in pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, and other light weapons is going to be tough, if not impossible, diplomats and arms experts say.
The problem is that many countries — whether major powers, war-ravaged nations, buyers or suppliers of arms — have different ideas on how the illegal trade should be tackled.
As a result, the program of action to be adopted at the end of the two-week conference that starts Monday is unlikely to include any of the tough measures in the latest draft.
"I think that perhaps the document is not going to be as strong as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. "It is a recognition by the international community that we need to do something about these weapons." The U.N. Undersecretary-General for Disarmament, Jayantha Dhanapala, said the organization has already received hundreds of complaints from Americans concerned that the United Nations is attempting to take guns away from average citizens.
In an attempt to clear any misconceptions of the goals of the conference, Dhanapala's office last week released a pamphlet insisting that the focus of the conference is on illicit trade in small arms, not the legal trade, manufacture or ownership of weapons. "The U.N. conference will have no effect on the rights of civilians to legally own and bear arms," the pamphlet stressed.
Representatives from more than 120 countries have signed up to speak at the U.N. conference, with Colombia's vice president and the foreign ministers of Belgium, the Netherlands, Iran, and Ireland on Monday's schedule. John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, is also scheduled to speak.
About a dozen gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, are among the 177 non-governmental organizations accredited to attend the two-week conference. These groups will be allowed to attend each public meeting, and will select their own representatives to make statements at the many scheduled conference sessions.
"We're going to be there standing for freedom," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the NRA. "They fully intend, as I see it, to put a global standard ahead of an individual country's freedom." Expectations for anything concrete to come out of the conference are low, however.
"The U.S., China, and South Africa are not going to agree on a legislation banning handguns," said Michael Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "If we can't get 100 senators to agree on an issue, how will we get 150 countries to agree to some radical policy?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.