10 July 2001


NEW YORK, 9 July (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of an address as delivered by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects at United Nations Headquarters in New York today:

It gives me great pleasure to be here today for this critically important United Nations conference. The Secretary-General deeply regrets his inability to be with you today. He wishes you to know how strongly he is committed to playing his full part in the fight against a scourge that has brought so much suffering to so many people.

There are estimated to be at least 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation -- one for every 12 people on this earth. The vast majority are in the hands of police forces, Government armies, and lawful private gun-owners. But a significant number end up in the hands of irregular forces, criminals and terrorists. Millions of weapons left over from the cold war found their way into conflicts in Afghanistan, Central America and West Africa. Even in societies not torn by conflict, the proliferation of small arms has contributed to a culture of violence and crime.

Small arms cause big losses. According to the independent Small Arms Survey 2001, small arms are implicated in well over a thousand deaths every single day. As the weapon of choice in 46 out of 49 major conflicts since 1990, they contributed to roughly 4 million deaths -- about 90 per cent of them civilians, and 80 per cent women and children. The Inter-American Development Bank has estimated the direct and indirect costs of small arms violence at $140 to $170 billion per year in Latin America alone. As the Secretary-General said in his Millennium Report, small arms "could well be described as `weapons of mass destruction'".

Small arms are also big business. The secrecy that veils the illicit arms trade makes it difficult to estimate. The Small Arms Survey suggests a market size of roughly $1 billion annually. But the problem is not so much the dollar value as the vast supply, which makes small arms very inexpensive to purchase. In some places, an AK-47 assault rifle can be bought for as little as $15, or even for a bag of grain.

Small arms are also linked to bigger issues, such as peace and security, human rights, drug trafficking and money laundering. Their availability can sustain and exacerbate conflict. Their illicit proliferation erodes the authority of legitimate but weak governments. It also undermines respect for international humanitarian law and the rule of law. It contributes to the displacement of innocent civilians and makes peacekeeping that much more difficult. The result, all too often, is a vicious circle, in which insecurity leads to a higher demand for weapons -- which itself breeds still greater insecurity, and so on.

What can we do to fight back -- to reduce the number of weapons already in circulation and to prevent future accumulations? I see three areas in particular where immediate progress is possible.

The first is in the realm of laws and regulations.

Although there are existing international norms in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation, as well as bans on chemical and biological weapons and on anti-personnel land-mines, we still lack a framework of binding norms and standards to eliminate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. This conference can be a significant step in that direction.

In addition, last March, negotiators agreed on a Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime that includes internationally recognized standards for marking firearms and controlling their import and export. The Secretary-General urges Member States to sign and ratify this Protocol without delay, as an important step to enhance transparency and accountability.

The second area where we can make immediate progress is in greater international cooperation.

The Organization of African Unity has mapped out a continent-wide strategy for tackling the problem. The countries of West Africa have agreed on a moratorium on the importing, exporting or manufacturing of light weapons. An Inter-American Convention against illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms, ammunition, explosives and other materials has entered into force. European nations have agreed on a code of conduct for arms exports, and the countries of South-East Asia have begun looking at the problem in that region. Such cooperation should be intensified. Institutions such as the World Customs Organization and Interpol can help, and civil society groups are indispensable. The United Nations' own Department for Disarmament Affairs also has a key role to play.

The third area is that of practical disarmament measures.

The collection and destruction of weapons are integral parts of many peacekeeping operations and peace-building strategies, and help societies to reclaim security -- or to enjoy it for the first time -- and thus paving the way for development. Such enterprises need to be better funded.

There is also great potential in schemes that offer non-monetary incentives for the voluntary surrender of weapons. Cash payments may stimulate arms imports from neighbouring countries. But in Albania, El Salvador, Mozambique and Panama, for example, individuals have received tools and construction materials, and entire communities have been provided with new schools, health-care services and road repairs.

In these and other efforts, we should also enlist the help of manufacturers, who can make weapons easier to trace by marking them clearly, and by selling them only through registered brokers.

In convening this conference, Member States have given the devastation wrought by small arms the high profile it deserves. But this conference is only a beginning. The effort to crack down on the illegal arms trade raises many complex issues. It is necessary to distinguish between the licit and illicit trade, and take account of national sovereignty, the responsibilities of States to provide security and the right of States to self-defence enshrined in Article 51 of the Charter.

In the Millennium Declaration adopted last September, Member States resolved to "take concerted action to end the illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons" as part of a larger, common vision of a peaceful, secure world in the 21st century. I hope you will agree on the strongest possible Programme of Action, and in so doing bring that vision closer to reality. I thank you very much for your attention.

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