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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

23 April 2007

Former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson today joined senior United Nations diplomats and representatives of some of the world’s largest civil society groups, urging Governments to submit their views to the United Nations Secretary-General on the "scope, feasibility and draft parameters" for a global arms trade treaty.

Ms. Robinson, who is currently honorary President of Oxfam International, kicked off at Headquarters a “Global Day of Action,” the centrepiece of civil society’s response to the General Assembly’s adoption last December of a resolution requesting the Secretary-General to canvass the views of Governments on the contents of a legally-binding international instrument on common global standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon has asked that Member States submit their responses by 30 April.

“In my travels as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I often sat with victims… and saw first-hand the reality that it is small arms that are the weapons of mass destruction at ground level,” said Ms. Robinson, recalling her personal experiences and conversations in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Colombia and other conflict-scarred countries. Citing the “terrible” statistic that some 1,000 people a day were killed by the uncontrolled marketing and sale of arms, she added that many of the most affected countries did not even produce the weapons that wreaked such destruction among their civilian populations. Those arms started out as legal purchases elsewhere, but being easily available and poorly regulated, then fell into the wrong hands.

“So it is extraordinarily important that we have a comprehensive international arms trade treaty,” Ms. Robinson said, noting how pleased civil society had been when some 150 United Nations Member States had supported the Assembly’s resolution. Now, at the next important stage, it was important that the national reports to the Secretary-General be “good, rigorous” submissions that linked controls that would be in the proposed treaty to international human rights and humanitarian laws, and built on the already good codes of conduct that existed at the regional level.

She said that depending on the strength and number of submissions, there was a strong prospect that an arms trade treaty could be in place by 2010. And while some outside the United Nations might consider that a long way off, “We know that it is a huge achievement. It would save lives, it would not only be symbolic, it would be something that could be enforced at local levels,” she said.

Greg Puely, spokesperson for Oxfam International’s Control Arms Campaign in New York, introduced the panel, which included representatives of several of the Governments that had co-authored the Assembly resolution, including Jorge Urbina, Permanent Representative of Costa Rica; Kirsti Lintonen, Permanent Representative of Finland; Zachary Muburi-Muita, Permanent Representative of Kenya; and Emyr Jones Parry, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, as well as Joseph Dube, coordinator of Control Arms Campaign’s Africa Section. The press conference also featured a video message from Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren.

Mr. Puely said the civil society initiative was an alliance between Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). The organizations had come together to promote efforts to elaborate a global arms trade treaty because, in their work, particularly with the most vulnerable people and communities around the world, their efforts towards sustainable development, protecting human rights and building safety in communities were consistently undermined by the easy access to weapons and by that “irresponsible element” of the international arms trade that provided a flurry of weapons to those who would use them to commit the most serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, criminal violence and acts of terrorism.

British Ambassador Jones Parry said that, in Africa, only HIV/AIDS was a bigger killer than small arms. “While much of the industry behaved responsibly, illegal trafficking is a major problem and has to be arrested,” he added, calling for tighter globally implemented controls. “The scale of the problem… [requires] a UN multilateral response,” he said. Progress last year on elaborating the proposed treaty had been encouraging, but he said he was under no illusion that the next two or three years would be tough going, as Governments conveniently hid behind the negotiations and refused to fully disclose their positions. He added that the United Kingdom had submitted its response last month.

“That is when we will need to tease out latent opposition so that we can open a convention that has real impact and can save lives,” he said, calling the national submission stage “quite crucial”, so that the right message was delivered to the Secretary-General. He called on every Member State to play their part in addressing “what is a very serious problem, but where we have an opportunity”. “We cannot fail all those whose rights were trampled by small arms. We need to stand by them,” he declared.

Asked by a reporter what the Security Council could do to curb the effects of the uncontrolled spread of illegal weapons, particularly in Africa, Mr. Jones Parry, whose country is one of the Council’s five permanent members, said he did not think it was for the Council to directly address the issue of small arms. Unlike the process which had led to treaties on weapons of mass destruction, what was needed in the case of small arms was a convention negotiated in the “normal UN process”. As Ms. Robinson had noted, even though some might think such negotiations would take a long time, the price of that was that the wider membership would buy into the process.

Mr. Dube said civil society had long realized that guns were out of control and that, since the Control Arms Campaign had been launched in 120 countries in 2003, more than 1 million people worldwide were calling on their Governments to do something about that problem. While recognizing the political commitment to establishing a new arms trade treaty, he said that the Secretary-General’s efforts would only focus on Governments. Hence, there was a need to ensure that the voices of ordinary people were also heard. Civic groups had, therefore, launched their own round of consultations -- dubbed “the people’s consultations” –- and some 40 countries were now initiating talks on the matter.

“The exciting part is that people are actually sharing their views about what they are experiencing in their everyday lives,” he said, noting that he was particularly pleased that people affected by the illegal and uncontrolled spread of weapons in places like Uganda were speaking out and urging civil society to push Governments to do something. He said that in the coming days, Control Arms looked forward to hearing from the Secretary-General that all 153 countries that had backed the resolution had sent in responses. He added that “lack of capacity” was not an acceptable excuse –- the issue was too serious. All those States must submit their views. “Many lives have been lost. We can’t afford to lose more,” he said.

Finland’s Ambassador, Kirsti Lintonen, stressed that the initiative was not calling for a ban on the trade of conventional arms. Arms imports and exports were legitimate trade and met legitimate defence needs. But, at the same time, “Arms trade is not just any kind of trade,” and it must be controlled. Firmly convinced that there was a humanitarian urgency for better regulation of the legal arms trade at the global level, Finland had been one of the first countries to call for an arms trade treaty, and had already presented its views to the Secretary-General.

Asked about the climate for discussing an arms treaty in the United States, which had been one of the countries that had opposed the Assembly resolution, but which was now recovering from the tragic shootings that had left 32 people dead at Virginia Tech, Ms. Robinson stressed that the handgun that had played a devastating role in that tragic incident had been purchased legally.

The policy issues were internal to the United States, but she hoped that the sense of personal loss felt by Americans and others, as well as the response from the Virginia Tech community, could bring home the terrible cost being paid in many countries around the world. The campaign should try to engage the United States and those countries that had abstained in the vote so that they could recognize the need to control arms -- just as nuclear weapons had been regulated -- with varying degrees of success.

Jorge Urbina, Costa Rica’s Ambassador, called on the media, politicians and other public opinion-makers to be patient as the process towards elaborating a treaty gained traction. “We are all very impatient… [but] it has been very hard to get where we are today, but we are closer than ever to having a legally-binding instrument,” he said. Stressing that adoption of the convention alone would not be the end of the problem -- just as no law solved every problem completely -– he said that the struggle would go on. “Be patient and please believe that we are working in good faith to the best of our abilities,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record

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