The major challenge for post-Cold War disarmament negotiations on conventional weapons is to devise ways of controlling machine guns, automatic rifles and other small arms. Those are main weapons used in civil wars in Asia, Africa and Central America. To tackle the challenge, the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms is meeting this week in Geneva.

Since 1995, Japan has taken the initiative on small arms. The United Nations has adopted three Japanese-proposed resolutions concerning the weapons. In accordance with the resolutions, a Japanese official has chaired a panel of governmental experts on small arms, and played a leading role in making recommendations on controlling such weapons to the U.N. General Assembly.

After the end of the Cold War, East and West bloc nations sold surplus small arms to foreign countries. Those weapons, to which no international restrictions apply, have been used in ethnic and regional conflicts, international terrorist activities and drug trafficking. Small arms have caused a large number of casualties and given rise to serious refugee problems. Between 1945 and 1990, more than 70 million automatic rifles, such as Soviet-made AK-47 “Kalashnikovs” and U.S.-made M-16s, were reportedly produced. By 1996, an estimated 35 million people had been killed or wounded in civil wars in 23 countries.

Disarmament should be promoted by scrapping excess stockpiles of small arms and promoting economic development in strife-torn countries to restore public security and help former guerrillas return to civilian jobs. This will be part of “preventive diplomacy” aimed at preventing a recurrence of conflicts.

There is an urgent need to step up international cooperation to tighten controls on small arms. In 1995, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then U.N. secretary general, proposed controls on small arms. In response, then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama urged in a U.N. disarmament conference in Nagasaki that a panel of governmental experts on small arms be created under the secretary general.

Later that year, the 50th session of the General Assembly approved a Japanese-sponsored resolution for creating the panel. This was the first major U.N. undertaking to solve small-arms problems. Japan’s Ambassador Mitsuro Donowaki, appointed as chairman of the panel, still remains in a similar capacity, after the panel was expanded to a “group” last year.

In 1997, the 16-nation panel submitted a 24-point report to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on ways of reducing small-arms stockpiles and preventing conflicts. The report, approved by the General Assembly, urged stepped-up efforts to improve public security in war-torn countries and enhance economic assistance to them. It also recommended that peace accords to end civil wars, as well as peacekeeping operations, include the recovery and scrapping of small arms. The report also called for increased international cooperation among police, customs and border patrol authorities and restraints on cross-border transfers of small arms.

The task of the expanded 23-nation group, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, is to monitor the implementation of the recommendations and to make preparations for an international conference on the illegal trading of weapons to be held in Geneva in 2001.

In parallel with U.N. efforts, there are increasing regional moves to control small arms. The European Union, for example, last June adopted guidelines for limiting arms exports to regions where human rights abuses and terrorist activities are rampant. In December, the EU adopted a plan for joint action to solve small-arms problems. The Economic Community of West African States last October issued a declaration calling for a moratorium on the production, import and export of small arms to prevent the proliferation of such weapons in the region.

In addition to taking an initiative in the U.N., Japan is appropriating $400,000 under the fiscal 1998 supplementary budget to help Cambodia recover small arms and help former guerrillas obtain civilian jobs. Furthermore, Japan plans to contribute $100,000 to Albania under the U.N. Development Program to assist the country in recovering small arms.

At the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held last October under the joint sponsorship of Japan and the U.N., Japan pledged to give 90 billion yen in grant-in-aid to African countries over five years. The conference also adopted the Tokyo Agenda for Action aimed at promoting economic development and reducing poverty. The plan called for increased African efforts to establish a treaty for banning the illegal possession and trading of small arms to help prevent conflicts.

Ambassador Donowaki told this writer recently that African nations highly appreciate Japanese efforts to control small arms and have strong expectations for more Japanese help.

The U.N. General Assembly last December adopted a Japanese-sponsored resolution calling for the holding of an international conference on arms trading in Geneva in 2001. It was adopted with 169 affirmative votes, with no negative votes and one abstention (Russia). This shows strong international support for Japanese efforts to control small arms.

The basic problem with small arms is that countries involved have failed to improve public security and to establish sound social and economic systems. Recognizing this problem, the U.N. small-arms group called on the world body to take a “proportional and integrated approach to security and development.” Japan should now promote “preventive diplomacy” instead of limiting itself to financial aid. The issue of small arms, along with that of nuclear disarmament, will present a new diplomatic challenge to Japan.

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