The United Nations General Assembly has decided to hold the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Aspects in New York in July 2001. The trade involves a broad range of hand-carried arms from automatic rifles to portable missiles.

The illicit trade in small arms became an international issue around 1992. These weapons have killed an estimated 4 million people in the regional conflicts that have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. Civil wars have created millions of refugees, aggravated internal security as crime and terrorism spread and caused untold damage to noncombatants. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official described small arms as “de facto weapons of mass destruction in the post-Cold War era.”

Japan has been taking initiatives to control small arms since 1995. In order to bring the coming U.N. conference to a successful conclusion, the nation should contribute to demonstrate leadership.

Large quantities of surplus weapons have found their way into strife-torn regions such as Africa since the end of the Cold War. The total number of small arms changing hands worldwide is estimated at 500 million units, including 100 million automatic rifles. If the price of a used automatic rifle is about $200, it would cost only about $1 million to organize a 5,000-member militia.

Weapons are exported mainly from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States) as well as European nations. It is said that many illicit weapons deals are disguised as legal transactions. This makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of the world trade in weapons. Regulating it is even more difficult.

The control of small arms was first proposed in January 1995 by then U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In June of the same year, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama called for global efforts to combat the problem. Later in the same year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Japanese proposal to set up a panel of government experts.

The panel, chaired by Mitsuro Donowaki, ambassador and special assistant to the foreign minister, produced a report containing 24 recommendations, among them a Japanese proposal to hold a U.N. meeting on the illicit trade in small arms. In 1998 a new group of government experts headed by Donowaki got to work, and last year it submitted a report with 27 recommendations.

Thus Japan has moved international opinion toward small-arms control, first by rallying support behind a U.N. resolution on the issue and then by acting as a panel and group coordinator for Africa, Europe, South America and other regions. Japan has also provided a total of $3.6 million since 1996 to help finance small arms-control efforts. The sum includes aid to countries such as Mali, Sierra Leone and Albania — designed to support their efforts for post-conflict arms recovery and for reconstruction and development in stricken areas — and contributions to a U.N. project on the small-arms issue.

As the world’s first and only nation to suffer atomic bombings, Japan has been striving for nuclear disarmament. As a nation that prohibits the export of arms in principle, it is also in a position to promote international efforts to regulate small-arms exports.

Donowaki, known as “Mr. Small Arms” among disarmament experts, said in an interview, “The problem of small arms is a major disarmament issue facing the world today. As a nation taking a positive role in disarmament, Japan must take the initiative.”

In this connection, the foreign ministers’ meeting at the Group of Eight summit held in Japan in July issued a statement titled “The G8 Miyazaki Initiative for Conflict Prevention,” which referred to this problem in specific terms.

The statement said, “The G8 will not authorize the export of small arms if there is a clear risk that these might be used for repression or aggression against another country.” It also said, “The G8 pledges its full support for the effort to reduce existing destabilizing accumulations of small arms.” All this is in line with recommendations from the U.N. panel and group.

The coming U.N. conference, however, will have difficulty ironing out the differences between participating nations. Some nations are trying to limit controls on the illicit trade, citing the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs. But others are seeking a broader range of controls with emphasis on trade “in all aspects,” on grounds that illicit deals are often disguised as legal transactions.

The conference is intended to discuss ways to prevent the excessive accumulation of and the illicit trade in small arms. Donowaki said he expects the meeting to produce a comprehensive framework for extensive and sustainable efforts to resolve the problem of small arms.

The centerpiece of such a framework will likely be an action program that lays out a range of concrete measures, including norms for restricting the transfer of weapons to areas in conflict and international cooperation to provide technical and financial support for weapons recovery. Such cooperation would also involve nongovernmental organizations.

Japan has set three goals for the resolution of the small-arms problem. These are: (1) the strengthening of international norms for preventing the influx (particularly the illicit import) of weapons; (2) support for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (“DDR”) to help post-conflict recovery and development and prevent the recurrence of conflicts; and (3) active efforts to bring the U.N. conference to a successful conclusion.

Japan, which has opened the way for the U.N. conference on small arms as the chair of the U.N. panel and group of experts, has a duty to chair that conference as well and lead it to agreement. It is a fitting role for Japan in the post-Cold War world as it confronts the challenge of controlling and preventing regional conflicts.

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