New York — The "havoc" caused in East Africa by unchecked trafficking in small arms is prompting Nairobi to help lead a United Nations effort to regulate the global trade in these weapons, says Kenya's UN ambassador.
Kenya is the only African state among seven prime sponsors of a proposal to allow the UN to begin work on a binding global treaty on small arms. The UN General Assembly approved the initiative last week, with 139 nations voting in favour.
Only the United States opposed the treaty, although 24 nations abstained in the final vote, including lawless Somalia, Sudan, China and Russia.
"Our role arises from the havoc caused by these weapons in our region," says Kenya UN envoy Zachary Muburi-Muita. "It also comes from the realisation that economic development goes hand-in-hand with peace and security."
He notes that Nairobi is already the home of a secretariat focused on limiting the illicit trade in small arms in the part of Africa stretching from the Great Lakes to the Horn. Kenya was also a key participant in a recent conference at UN headquarters in New York that sought agreement on strong measures to control conventional-arms deals.
But because the outcome of that conference was not positive, Kenya and a few other nations decided to take the issue directly to the General Assembly, said Mr Muburi-Muita.
An international treaty, if eventually adopted, could prove effective since it would "control arms dealing right from the manufacturing stage," the ambassador says. "It would ensure the weapons would be channelled only to legitimate parties. We would not have the free-for-all we have now."
The General Assembly's action last week empowers the incoming Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, to examine the feasibility and scope of a small arms treaty. He has been asked to report his findings to the General Assembly by late next year. Should the process move smoothly, a vote on a draft treaty could take place in 2008.
As envisioned, the international agreement could prevent arm sales to parties engaged in conflict by reinforcing United Nations arms embargoes. A treaty could also outlaw arms transfers likely to contribute to human rights violations or to the undermining of economic development initiatives.
"The absence of common international standards on the import, export or transfer of conventional arms is a contributing factor to conflict, displacement of people, crime and terrorism," declares the proposal put forward by Kenya and six other nations; Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Finland and Japan.
Current attempts to enforce UN arms embargoes are generally unsuccessful, says a lobbying coalition that includes Amnesty International and Oxfam International. A study conducted by these treaty advocates found that weapons have flowed freely to combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo despite a UN arms embargo in force since 2003.
These arms were found to have come primarily from manufacturers in countries outside Africa. But some African governments have also been helping to fuel the $1.1 trillion global trade in small arms.
Oxfam notes, for example, that Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, the DRC and Botswana all doubled their military spending between 1985 and 2000.
Funds spent on weapons could instead be used for development, treaty supporters say, noting that the worldwide trade in conventional arms involves a sum of money 15 times greater than the amount spent annually on aid to poor countries.
The move to draft a small-arms treaty enjoys the support of three countries - Britain, France and Germany - that account for a sizeable portion of yearly weapons sales on the international market. But some other major sellers, especially the US, are not in favour of a binding international agreement.
Mr Muburi-Muita says it is disappointing that the US - with what is by far the world's largest military budget - has not joined the effort to regulate small arms trafficking by means of a treaty.
"We do expect everybody to see the correlation between development and control of the arms trade," he says.