The first U.N. conference to curb the $1 billion-a-year illegal trafficking in small arms ended Saturday with 189 nations agreeing on a watered-down plan Washington wanted--with calls to limit weapon sales and restrict civilian gun ownership expunged.
But the resolution left many Africans, Europeans and human rights groups angry, protesting that it will neither block governments from arming rebels nor control gun ownership anywhere.
The United States had staked out its tough position just two hours after the two-week conference opened July 9, telling delegates that it would walk before conceding on several points. In the end, the U.S. delegation got nearly everything it wanted.
"The U.S. should be ashamed of themselves," said South African delegate Jean du Preez. "We are very disappointed."
A united Africa had fought for language that would bar weapon supplies to nongovernments. "If you send arms to nonstate actors, you are sending them to rebels who are trying to overthrow governments," Nigerian delegate Sola Ogunbanwu argued.
But Africa ultimately dropped its demand in favor of global consensus--the only way a plan can be adopted at the United Nations.
Mexico's chief delegate, Luis Alfonso de Alba, called the U.S. action "regrettable" and said his country would continue to push proposals to control civilian gun ownership and limit the small-arms trade only to governments.
Conference President Camilo Reyes of Colombia announced an agreement at dawn Saturday, ending a marathon negotiation. Exhausted delegates left U.N. headquarters after dawn for a few hours of sleep before returning to formally approve the deal at 1:20 p.m.
U.S. delegates provisionally accepted the plan until Washington could sign off on the final version.
The United States had said it could not support any measure that would bar governments from supplying small arms to rebel groups, noting that it would not forgo foreign policy options such as helping to overthrow a threatening regime.
Washington made clear from the outset that it would oppose any plan that even hinted at interference with civilian gun ownership. As a result, it insisted on removing a clause asking governments "to seriously consider legal restrictions on unrestricted trade in and ownership of small arms and light weapons."
The United States did make one concession. It dropped opposition to a follow-up conference--a small but important victory for most delegations, who saw the conference as a first step.
Although the program of action is not legally binding, it is significant as a first, global step toward resolving the billion-dollar illegal trade in small arms--the weapons of choice in 46 of the 49 conflicts fought during the 1990s.