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Activists seek help at UN to curb small-arms trade

Say governments hold responsibility

UNITED NATIONS -- Bearing a message from the Russian who invented the world's most common assault rifle, activists will press governments at a UN conference on small arms to ensure such weapons aren't used to trample human rights.

The groups and some officials attending the conference, which begins today, advocate a fundamentally new approach to trade in the light arms that are said to kill 1,000 people a day: Governments must take responsibility for all the weapons they sell, even after the deal is done.

Such a philosophy applies to weapons of mass destruction, but not to small arms, and it will be the focus of much debate at the two-week conference.

``It's a bit of a challenge for governments, because they haven't been previously thinking about it in that way," said Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms, which joins Oxfam and Amnesty International in proposing the so-called Global Principles for small-arms sales.

Britain's government has made a similar proposal, and 11 African nations signed on in a meeting in Nairobi in April. The United States, China, Russia, Egypt, India, and others have not explicitly endorsed it.

The United States said it supports the British idea in principle. But John R. Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, made it clear that Washington doesn't want the conference to go beyond a program adopted in 2001 to curb the illicit sale of pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, and other light weapons.

``We don't see any need for treaties or agreements coming out of this," Bolton said.

Global trade in small arms is worth about $4 billion a year, of which a fourth is considered illegal, according to the annual Small Arms Survey, an authoritative report on such weapons. The arms cause 60 percent to 90 percent of all deaths in conflicts every year.

Gun control advocates got a boost from Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the assault rifle that bears his name, who sent a statement to the conference expressing dismay that the weapon he invented is the weapon of choice in conflicts around the globe.

In a report released today, the advocacy group Control Arms -- an umbrella group that helped develop the Global Principles -- said the Kalashnikov assault rifle is the most widespread weapon in the world, with 50 million to 70 million in circulation.

Production of the AK series in several countries has made it easily obtainable for ``unscrupulous arms dealers, irresponsible armed forces, and non state groups," the group said.

In a statement accompanying the report, Kalashnikov called for stricter controls on arms sales. ``When I watch TV and see small arms of the AK family in the hands of bandits, I keep asking myself: How did those people get hold of them?" he wrote.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have expressed concern that the conference could be a springboard to an international treaty that curbs private ownership of small arms.

They also contend that it will embolden regimes that violate human rights to disarm their citizens and make popular uprisings against oppression impossible.

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