With words like path-breaking, courageous and visionary, representatives from African and Western nations, including the United States, have resoundingly endorsed measures to control the spread of light weapons, the major cause of death in today's wars.
The action came at a two-day assembly in Oslo called to advance a proposed moratorium on the export, import and manufacture of light weapons in West Africa, and to consider how that moratorium could be a model for other regions of the world, like Central America.Reflecting a rapidly growing movement to stanch the flow of light weapons into areas of conflict, the conference was attended by 18 African nations, more than a dozen European countries, and Japan, Canada and Argentina.
"It is a dream come true," said Jan Egeland, director of the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers, which convened the meeting, along with the U.N. Development Program.
"Africa has seen too many wars, too many civilians killed, too much human rights abuse," said Egeland, an energetic former Norwegian diplomat, who two weeks ago was the key speaker at a conference at Columbia University in New York City on controlling the light weapons trade.
It was therefore imperative, he said, for governments to support the "visionary idea" of a moratorium.
In a distinct break from weapons control measures in the past, delegates noted, this one is not the work of major outside powers.
Rather, the initiative for the moratorium came from the president of Mali, Alphan Oumar Konare, who has been commended for the symbolic burning two years ago of a pile of 3,000 weapons surrendered by rebel groups in his country.
"The political, economic and social consequences of the anarchic proliferation of light weapons are well known," Konare said in his opening address. "They are the millions of victims, most of them civilians, the displaced populations with their tears and suffering, the phenomena of child soldiers, terrorism and wide-scale banditry in urban areas.
"This belief in disarmament does not proceed from idealism, or from naivete. The best strategy for prevention of armed conflict is to eliminate the means of violence."
Konare said his government would soon declare a moratorium, and other countries at the Oslo meeting said they expected the 15-member Economic Community of West African States to call for a moratorium at its next meeting, in July.
The fledgling movement to curtail the trade in small arms and light weapons, like automatic rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, mortars and shoulder-fired missiles, has been propelled by the successful campaign to ban antipersonnel land mines.
And this time the United States is determined not to be left out, as in the land mines campaign, which produced a treaty that the Clinton administration has refused to sign.
"We not only want to play in this, but exercise a little control to keep it in the right direction," said Herbert Calhoun, an official in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the leader of the U.S. delegation to the conference.