UNITED NATIONS Britain, Japan, Australia and others are pushing for an unprecedented treaty regulating the arms trade worldwide, in a campaign sure to last years and to pit them against a determined American foe, the National Rifle Association.
In what U.N. officials say is an "overwhelming" response, almost 100 governments have submitted ideas for such a treaty, to be reviewed over the next year. There's an "extremely urgent" need for controls on the international gun trade, says Kenya, echoing the sentiment in much of guns-besieged Africa.
But in the United States, the NRA says it sees a creeping attempt to limit civilian gun ownership within nations even though the focus now is on setting standards for arms exports and imports.
The international issues "necessarily will come to involve at some point domestic laws and policies regarding firearms," said former congressman Bob Barr, a leading NRA voice on the subject.
"That's not what we're looking at here," countered Greg Puley, of the Control Arms coalition of pro-treaty advocacy groups. "The point is to control trade in weapons that contribute to conflict and atrocities."
The NRA and other U.S. gun lobbyists have helped blunt earlier efforts at the United Nations to rein in the weapons trade. Last December, the U.S. delegation cast the lone negative vote when 153 nations approved a General Assembly resolution initiating this new treaty process.
Now, alone among the world's top 10 arms suppliers, the United States by far the biggest, with almost $13 billion in arms export agreements in 2005 has not filed a requested report to the United Nations with its views on a treaty.
"The United States has not yet decided whether it will or will not participate in (the review), and thus we will have no submission at this time," Richard Kidd, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told The Associated Press.
The treaty campaign may encounter resistance beyond Washington as well. The reports from Russia and China, two other big arms exporters, offered only lukewarm endorsement for stricter controls.
"This is just the beginning of the process. There will be a lot said on the issue," noted Pamela Maponga, conventional arms chief in the U.N. Disarmament Affairs Office here.
Britain, a $3-billion-a-year arms exporter, has spearheaded the effort with a half-dozen co-sponsoring nations, saying unscrupulous traders capitalize on gaps and differences in various nations' export-import laws in order to ship assault rifles and other weapons into areas where they inflame conflict and oppression.
The United States and other industrialized countries generally keep close oversight on arms sales, but dozens of nations have no regulations specific to weapons exports and imports. Only 37 nations, for example, have laws governing the operations of private arms brokers.
In its submission, Britain proposes a legally binding treaty requiring governments to authorize weapons exports only after ascertaining that they will not provoke or prolong armed conflicts, aid in human rights abuses, destabilize countries or undermine peace in other ways.
Treaty advocates favor standardizing export-import documents for weapons, and requiring governments to exchange information about weapons transfers, to ensure that the end-use criteria are being met. The British say a "mechanism for enforcement and monitoring" would be necessary implying some kind of U.N. arms watchdog along with provisions for punishing states breaking the rules.
Barr said the NRA, long opposed to government tracking of gun owners, fears that any international "watch list" of gun purchasers might violate U.S. privacy rights. In addition, he said, U.S. firearms manufacturers are "extremely concerned" about trade restrictions.
Britain, Canada, France and others propose a treaty that would cover the full range of conventional weapons, from handguns to tanks and combat aircraft. But concerns about illicit sales and smuggling have mostly focused on AK-47 assault rifles and other smaller weapons, especially in Africa. Experts estimate one-quarter of the $4 billion-a-year international small arms business involves illicit dealings. Up to a half-million people are believed killed each year by small arms, and more than 600 million such weapons are believed in circulation.
"We urge all governments to act in the interest of those millions dying," Kenya said in its submission.
In the next step, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected this month to name an experts' group from two dozen nations to review the submissions of 98 governments and report back to the General Assembly in the fall of 2008 on what kind of arms trade treaty might be feasible.
In a "best-case scenario," Puley said, the experts would recommend that a working group be established to draft a treaty text. General Assembly adoption of a pact wouldn't be expected before 2010.