The following op-ed by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs John Hillen was first published in the July 3 edition of The Baltimore Sun.
SMALL ARMS, BIG DANGER
Last year -- a day after the fourth anniversary of 9/11 -- a U.S. District Court sentenced Hemant Lakhani, a foreign arms dealer, to 47 years in prison for attempting to broker shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to the purported representative of a Somali terrorist group.
His client was, in fact, an FBI informant who had videotaped Mr. Lekhani recommending the missiles be used -- "50 at one time, simultaneously" -- to bring down commercial airliners in cities across the United States.
Mr. Lakhani's conviction is just one of many recent successes that are the result of international cooperation to apprehend and prosecute individuals who illegally traffic in small arms and light weapons. Yet the Lakhani case is also a stark reminder, for every country, of the danger of weapons falling into the wrong hands.
The ready availability of military-grade small weapons to weak and failing states, terrorists, organized crime rings and drug traffickers threatens lives and social stability in every corner of the world.
The United States has joined 150 other countries at the 2006 U.N. Small Arms Review Conference under way in New York since Tuesday [June 27]. Representatives are evaluating progress made in a program adopted in 2001 that aims to end the illicit weapons trade and suggest methods for improved implementation at national and international levels. The United States will make the case that its laws, practices and enforcement procedures are effective models other nations should follow.
An essential element of the success of the U.S. program is its export control laws and regulations. These laws are internationally recognized as the most robust and effective in the world. Export controls are the first line of defense in denying our enemies the access to the weapons they would turn against us.
Consider what's at stake. One of the most deadly light weapons is also one of the easiest to transport and conceal: the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADS, for man-portable air defense systems. The size and weight of a full golf bag, these weapons have taken down 25 civilian aircraft since 1978 and have been responsible for over 600 deaths. With tens of thousands of daily commercial flights in the United States alone, preventing the proliferation of these weapons is of vital importance. The most effective way to do this is at the point of transfer.
The United States sets the gold standard for export control. Over half a century ago, Congress legislated a cradle-to-grave approach to weaponry in which government agencies follow each piece through its life cycle, from manufacturing and brokerage through export and retransfer.
The United States is one of only a small number of countries that continue to assert jurisdiction over manufactured arms even after they have been exported. Foreign buyers must obtain U.S. approval before retransferring such articles, and all parties in every transaction are checked against a list with more than 100,000 names of suspect companies and individuals. These policies help ensure that our equipment is delivered to the right people in the right places for the right purpose.
Our enforcement efforts give these laws teeth. U.S. agencies vigorously investigate, pursue and prosecute violators, who are subject to stiff penalties of up to 10 years in prison and $1 million per conviction.
Some U.N. members wish to use this conference to broaden the program to include prohibitions against ammunition and explosives and to impose restrictions against lawful civilian ownership of light weapons. The United States sees little to be gained in reopening the document for negotiation.
It is imperative that we remain focused on fulfilling the obligations made in 2001 without diverting our attention to revisiting old debates or addressing issues that are tangential to our main purpose: to prevent, combat and eradicate dangerous weapons in the hands of dangerous men.
Instead, nations should summon the political will to fully enforce all provisions of the current document. Unfortunately, many countries have not yet done so. The International Action Network on Small Arms lists the United States as one of only 16 countries to have achieved full compliance on all laws and procedures related to the program.
We won't see a meaningful reduction in illicit small arms trade until all countries adapt responsible export control laws and they are enforced consistently -- everywhere, every time.