UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – The United States has sold more than one million handguns to developing nations in the past three years–even while pushing for a new convention to restrict the thriving global trade in small arms.

The weapons–mostly pistols, revolvers and assault rifles–have been sold to several Third World nations, including South Africa, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Thailand, Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina and the Philippines.

“If the United States is serious about curbing the flow of small arms and light weapons it should set an example by restricting the sale of pistols and revolvers to developing countries,” said Erik Floden of the Washington-based Council for a Livable World Education Fund.


During a three-year period that ended last September, the U.S. State Department licensed for sale close to 71,000 pistols and revolvers to South Africa–a country whose military had only about 73,000 active-duty soldiers.

Last year alone, the United States sold about 9,300 handguns to Argentina; 24,000 to the Dominican Republic; 8,000 to El Salvador; 9,200 to Mexico; 20,400 to the Philippines; 9,650 to Thailand; and 89,000 to Venezuela.

Mr. Floden said that Washington clearly was “disingenuous” in its drive to create a new arms convention because it was making a distinction between “licit and illicit” weapons.

“The convention is meant to control the illegal trade in arms–not the legal trade,” he said. The United States wanted to be perceived as a country taking a pro-active role in arms control, but in reality it was not, he added.

“All weapons are meant to kill–whether they are sold legally or illegally,” Mr. Floden said.

Addressing the NAACP last month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States was “negotiating a global agreement to prevent the illicit manufacturing or sale of firearms.”

Ms. Albright proposed that a new convention be modeled on a similar treaty by Latin American and Caribbean states.

The Organization of American States (OAS) Convention against Illicit Arms Trafficking, signed by 35 regional member states in November 1997, obliged Latin American and Caribbean nations to restrict the sales of small arms to armed groups and to zones of conflict.

Mr. Floden said Washington appeared to be focusing solely on “illicit” arms transfers for two reasons: first, it would avoid upsetting the powerful domestic firearms lobby, and second, such a convention left the door open for the U.S. export of small arms and light weapons, which Ms. Albright considered “legitimate.”

“This approach will not address a key fact—like illicit sales, illicit transfers of weapons from the United States and other countries can also be diverted for nefarious purposes,” Mr. Floden said.

At a meeting of the UN Disarmament Commission in April, Washington stated it could accept any form of restrictions on U.S. weapons sales to armed groups overseas–even if they were perceived by others as “terrorist” organizations.

“Let me make it clear that the U.S. cannot subscribe to a blanket prohibition on the export of arms other than to governments,” said Katharine Crittenberger, speaking on behalf of the U.S. delegation.

“In most cases, it is a wise policy, but in some it could be morally unacceptable, prohibiting individuals or groups from defending themselves against the persecutions of tyrants,” she told the Commission.

Washington also is pursuing its limited arms control agenda at the United Nations. Last month U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh said that “all of our nations which sell small arms and light weapons, or which are involved in the traffic or the flow of these weapons, bear responsibility for turning a blind eye to the destruction they cause. We should act together now to curb arms transfers to zones of conflicts,” he added.

Currently, there were more than 500 million pieces of artillery in circulation–mostly small arms produced by developed countries. Of this, about 55 million were the Russian-developed AK-47 assault rifle, seven million of which are in circulation in West Africa alone.

According to the United Nations, about 40 percent of the worldwide flow of small arms (semi-automatic guns, machine guns, light mortars, land mines, grenades and light missiles) could be attributed to illicit trafficking.