Mr. Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute.
National Review Online. July 30, 2001 1:30 p.m.
Editor's note: This is the first in a series examining the United Nations and gun prohibition. More by Kopel on United Nations gun control.
The United Nations "small arms" conference has concluded, with no immediate damage done to individual rights — thanks to the magnificent performance of the Bush administration. But the conference will be back five years hence, and the next five years will see continued efforts by the United Nations to find ways to undermine the right to keep and bear arms.
The beginning of the conference on July 9 was commemorated with the celebration of the U.N.'s "Small Arms and Light Weapons Destruction Day." Around the world, governments made huge piles of firearms — not firearms owned by the government, but rather firearms seized by the government from other people.
Even more enthusiastic promotion of Destruction Day could be found at the website of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a collection of antigun non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — and also the best web source of documents relating to the Conference.
Of course guns meant for destruction could simply be crushed — but mere crushing would not excite the special symbolism of destruction by burning. Destruction by burning provides the spectators the joy of watching the burning take place slowly. That is one reason why heretics were often burned at the stake rather than executed in a less time-consuming way.
July 9 was not the first time that governments had lit bonfires to destroy resistance to the power of the government. Germany's Josef Goebbels ordered all Jewish books to be burned in public on May 10, 1933. University towns were centers of Jewish Books Destruction Day.
As the Völkischer Beobachter ("Populist Observer") reported on May 12, 1933, "The German student body of the Berlin universities assembled yesterday for a torchlight procession on Hegel Platz. They formed up, accompanied by a truckload of 25,000 books and writings harmful to the people. The procession ended at Opera Platz, where as a symbolic act, these Un-German writings were set aflame on a pile of logs."
The burning of Jewish and un-German books was followed within a few years by the burning of Jews and other un-German people. Jewish Books Destruction Day helped change popular consciousness so as to pave the way for genocide. Likewise paving the way for genocide was the systematic disarmament of Jews and all other opposition elements, in Nazi Germany itself and in conquered territories.
How long until a U.N.-declared official day of hate is celebrated with governments actually killing people?
That day has already come. The U.N.'s Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP) has declared that every June 26 shall be celebrated as United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Drug Trafficking. June 26 is the anniversary of the signing of the declaration at 1987 International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The declaration is the basis for the U.N.'s 1988 Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychoactive Substances. This treaty commits its signatories, including the United States, to maintaining a policy of domestic prohibition.
As I'll detail in upcoming columns, the long-term objective of many at the Small Arms Conference was to replicate the success of their predecessors at the Drugs and Psychoactive Substances Conference — creating an international regime of prohibition, enforced not only by individual governments, but by transnational power — and explicitly designed to destroy the freedom of individual governments to choose to change their prohibition laws in the future.
So China celebrated U.N. drug hate day by executing 59 drug criminals. Although the Chinese Communist government asserts that all the executed are "drug traffickers," Amnesty International has shown otherwise. In one case, a young woman was returning to her home province from her honeymoon in January 1996. An acquaintance offered to pay her to carry a package for him, as is common in China. On the train, she became suspicious, and attempted to open the package, but could not. A ticket checker noticed her agitation, and notified the police. The Guangxi High People's Court sentenced her to death on June 26, 1996, in honor of U.N. Anti-Drug Day.
At a 2001 press conference, U.N. deputy spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva was asked about China's execution festival. While acknowledging that "as far as I am aware the convention does not provide for the application of the death penalty," the U.N. spokesman did not criticize the Chinese executions.
According to Harry Wu's Laogai Research Foundation, Chinese doctors are required to promptly harvest organs whenever a group of anti-drug executions is scheduled. Kidneys, other organs, and even skin are sold for as much as $15,000.
Colombia, Afghanistan, and other nations held events in conjunction with the U.N. which did not involve any executions, but instead dedicated the day to fireworks and various forms of anti-drug propaganda.
What does the future hold as "Small Arms and Light Weapons Destruction Day" on July 9 works its way onto the U.N. holiday calendar? Will the mass burning of weapons help set the stage for mass executions of "gun traffickers"? Will the U.N. sponsor events around the world designed to reinforce fears about small arms, and to forestall dissent about small-arms prohibition? Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes the U.N. anti-drug program, it provides the tested blueprint for a long-term U.N. program against guns.
Already, the public-relations effort to equate guns and drugs has begun. The U.N. Development Program announced that drugs are the largest illicit business in the world, and arms trafficking is second. At the Small Arms Conference, Durga P. Bhattarai of Nepal expressed the commonly held view that (non-government) guns were as pernicious as drugs, as he asserted that guns turn children into "addicted killers."
Back in the U.S., Second Amendment activists declared July 9 to be National Firearms Purchase Day, urging citizens to buy small arms or small-arms ammunition.
As July 9 approached, hundreds of American sent the U.N. angry e-mails, protesting the upcoming small-arms conference. The U.N. adopted a two-fold approach: 1. Turning many of the e-mails over to its security office, apparently under the theory that anyone who holds strong opinions on Second Amendment rights must be dangerous — even though not one of the letters made a threat.
2. Producing a press release claiming that the conference posed no threat to law-abiding gun owners. The last claim was a patent falsehood, although of much the American media took the U.N.'s public-relations arm at its word, and failed to observe the massive evidence that restricting domestic-gun ownership was very much an intended purpose of the conference.
The two-week conference was the result of General Assembly Resolution 54/54, adopted Dec. 15, 1999. According to the U.N. itself, the conference "was convened to address the increasing threat to human security from the spread of small arms and light weapons and their illegal trade." Note that "illegal trade" is only one part of the threat. "The spread of small arms" is considered a threat in itself.
At the conference, speaker after speaker made it clear that "excessive" quantities of guns (i.e., any guns in civilian hands) was a problem in itself, separate from the issue of illegal trade. Rey Pagtakhan, the Canadian secretary of state, condemned "The excessive and destabilizing accumulation and uncontrolled spread of small arms."
Ireland's U.N. delegate declared, "States must stop exporting of small arms and light weapons to all except other governments. All states must suppress private ownership of small arms and light weapons."
Yemen's Abdalla Saleh Al-Ashtal explained: "The goal is to prevent any further increase in the traffic in small arms. It is a problem which relates not only to the illicit trade, but to all issues connected with the legal trade." He touted the situation in Yemen, where "individuals voluntarily surrender their weapons. The media is used to convince people to hand over their weapons."
Burchell Whiteman, Minister of Education, Youth and Culture of Jamaica called guns and drugs "a double-barreled force of evil and mayhem." Since the imposition of Jamaican gun prohibition in the 1970s, the Jamaican government has used gun and drug prohibition as justifications for eliminating almost all privacy and due-process elements of the common-law legal tradition. "The time has come," Jamaica's minister continued, "for the international community, particularly States which manufacture arms, to consider the implementation of measures that would limit the production of such weapons to levels that meet the needs for defence and national security." In other words, Jamaica's ban on gun possession by citizens should spread worldwide.
Proposed language required signatory governments to "seriously consider" banning civilian ownership of small arms "designed for military purposes" — a proposal that would outlaw the M1 carbine, M1 Garand (designed for World War II), many antique firearms (designed for the Civil War), and scores of bolt-action rifles (designed for World War I). Since almost all guns are derivative of military designs (with a few obscure exceptions such as biathlon trainers), the language would have been a wedge for near-total gun prohibition. The U.N.'s January 9, 2001 " Draft Programme of Action" mandated that: "Where appropriate, moratoria on the production, export and import of small arms and light weapons will be developed and implemented on a regional and subregional basis."
The opening of the conference was marked by the unveiling of The Art of Peacemaking, a five-ton sculpture created by Canadians Sandra Bromley and Wallis Kendal with a subsidy from the Canadian War Museum. The sculpture consists of 7,000 firearms welded together into a giant cube, designed to remind viewers of a tomb or a prison. This sculpture perfectly symbolized the U.N. philosophy of guns: violence comes not from the human heart, but from bad objects, and the duty of the U.N. is to destroy those objects.
The American media blazed with fury that the National Rifle Association was impeding U.N. efforts to control rocket launchers. But the U.N. definition of small arms plainly did include ordinary firearms, and encompassed revolvers, self-loading pistols, ordinary rifles, "assault" rifles, submachine guns, and light machine guns. The "Light weapons" category included heavy machine guns, mortars, hand grenades, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft or anti-tank guns, and portable missile launchers.
Notably, Small Arms Destruction Day and the "Art of Peacemaking" sculpture weren't about grenades or rocket launchers; they celebrated the destruction of firearms.
The U.N.'s draft protocol for the conference called for "tighter control over their [firearms and ammunition] legal transfer," for "strengthening current laws and regulation…concerning their use and civilian possession," and for "enhancing accountability, transparency and the exchange of information at the national, regional and global levels." This latter goal (a euphemism for universal gun registration in U.N.-run databases) was to be achieved by "systematic tracking of firearms and, where possible, their parts and components and ammunition from manufacturer to purchaser." Government-owned firearms were to be explicitly exempted from these controls.
The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations" was somewhat more explicit:
Bringing the diffusion of firearms under control is not merely a legal act, it requires to overcome the latent gun culture whose 'virus' is more firmly established in some societies than in others. Unfortunately the propagation of the gun culture is presently well entrenched in the global electronic media. Some non-governmental organisations like the US-based National Rifle Association strategically sponsor the gun culture.
The European Institute called for "obligatory liability insurance" for gun owners, plus an "ammunition tax" and "firearm recycling deposit" — whose proposed benefits including making guns less affordable. Further, ammunition calibers "5.56 (223), 7.62 (.308), and 9mm would be reserved for the military and police." So "In a period of less than ten years compulsory changes of the calibers of weapons in private possession could be implemented." An ammunition ban "should be acceptable to all nations because it does not directly interfere with national regulations of private ownership of guns."
Likewise pushing for severe domestic restrictions was the "Eminent Persons Group" (no kidding) consisting of 23 anti-gun busybodies. American members included U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Robert McNamara, who followed his tenure as the worst defense secretary (leading the U.S. into what he knew was an unwinnable war in Vietnam) with an even more destructive, albeit quieter, tenure as president of the World Bank, in which he shoveled aid and loans at third-world kleptocracies which used the money to oppress their subject peoples. The indigenous victims of the World Bank/kleptocracy alliance are the kind of people whom the Eminent Persons Group does not want to have guns.
Formally, the conference was only supposed to lead to a nonbinding protocol. But Norway called for a legally binding document. And gun-prohibition advocates insisted that even a nonbinding document have led to a mandatory review of national responses.
In short, the U.N.'s protestations that the conference had nothing to do with American gun possession was true only in the hypertechnical sense that Bill Clinton's claim that he "did not have sex" (meaning sexual intercourse) with Monica Lewinsky was technically true. The point of the conference was to create long-term international pressure for severe restrictions on American gun rights, even though the conference itself would not directly impose those restrictions.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan equated small arms to nuclear weapons or chemical warfare weapons — thus demonizing them, and implying that they should never be in civilian hands. He said that small arms are "'weapons of mass destruction' in terms of the carnage they cause." Annan compared the current campaign against small arms to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) — whose objective, of course, is total prohibition. The ICBL, by the way, proclaims that it is about "much more than the eventual elimination of landmines", and is furious at the Bush administration's stance at the U.N. Small Arms Conference.
On July 9, the opening day of the conference, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton ruined the mood of Small Arms Destruction Day. Bolton's opening statement warned that "the United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures abrogating the constitutional right to bear arms." Bolton added: "The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life … Like many countries, the United States has a cultural tradition of hunting and sport shooting." He laid down the U.S. position: "We do not support measures that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms and light weapons." Bolton stood against "the promotion of international advocacy activity by international or non-governmental organizations" and against "measures that prohibit civilian possession of small arms."
At a news conference, Bolton explained that the U.S. was eager to deal with actual problems of misuse: "If the conference can concentrate on the central issue of the flow of illicit weapons into agreement. But if it drifts off into areas that are properly the area of national level decision-making, then I think there will be difficulties."
Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who also serves on the board of the National Rifle Association, was the only legislator who was an official member of the U.S. delegation. Since the U.S. has the world's strictest controls on arms-broker exports, Barr pointed out that "the U.N. Conference is an effort by its many liberal members to accomplish through the international arena what they and other gun-control advocates have been unable to achieve domestically expanded registration and control of lawful, non-military firearms. If these nations are serious about combating illegal firearms trafficking, they should strengthen their export laws to parallel those of the United States, instead of attacking our nation's Second Amendment rights."
As a measure of how much the 2000 election mattered, consider that when the draft protocol was prepared in December 2000, it was the Colombian and Mexican delegations (!), not the American delegation, which offered optional language recognizing that some countries have legitimate traditions of sporting and other gun use.
Much of the U.S. and world media reacted with horror at the U.S. position. But the Chicago Tribune and Denver Post, newspapers which generally support gun control, did criticize the U.N. Conference for attempting to invade the rights of American citizens.
That Bolton could be criticized so severely for stating that the U.N. should not promote civilian gun prohibition is rather clear proof that that the U.N. agenda really is about gun prohibition.
The United States was denounced by the Toronto Globe & Mail(July 12), asserting that "the purpose of the U.N. initiative is not to take hunting rifles away from American good old boys. It is to stop the international trafficking of machine guns, rocket launchers and other lethal weapons."
To the contrary, the U.N. definition of "small arms" encompasses rifles and pistols. And if the U.N. conference were just about rocket launchers, the conference never would have attracted the support of the U.S. and international gun-prohibition groups or opposition of the U.S. and international gun-rights groups. Bolton in fact argued for a narrower definition, encompassing only military arms.
Besides blasting the U.S. stance, the media trotted out various factoids invented by the United Nations, such as that "small arms" kill a thousand people a day, mostly women and children. (Meaning 300,000 in war, and 200,000 from murder, suicide, and accidents.) Claims were made that half the small arms in the world today are illegally held.
Garnering far less attention were the gun-ownership facts contained in the Small Arms Survey 2001, published by the Graduate Institute of International Studies, and released for the conference. While the study was laden with pro-control advocacy, it reported that almost all small arms killing of civilians is perpetrated by organized crime, pirates/bandits, and rebel groups. Collectively, these groups possess about 900,000 guns — only two-tenths of one percent of all the small arms in the world. Fifty-six percent of the world's 551 million small arms are held by private citizens, 41% by armies, and 3% by police forces.
In other words, in the world, as in the United States, over 99% of firearms are in the right hands. Firearms misuse is perpetrated almost exclusively by criminals who own a fraction of one percent of all the guns.
If the real objective were to reduce misuse, then nations would follow the lead of the United States, which has extremely strict laws on the export of small arms, including firearms. All firearms made or sold in the U.S. must have registration marks, allowing for tracing. The American export controls are far more rigorous than the controls of the hypocritical nations like the U.K. and Sweden, which impose near-prohibition on their own people, while turning a blind eye towards exports to terrorists and gangsters.
And as in the United States, the misuse of 2/10th of one percent is a pretext for prohibitionists to outlaw everything.
Tony Brown, Executive Director of the pro-rights Canadian Institute for Legislative Action, detailed the obvious falsity of the Kofi Annan's claim that small arms "exacerbate conflict, spark refugee flows, undermine the rule of law, and spawn a culture of violence and impunity. In short, small arms are a threat to peace and development, to democracy and human rights." Brown pointed out:
Canadians citizens own as many as 15 million small arms, one of the highest rates of private firearms ownership in the world…If the simple presence of privately owned small arms sparked violence amongst the citizenry, Canada would be bathed in blood. But it's not. Canada enjoys one of the lowest murder and violent crime rates in the world. Do firearms create international conflict? No. Canadians are privileged to share the longest undefended border in the world with our friend and partner, the United States. . . . Do the presence of so many small arms create poverty? Once again, no. The United Nations has consistently rated Canada, along with Norway and the United States, one of the best places in the world to live. Interestingly, all three countries have very high rates of civilian firearms ownership.
The conference's rhetoric about protecting "women and children" was a pretext for its dominant objective of protecting governments by disarming the governed — as I'll detail in an upcoming column. The United Nations burns guns in giant bonfires for the same reason that the Nazis burned books in giant bonfires: because people who vigorously exercise the fundamental human rights which are recognized by First and Second Amendment are the kind of people who are difficult to for tyrants — including a tyranny of the majority — to control.