A United Nations conference (July 9-20, 2001) on small arms is failing to produce a serious plan of action and may even prompt a walkout by some key member states, Human Rights Watch said today.

The conference, which concludes in New York on July 20, has not addressed state responsibility for weapons proliferation and has focused too much on the illegal trafficking of small arms, Human Rights Watch said. Many delegates have tried to single out shadowy gunrunners as the chief culprits, while neglecting the governmental role in supplying the weapons used to commit atrocities.

The United States, exhibiting a strong isolationist strain, has joined states such as Russia and China with a longstanding hostility toward global regulatory agreements, and together they are threatening to produce a watered-down "Program of Action," Human Rights Watch said. In the final two days of the conference, a struggle over the program could still prompt a walkout by either supporters or opponents of a stronger commitment to curb weapons flows.

"This conference is set to produce a 'Program of Inaction,'" said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the Arms Division at Human Right Watch. "It has helped raise public awareness of the spread of small arms. But it hasn't put forward a serious plan for stopping this terrible human rights problem."

A coalition of humanitarian and human rights groups has vowed to keep up the pressure on governments to stem the trade in small arms, and to refocus the debate on the human cost of uncontrolled weapons proliferation.

States should take responsibility for stopping the spread of small arms by strengthening arms trade controls to keep weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers, enforcing those controls better, reining in private traffickers, doing more to secure arms stockpiles, and disposing responsibly of vast quantities of cheap surplus weapons.

Hiltermann said the United States had missed an opportunity to promote its own record on arms trade controls, which are relatively stringent.

"The U.S. government seems to have concluded that it wants no entanglements in international treaties," said Hiltermann. "It's tragic that Washington has not used its powers for good in this case. To the contrary, it has been an obstacle to progress, doing all that it can to keep civil society out of the debate."

Instead of addressing the governmental role in the arms trade, the conference sought technical fixes, such as marking weapons and improving border policing, which are aimed exclusively at illicit arms traffickers.

Worst of all, Human Rights Watch said, the "Program of Action" is non-binding and unlikely to establish a follow-up process that would hold governments to even their rhetorical commitments.

Human Rights Watch said the conference should have adopted a clear standard: that no government should authorize any transfer of arms to a state or non-state actor as long as there is a clear risk that these arms will be used by the likely recipient to commit gross human rights abuses, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.