Ten years ago, tens of thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles were transported into the West African country of Liberia. It was a violation of the UN arms embargo. The weapons were used by forces loyal to Charles Taylor to commit the most terrible crimes.
Boys, some as young as 11, were handed these weapons and told to kill. In the farms and villages of places such as Bong County on the border with Guinea, these Kalashnikovs became weapons of massive destruction. The resulting civil war killed a quarter of a million people.
Today around the world there are an estimated 50 to 70 million Kalashnikov rifles. Originally produced as the AK-47 after the Second World War, it is now the iconic weapon of global insurgency, gang warfare and terrorism.
The AK-47 is a simple weapon, which is why it can be easily used by children. Reliable, accurate and deadly, it can fire 600 rounds a minute. Ammunition is cheap and readily available.
They are illegally and irresponsibly bought and sold, smuggled and bartered, in black markets for a quick profit.
To counter this, Australia has pushed within the UN for an arms trade treaty, which would compel countries to rein in and account for transactions in weaponry.
The momentum for action is building. The countries most affected by these weapons - in Africa, the Caribbean and, importantly, our Pacific neighbours - are looking for leadership.
We are a responsible global citizen. We were quick to recognise the opportunity to move forward the idea of conventional arms control - directed at small arms and light weapons. In 2009 we co-authored the UN resolution that was adopted with 151 countries in favour and only one – Zimbabwe – against.
Now this month the terms of the treaty are being settled.
Divisions remain over the substance. What categories of weapons should be included? Rocket propelled grenades? Machine guns? We argue for including all items used by infantry. We want ammunition included, but others disagree. And what types of controls and reporting will be required? These issues are being nailed down in New York this week.
Achieving a strong and effective treaty this month will be a test. Australia has made a commitment to work with other countries to create an international legal framework that would establish the highest possible standards to regulate the trade in conventional arms.
We are ambitious and we will urge others to be too. The current situation of a shoddily controlled global trade in arms is unacceptable.
Amnesty International has pointed out that it is absurd the global trade in bananas is more regulated than that in weapons.
I will argue at the UN that the treaty must cover the full range of conventional arms, including small arms and their munitions. It must ban the export of arms to countries subject to UN embargoes. It must cover ammunition. It must cover the widest range of light arms.
At the same time, it should not inhibit trade in conventional arms for any nation's official armed forces.
And while we want to see the treaty enshrine global best practice in controlling conventional arms, which Australia already follows, we must craft a treaty that can attract the broadest possible support and which can be implemented by all countries both developed and developing.
Australia already provides assistance to countries wishing to strengthen their domestic control of weapons. This year, Australia provided $US600,000 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to combat the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons. And we provided $A500,000 to assist armoury refurbishment in Somalia, working with the Mines Advisory Group in co-operation with local police and customs officials.
The international community has a big job to do this month in negotiating a treaty that will stem the illicit trade in weapons. It won't be easy.
I like the Amnesty International expression of a ''bullet proof'' treaty, one effective enough to wind back and seriously diminish the trade that feeds murderous civil wars and insurgencies and gang warfare in the poorest parts of the world.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7584
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555