UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has urged the world's nations to agree on a strong international treaty to regulate the multi-billion-dollar global arms trade in the next two weeks, saying it will save lives and make it more difficult for warlords and organised criminals to obtain weapons.
Attemps to reach an agreement on what would be a landmark treaty failed last July when the US said it needed more time to consider the proposed accord - a move quickly backed by Russia and China.
"After a very long journey, our final destination is in sight - a robust arms trade treaty," the UN chief told ministers and ambassadors from most of the 193 UN member states at Monday's opening session at the UN headquarters.
"Now is the time to overcome past setbacks and deliver."
In December, the UN General Assembly decided to hold a final conference with its closing date, March 28, as a deadline for reaching agreement on a treaty.
Many countries control arms exports, but there has never been an international treaty regulating the estimated $60 billion global arms trade.
For more than a decade, activists and some governments have been pushing for international rules to try to ban the trade of illicit weapons.
Ban said the absence of a treaty regulating the conventional arms trade "defies explanation", citing international standards that regulate everything from t-shirts and toys to tomatoes and furniture.
"That means there are common standards for the global trade in armchairs but not the global trade in arms," he said.
The draft treaty under consideration does not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, but it would require all countries to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and to regulate arms brokers.
It would prohibit states that ratify the treaty from transferring conventional weapons if they would violate arms embargoes or if they would promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
In considering whether to authorise the export of arms, the draft says a country must evaluate whether the weapon would be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian laws or be used by organised crime or for corrupt practices.
'Flexibility and commitment'
Just before the conference opened, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya and Britain issued a joint statement urging "flexibility and commitment from everyone to secure a treaty which will save lives and reduce human suffering, and to bring transparency and consistency to the global arms trade whose legacy will endure for generations to come".
Erkki Tuomioja, Finland's Foreign Minister, told a news conference that the countries are optimistic that an agreement can be reached, citing a statement made by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, as being cause for such hope.
Kerry said on Friday that the US is committed to reaching agreement on a strong UN treaty "that addresses international transfers of conventional arms solely".
It will not support a treaty that would be inconsistent with US law and the right of Americans under the US constitution to bear firearms, or a treaty that would impose new requirements on the US domestic trade in firearms and US exporters, he said.
Australian UN Ambassador Peter Woolcott, elected president of the conference, said disappointment after last July's failure to reach agreement has given way "to determination [...] to finish the job."
He said preparations for the conference over the past few months show "that the world is ready for an Arms Trade Treaty'' and he urged delegates to "look for solutions that can bridge remaining differences and that hold the prospect of consensus".
The start of the conference was almost delayed by a dispute over the participation of the two UN non-member states, Palestine and the Vatican.
But Woolcott announced that an agreement had been reached to allow them to speak and participate, but not be part of the decision-making process.