All United Nations arms embargoes have been breached with impunity, with only a handful of the weapons traffickers responsible for the trade in death ever facing prosecution, according to a report.
Despite the UN naming hundreds of companies - including those in Britain - for allegedly violating embargoes imposed on countries engaged in bloody conflicts and repression, the system for bringing them to book has abjectly failed.
The report, by leading human rights groups, presented to the UN Security Council today, asks for urgent measures to control the proliferation, including agreement on an international arms trade treaty.
The call for reform is backed in a letter by, among others, the Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams and Oscar Arias; the former UN high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson; the actors Helen Mirren, Christopher Ecclestone and Tony Robinson; the author and activist Arundhati Roy; Lt-Gen Romeo Dellaire, who led UN forces during the Rwanda genocide, and the Albert Schweitzer Institute.
"Today, millions of people around the world are living in fear of armed violence," the letter says. "They have good reason to be afraid. Most victims of armed violence are not uniformed soldiers, nor even fighters, but ordinary men, women and children.
"In 2006, the world can make the first step towards bringing the arms trade under control, by starting negotiations on an international arms trade treaty.
"What we are calling for is not revolutionary. It simply consolidates countries' existing and emerging obligations under international law into a universal standard for arms sales. But it has the power to save hundreds of thousands of lives."
The dossier, by Oxfam International, Amnesty International and International Action Network on Small Arms describes how companies and individuals have been involved in illicit transactions in weapons.
Four UK companies were named in UN embargo reports in the past 10 years. None are known to have faced prosecution by the British government.
The proposed treaty has the backing of 45 countries, including the UK and other members of the EU as well as Britain's Defence Manufacturers Association. However, the US, Russia and China, responsible for a large percentage of world arms exports, are yet to give support.
The report, UN Arms Embargo: An overview of the last 10 years, points out that, despite UN mandatory arms embargoes being legally binding, many member states have not made their violation a criminal offence.
UN teams policing the embargoes are given "woefully inadequate resources and time" to pursue wealthy companies with influential vested interests. There are also numerous examples of corrupt officials covering up arms transfers with the use of faked documentation.
Campaigners say the structure of embargoes and sanctions needs to be overhauled. Between 1990 and 2001, only eight of 57 conflicts, in some of the poorest countries on Earth, led to UN action and then only after widespread human rights abuse and bloodshed.
The dossier uses the example of a Serbian company, Temex, which, according to the UN, delivered nearly 210 tons of arms and ammunition to Liberia in 2002. It included "five million rounds of ammunition; 5,160 guns, 2,500 hand grenades, 6,500 mines and 350 missile launchers.
"These shipments include enough bullets to kill the entire population of Liberia ... and enough to keep an armed group of 10,000 fighters supplied for a whole year," it says.Reuse content