A Tool to Fight Armed Violence: Caribbean states, hard hit by homicides and aggravated assaults, look to the ATT for solutions

Ploughshares Americas, Conventional Weapons

Author Shorna-Kay Richards

We Made History was the slogan adopted by the Control Arms coalition to mark the opening for signatures of the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on June 3. Making history was no small feat, but a formidable coalition of states across regions, allied with intergovernmental organizations and civil society, succeeded in delivering the ATT.

Countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) not only joined this history-making initiative, but actively participated throughout the negotiating process. Thirteen of the 14 Member States of the Community have signed the treaty and four are among the eight countries to have ratified to date. What accounts for this high level of participation? It is the political will to rid the region of the scourge of armed violence, thereby creating safe and secure societies and stable economic environments.

CARICOM states are convinced that a legally binding instrument, which establishes the highest possible common international standards for regulating the international trade in conventional weapons, will contribute significantly to reducing the high incidence of armed violence in our region. This, in turn, will reduce the suffering of many of our citizens, who live under the devastating impact of the illicit trade in small arms and ammunition, and stem the decline in our socioeconomic development. We now have a Treaty that acknowledges in its preamble that “civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed violence.”

Armed violence in the Caribbean

During the ATT negotiations, the inclusion of a reference to armed violence was questioned by some United Nations Member States, who argued that there was no common understanding of the term and that the treaty should therefore only deal with the well-established phenomenon of armed conflict. Indeed, armed violence is a complex issue. While there have been numerous initiatives in recent years to define or address it, including the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence to which Jamaica is a signatory, there are still questions about its legitimacy as an issue and suitability to be addressed at the global level.

It is noteworthy that the just released 2013 edition of the Small Arms Survey focuses on armed violence. In its introduction, the Survey notes that many states are beset by forms of armed violence that do not rise to the level of armed conflict (war), but nevertheless generate serious health, social, and economic consequences. In fact, non-conflict armed violence claims far more lives worldwide than do ongoing wars.

In the CARICOM region there are several, and at times overlapping, manifestations of armed violence, but the phenomenon is primarily manifested in the form of homicides and aggravated assaults. Homicides in non-conflict settings constitute the most commonplace form of armed violence. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) First Caribbean Human Development Report, homicide rates, including gang-related killings, have increased substantially in the last 12 years across the Caribbean, except in Barbados and Suriname. Yet rates have fallen or stabilized in other parts of the world. The Caribbean and Latin America are home to 8.5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 27 per cent of the world’s homicides; Honduras has a rate of 87 per 100,000 inhabitants. All CARICOM Member States have murder rates than are significantly higher than the rate of the United States at 4.6 per 100,000.

In recent years Jamaica has had the highest homicide rate in the Caribbean and the third-highest in the world, with approximately 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Although the homicide rate in Jamaica has declined in the past two years, it is still 40 per 100,000 (Mexico’s is 22 per 100,000).

Approximately 70 per cent of these homicides are committed with firearms. The statistics throughout the CARICOM region reveal escalating gun-related violence. Law enforcement authorities are concerned about the overall increase in criminal activity, which they attribute to the importation of illegal guns and ammunition. In Jamaica, the police recover more than 600 illegal firearms annually. The widespread availability of firearms is clearly a risk factor for violence.

Moreover, the irresponsible trade in small arms contributes to the continued proliferation of criminality and trans-national organized crime by enabling violence and threatening behaviour. Gun violence diverts scarce resources away from development priorities by causing higher health care demands, reduced productivity, and lower levels of investment.

As the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) notes, the threat of the irresponsible and illicit transfer of small arms and associated ammunition to regional security has an important external dimension: cross-border trafficking. Illegal guns play a key role in all aspects of trafficking, not just as a trafficked commodity, but as a means of facilitating the trafficking of other illicit commodities. They also support criminal and deviant behaviour such as robberies, rape, and other forms of violence. Illegal guns are increasingly both the currency and commodity of the drug trade.

CARICOM Member States do not manufacture guns and ammunition and they do not import significant quantities. However, the region has been severely affected by the influx of small arms and ammunition. The geographical features of the region, characterized by an island chain of countries with porous borders, linked by a common market, have been exploited by both state and non-state actors in the arms trade. This situation is compounded by the region’s location between supply centres to its south and the demand poles to its north. The region is also an ideal transshipment point for the international narcotics trade.

A welcome tool in the fight

How can the ATT help to reduce and prevent armed violence? It will provide the mechanism to strengthen the detection and interception of illegal shipments of firearms, ammunition, and parts and components, either assembled or disassembled. It will also lead to a standardization of practices across the region and the hemisphere. The following five key provisions of the Treaty, if effectively implemented, will help to reduce armed violence in the CARICOM region.

Small arms are the weapon of choice in cases of armed violence. These arms and their associated ammunition and parts and components have been included in the Treaty and will now be subject to regulation and control.

Article 11 requires states parties to take measures to prevent diversion of conventional arms. The requirement for states to cooperate and share information to mitigate the risk of diversion is important for CARICOM states, as arms control mechanisms are weakest at the juncture between the jurisdictions of exporting and importing states.

Arms brokers serve as the linchpin of the illicit trafficking of conventional arms—notably small arm and light weapons. Illegal activity is facilitated by the inadequacy or, in many cases, absence of national regulations on arms brokering. No CARICOM member state has regulations on arms brokering. Admittedly, the Treaty provision on brokering in Article 10 is not as robust as we would wish; however, it does codify brokering control. The Jamaican authorities have particularly welcomed the inclusion of brokering as an opportunity to put such regulations in place.

The provision in Article 9 on transit and transshipment is another key to helping to reduce armed violence in the region. As in the case of brokering, the provision is not as robust as we would wish, but it does codify transit and transshipment control. The CARICOM region’s maritime space is increasingly exploited by transnational organized crime syndicates. The global shipping network is the dominant method for transporting illicit goods, in particular illegal narcotics and weapons. The authorities in Jamaica view the adoption of the ATT as particularly significant in view of the expansion of the Panama canal, which, while presenting economic opportunities, will increase the risk of illicit trafficking in small arms.

CARICOM states see international cooperation as key to achieving significant reductions in illegal guns and ammunition. We must work with key strategic partners, particularly the states that are the source of these weapons. As CARICOM states pointed out during negotiations, the responsibility of controlling and regulating the irresponsible and illicit transfer of small arms and ammunition must be shared among producing, selling, and destination states with open and transparent communication among all. Article 15 requires states parties to cooperate to effectively implement the Treaty, including the exchange of information and the provision of mutual legal assistance.

A call to action

The UNDP’s 2012 Caribbean Human Development Report determined that violence and crime are perceived by a majority of Latin American and Caribbean citizens as a top challenge. With the ATT we have an instrument to address the humanitarian imperative of regulating the irresponsible trade in arms.

Jamaica and its CARICOM partners are keen to continue working with the “winning coalition,” including CARICOM nongovernmental organizations, to support the early entry into force and effective implementation of the Treaty.

The international community is finally onboard. Let’s continue to make history!

Shorna-Kay Richards is the Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica at the United Nations. This article is adapted from the original presentation she gave in New York on October 22 at a side  event that ran parallel to the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

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