Addressing Small Arms Violence in the Caribbean

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2008 Volume 29 Issue 2

The complete workshop report, Small Arms Proliferation and Misuse: Towards a Caribbean Plan of Action, and the final declaration, Port of Spain Declaration, can be found here.

Crime and violence perpetrated with readily available firearms are taking a rising toll on the small states of the Caribbean. Project Ploughshares and its partner organization, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) based in Trinidad and Tobago, hosted a workshop in Port of Spain in March to explore regional approaches by Caribbean governments and civil society to small arms-related violence. Government officials, parliamentarians, academics, and representatives of civil society organizations from across the region participated. Ploughshares Executive Director John Siebert and Senior Program Associate Kenneth Epps were also among the participants.

The two-day workshop (“Small Arms Proliferation and Misuse: Towards a Caribbean Plan of Action”) heard from experts, officials, and activists in the Caribbean region and beyond. Several speakers established the context for the workshop by describing the impact of small arms diffusion and gun violence in the Caribbean states of Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The issues that emerged from these presentations and from discussions that followed served to underline the seriousness of gun violence throughout the region.

Small arms proliferation and misuse

In a 2007 report, the World Bank and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) note that murder rates in the Caribbean—at 30 per 100,000 population annually—are higher than for any other region of the world. Understandably, mounting fatalities from illegal weapons worry Caribbean policymakers and citizens alike. In the last two years, at least six Caribbean states have held general elections in which crime and security was a central issue.

The proliferation of illegal small arms threatens the ability of Caribbean states to meet their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As the World Bank (2007) notes, “high rates of crime and violence in the Caribbean are undermining growth, threatening human welfare, and impeding social development.” The deaths and injuries resulting from gun violence are having a profound impact on public health systems, as well as creating social and economic problems for many Caribbean states. Crime and violence have become development issues in the region.

A major factor in the surge of gun-related criminality is the trafficking of narcotics. Illicit drugs are transshipped through the region from South America to North America and Europe and there is a linked return movement of illegal weapons from North America to several destinations in the Caribbean. At the same time, the rise of crime has been characterized by the increased use of more powerful weapons, resulting in higher mortality levels. Caribbean countries exhibit crime patterns similar to those of other countries where low economic growth has coincided with large populations of young men.

Workshop speakers explored the gender dimensions of small arms violence, particularly the link with young men. Youth violence is a high-priority, high-visibility concern across the Caribbean. Young men are disproportionately represented in the incidence and severity of gun violence, both as victims and as perpetrators, and violent crimes are being committed at younger ages in many countries. A wide variety of risk factors contribute to the prevalence of youth violence, including poverty, youth unemployment, large-scale migration to urban areas, drug trafficking, a weak education system, ineffective policing, the widespread availability of weapons, drug and alcohol use, and the presence of organized gangs.

The lives of Caribbean men and women are influenced not just by gender disparities but also by ethnic divisions and especially by the structural inequalities that persist in many facets of Caribbean life. In a post-“structurally adjusted” Caribbean region, and as a result of shifting trading arrangements, the economies of the region face a persistent challenge in accommodating growing levels of poverty. Over the years, the larger economic shifts have set the stage for rising violence, as an increasing number of citizens have come to rely on criminal violence of various kinds as a means of livelihood.

Lessons learned from other subregions

In workshop presentations, experts from the subregion of MERCOSUR in Latin America and the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes subregion in Africa detailed subregional work on gun control and ground-breaking subregional instruments on small arms, respectively. In keeping with the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA), which identifies initiatives and activities required at the national, regional, and global levels, these and other subregions affected by small arms violence have taken steps to advance regional action on small arms. Caribbean states could benefit from the experience and lessons learned of these subregions.

Antonio Bandeira of Viva Rio, Project Ploughshares’ partner NGO in Brazil, is active in advancing disarmament initiatives in the MERCOSUR region, especially Brazil. He noted that MERCOSUR includes states with some of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. A recent report (Dreyfus et al 2003) has identified characteristics of the MERCOSUR region that are relevant to the issue of gun violence in the Caribbean: the region is characterized by porous borders and the presence of gangs, drug dealers, and other illicit actors with large financial resources creates a high demand for arms. The legal systems in many countries in the subregion are not adequately equipped to deal with these problems and, additionally, often lack enough judges, police officers, and professionals in the judicial and security sectors to enforce the laws that do exist.

MERCOSUR has produced its own instruments of small arms control. The MERCOSUR Joint Mechanism for Registering Buyers and Sellers of Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Related Materials was the first subregional agreement on firearms. Since 2000, the MERCOSUR Working Group on Firearms has met every few months to strengthen regional cooperation on firearms issues and to harmonize relevant legislation across the region.

Ambassador Ochieng΄ Adala, representing the Africa Peace Forum, a long-time Project Ploughshares partner in Kenya, is an expert on the Nairobi Declaration and Nairobi Protocol and subsequent developments. The 2000 Nairobi Declaration on illicit small arms calls for a “concrete and co-ordinated agenda for action” in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes subregion to promote human security. It is worth noting that the declaration gives particular attention to the civilian possession of small arms and light weapons, an important concern that was regrettably omitted from the UN PoA. The declaration also emphasizes the need for control of the transfer of small arms and light weapons. Given the history of the subregion, this largely means effective control of arms transfers by supplier states outside the region. The declaration notes that “source countries” should ensure that all manufacturers, traders, and brokers are subject to regulation through licensing.

The subsequent Nairobi Protocol is a stronger instrument than either the Nairobi Declaration or the PoA, not least because it is a legally binding commitment rather than a political agreement. Signed in 2004 by 11 states, it includes key provisions that are omitted from the PoA, such as important measures to control civilian possession of small arms and light weapons. The Best Practice Guidelines for implementation of the Nairobi Protocol cover five major areas of work related to the prevention and amelioration of armed violence: stockpile management and disposal, small arms transfer controls, tracing and brokering of weapons, public awareness and education, and legislative measures and assistance.

Toward a Caribbean plan of action

Member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) also have regional and multilateral small arms commitments. For example, CARICOM states are politically bound by the PoA.

However, since 2001, only a third of CARICOM members have provided a national report on implementation of the PoA to the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, and only Trinidad and Tobago has provided more than one report. The 2004 report by Trinidad and Tobago describes “regional efforts geared towards reducing crime” through two mechanisms: the CARICOM Taskforce and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The CARICOM Taskforce on Crime and Security report in 2002 contained 113 recommendations on research, collaboration between government and civil society, strategic interventions based on training and capacity-building, and a financing strategy for sustained funding. Many Taskforce recommendations coincide with commitments arising from the UN PoA. CARICOM member states are also members of the OAS. In 1997 the OAS adopted the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing Of and Trafficking In Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (CIFTA). With the exception of Montserrat, all CARICOM members have since signed CIFTA. All but Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname have ratified the treaty.

However, only three of the 10 CARICOM states parties have reported a “Point of Contact” for cooperation and information exchange.

Consequently, to begin to reverse the proliferation and misuse of small arms in the region, an important early step for CARICOM states is to effectively implement existing agreements. In the Caribbean, as in other regions, civil society organizations play an important role by pressing and assisting states to fulfill their obligations.

Recommendations from the workshop

The workshop plenary discussions following each session were rich and lively and raised several recurring themes. A final session of three working groups produced recommendations for future regional action, which included elements of a CARICOM instrument to support the PoA, priority areas for regional research on small arms and gun violence, and an agenda for a CARICOM Working Group on small arms. The working group reports also suggested the following elements for a Caribbean response to small arms proliferation and misuse:

  • Thorough and transparent data acquisition at all points along the small arms chain;
  • Policy-oriented research and analysis of causes and costs of gun violence;
  • Harmonized small arms control standards across the region;
  • Collaboration among states and sectors, and especially with civil society;
  • Attention to pertinent issues such as ammunition, gender, and ethnicity; and
  • Use of CARICOM structures and frameworks.

A declaration was adopted by consensus at the close of the workshop. Financial and logistical support for the workshop was provided by the governments of Canada and Trinidad and Tobago respectively.



Dreyfus, Pablo, Carolina Iootty de Paiva Dias, Benjamin Lessing & William Godnick. 2003. Small Arms Control in MERCOSUR. Latin America Series No. 3, International Alert & Viva Rio.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Latin America and the Caribbean Region of the World Bank. 2007. Crime, Violence, and Development: Trends, Costs, and Policy Options in the Caribbean. Report No. 37820.

World Bank. 2007. High levels of crime and violence threaten Caribbean growth and prosperity. News release, May 3.

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