Addressing the Demand Dimensions of Small Arms Abuse: Problems and opportunities

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 01-6

Alejandro Bendaña

Alejandro Bendaña is the Director, Centro de Estudios Internacionales (CEI), Managua, Nicaragua.

International humanitarian attention has underscored the importance of confronting the proliferation, accumulation, and misuse of small arms. The humanitarian imperative, however, often tends to sideline, purposefully or not, the more contentious political issues. Three questions have to be placed squarely on the table in our discussion. First, are we diverting much needed deeper consideration of the supply and production dimension? Second, have we decided not to address the underlying and systemic causes of violence?1 Third, do we address the demand side from a security or a development/peacebuilding perspective?

Which discussion framework?

Before addressing these questions there is a more general concern that requires acknowledgement. It is not only the content of the discussion, but the very framework that can be problematic or partial. Here we refer to the very decision to organize single-issue initiatives that, in and of themselves, may deflect political attention and organizational resources away from the broader understanding of (and action upon) direct and economic violence.

Civil Society initiatives will argue that a well-defined focus and specialization are critical to effective advocacy and policy reform. But is this policy at the expense of politics (let alone power and paradigms)? Governments have their own reasons for compartmentalizing the issue – the more “independent” the demand problem, the smaller the embarrassment over the lack of political will to address the production dimension and the causal factors. As well they can convey a “sexier” image to the public. So, one day we witness a Permanent Member of the Security Council shedding crocodile tears over small arms abuse. And the next day, that same government bombs Baghdad.

Of course the silence of arms producers is explainable. However, by extension, corporate investors in certain industries may not wish to be reminded of how their decisions exacerbate the social problems that create crime – for example, poverty and joblessness – and transform the workings of the global economy to make it easier for arms pushers to move their money. Expanding the parameters of our analysis (and action) may well reveal that many of the rich countries do not stand above the problem but indeed are a part of it. The point, therefore, is not to expand, but to contract those parameters.

Campaigns and concerned citizens must ask themselves whether they choose to operate within such “political constraints,” so clearly expressed in the agenda and workings of the UN preparatory committee process. So we concentrate on the tools of violence, not on the tool makers or on the causes of violence. Political realism? Analytic dishonesty? Ethical incoherence? Donor dependence? Most of us would agree: better the existence of an issue, however compartmentalized and partial, than the absence of the issue altogether. But it is problematic, or at least it should be, to extend the argument further that we must work within the prevailing power relationships – sometimes termed “political viability” – to contain at least some of the negative effects caused by small arms abuse. Problematic because while we continue to deal with problems at the level of symptoms and not their essence, we may be simply legitimizing, and thereby reinforcing, the macro power structures and thinking that produce violence.

“Blame the victim”

Does weapons availability help trigger violent behaviour? The question is academic in regions such as Central America or Central Asia where it seems many weapons, like the poor, shall always be with us. Thanks to the Cold War – and thanks to the technology that makes them cheap, maintainable, and easy to transport – small arms and light weapons will remain instruments not simply of the military, but of militarized crime and economic survival or rebellion. “Culture” has little to do with this and arguments about “permissiveness” verge on the patronizing.

Governments and the “right” will never tire of exonerating the economy and blaming crime on the criminals. This is nonsense because small arms are not merely symptoms of the loss of “values.” Demand factors such as crime, corruption, and violence are not denied. However, the law-and-order and security approach to the problem has its limits and own pitfalls, as it tends to reduce approaches to police actions pitting “good guys” against “bad guys.” Experience shows that law-and-order crusades usually do not win the “war on crime.”

On both the national and international levels, the security-first approach lends itself to abuse. In the face of history, one is naturally suspicious of the militarized prescriptions of how to deal with arms flows in an “internal” conflict: tougher laws, more police, bigger prisons, fewer civil liberties, and tougher punishment. How convenient to criminalize the protesters, and, for some repressive governments, to count on yet another tool in their counterinsurgency arsenal. The “narco-guerilla” epithet employed by the US and the Colombian military comes to mind, as civilian populations suffer more from the medicine than from the illness.

The national security “guns and thugs” approach can be as narrow as it is opportunistic. Proliferation and abuse are linked, of course, but, as the examples of Switzerland and Texas show, the first does not necessarily lead to the second. Governments in this context often prefer not to address another discernible component of the small arms problem: namely, the relationship between small arms proliferation and the character of economic, social, and political development.

Widespread gun ownership and use raise important questions about fundamental relationships between state and society. It is more than a question of “governance” – a blanket term often used to blame national governments for conflict. But the character of the State helps shape social behaviours. Where repression is the official norm, and where people are seeking to build more democratic societies and movements, and wish to gain access to power, the implications regarding gun supply and demand are obvious: people’s guns against government thugs. Small arms proliferation does not explain why these are in the hands of so many Palestinians, including children. It may just have something to do with foreign occupation, widespread Israeli military presence and repression, or the fact that about 90 percent of Palestinian families have some type of experience of relatives being detained, tortured, wounded, killed, or otherwise abused by Israeli authorities. While oppression cannot constitute a basis for resorting to the same politics of terror and vengeance, it does factor in heavily on the “demand” side. In the same way, massive amounts of weapons supplied to the governments of Israel, Sri Lanka, or Colombia constitute a “supply” consideration that, while legal, is immoral and sparks an “illegal” counterflow of armaments, particularly light ones, as well as the arming of civilians.

Drugs, thugs, greed, and grievance

One must also be wary of the recent trend to analyze the economic agendas of competing factions in violent conflicts. Once again, the policy prescription would focus on affecting the behaviour of national elites and their regional networks.2 However, the analysis and responses should also examine how globalized privatization creates new opportunities for particular groups to multiply their capital, by engaging in multifaceted national and international trade that includes weapons. In certain countries, these are private sector firms that under the rules of liberalized banking and diminished capital controls can freely move the money that moves the weapons (or drugs, diamonds, etc.).

Conflict entrepreneurs are more a byproduct of wars, although they may feature prominently in their perpetuation. People also do learn to survive in militarized economies and sometimes it is difficult to learn to live without weapons as instruments of economic subsistence, or protection. In any case, one must warn against new versions of “blaming the victim” – such as the faddish portrayal of local corruption as the explanation for economic stagnation – in which outsiders, including former colonial patrons and neocolonial international bureaucracies, comfortably pretend they have nothing to do with the problem. Development aid conditionality or international police repression are not the answers. And there are no quick fixes. Effectively contesting the pain produced by war and weapons will be the product of a long-term and incremental process of organizing social energy or what some misleadingly term “social capital” or “civil society.” The fact is that segments of civil society do benefit from the militarization and privatization of economies, from weakening the state, and that an “anti-social capital” can also develop.

“Blame the local and the national, forget the international”

Citizen insecurity (and with it gun proliferation) may be as much the product of a repressive and corrupt authority as of a nonexistent or ineffective one. The problem here may be less one of will than of capacity. Here we must examine the contentious connection between a so-called failing or failed state and the need of a community to assume its own security. Failure here may not be as much the product of internally sparked war and destruction, as of globalization economics and impoverishment. The steady contraction of State capacity, however, also calls forth the examination of the relationship between the international economic setting and governments in developing countries.

Where police and courts are ineffectual and impunity is the norm, citizens will assume their own security. Security is privatized and security agencies proliferate, along with the demand and supply of weaponry. There are now abundant reports of criminal elements being better armed in quality and quantity than the legitimate forces of the State. While such a situation is, in part, the result of excessive availability, it is also the result of diminished capacity on the part of local security authorities.

Capacity in turn cannot be divorced from neoliberal privatization, budget-constricting frameworks, and state-debilitating consequences of global rules set down by the rich countries and enforced by the Bretton Woods twins. In other words the failing of the State in its elemental duties to provide security – let alone other human rights and equity – is also the failure and responsibility of the global-rule makers. Donors call for demand-side action with one voice, yet with another, demand structural adjustment programs and external debt repayment, suspiciously oblivious to the connection between the two. And they would ask the small arms initiatives to focus their attention on analyzing the pieces of the problem to death, and thereby divert attention from the larger global picture.

“Introduce new conditionalities and interventions”

The South does not need new conditionalities on rapidly diminishing aid flows. Whatever the pretext, conditionalities exist because a few governments brand others as “rogue” states (a term returned to favour under the Bush II Administration). Many in the South, and not only governments, feel that linking development assistance or debt relief to political behaviour is in general a bad idea. Over and above the implications for domestic democratic processes, and whether “aid” is a matter of charity, self interest, or justice, there is the question of whether the donors or international financial institutions have the competency to impose or justify imposing governance or security-related conditionalities.


Assuming a development and justice perspective

Conceptual and policy horizons regarding gun abuse can and must be expanded to positively engage the external factors that might impact on demand. Examples and research now abound showing how humanitarian assistance may have profoundly negative impacts on the dynamics of conflict and small arms demand. But the refrain “do no harm” is not enough. The question is how to do some good from the outside. Campaigns, particularly in the North, working from a development and justice perspective, can and should raise fundamental questions about development assistance and humanitarian aid, as an often indispensable complement for efforts in the legal and normative realms.

On research and practical levels we need to understand and tap indigenous bottom-up sources of arms abuse and violence prevention. This means enhancement of local capacities for community-building, for the tapping of social energies, communication and coalition networking, and peacebuilding in general. It just may be that the most effective means of contributing to gun abuse control will take the form of strengthened norms and networks of national civic engagement, on the one hand, and the democratic expansion of national spaces in the place of international powers, on the other.

Review aid policies instead of security policies

We need to respond to small arms abuse in a more coherent and co-ordinated manner with a view to long-term sustainability and capacity building. Demand-side discussions and recommendations could benefit from ongoing reviews of the application of development assistance to violence prevention.3 For example, can ODA support aid activities which prepare for, prevent, and mitigate the effects of violent conflict and small arms abuse? It has been argued that, in certain national and regional contexts, aid projects could be designed to contribute to conflict prevention, resolution, or reduction by building either the will or the capacity of the state and civil society to create an environment in which differences could be resolved without recourse to violence. Diminishing available stockpiles and restricting supply avenues are insufficient, at least from a humanitarian perspective.

Peace and weapons abuse control – the indispensable linkage

In countries like Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Sierra Leone, the problem of small arms cannot be addressed without an understanding of the phenomenon of “militarized violence.” Past or ongoing conventional military engagements between organized forces spill over, in time or geography, into abuses and paramilitarism. Perpetrators, not always men in uniform, or potential victims are both sources of “demand,” as institutions and society itself make all social, political, and economic problems security problems at the same time.

There is no magic bullet

Still, the temptation should be resisted to make categorical statements or, worse yet, to devise programs drawing on “expertise” or experience from another conflict zone in another part of the world. Approaches should be situation-specific, as weapons proliferations affect different sectors in different ways in different regions, within and among countries.

Which way forward?

Donors must come to grips with the gap – or indeed perhaps incompatibility – between addressing the small arms problem (or peacebuilding in general) in a comprehensive fashion and, on the other hand, the workings of current structures, processes, and operating procedures regarding development and security policy. It might be that many of the “givens” of market-driven corporate globalization are part of the problem. Gun abuse or violence prevention may therefore be less a question of methodologies or “tools” than a matter of approaches and genuine commitment to empowerment. We perhaps would do well to lend as much support to building local and national containment and prevention capacities as we do to international conferences and international conventions.

1. “[I]t could also be argued that the growing international interest in small arms is due, to a large extent, to the lack of political will on the part of the international community to address the underlying causes of internal conflicts” (Perseyedi, Bobi 2000, The Small Arms Problem in Central Asia: Features and Implications, UNDIR, p. 5).

2. See, for example, Berdal, Mats and Potter, David M. 2000, Greed and Grievance, Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, Reinner/IDRC.

3. See, for example, the UK Overseas Development Administration (ODA) 1996 briefing paper Conflict Reduction Through The Aid Programme: A Briefing For Agencies Seeking Support For Conflict Reduction Activities.

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