Churches Prepare for UN Conference on Illicit Trade in Small Arms

Tasneem Jamal

News release from World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches (WCC) wants delegates to a forthcoming United Nations (UN) conference to recognize the human significance of damage done by uncontrolled small arms and light weapons, says Dinis Salamao Sengulane.

An Anglican bishop from Mozambique, Sengulane was in New York to observe the work of a committee preparing for a UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.

The UN conference will take place this summer in New York, and Sengulane and Ernie Regehr of Canada were representing the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) at the “prepcom”, held 8-19 January at UN headquarters.

Although they kill only one person at a time, Mozambique has found “small arms doing big harm,” Sengulane explains. He points out that people in his country have not only read news reports or pondered statistics, but have suffered the deaths of their parents and their sons and daughters because of the uncontrolled presence of small arms.

In talking with government officials, UN staff and representatives of other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the bishop also reported on a Mozambican churches’ project called “swords into ploughshares”. After his country’s long armed struggle to win independence came years of internal conflict between government forces and Renamo rebels. And when the large-scale fighting finally ended, huge numbers of guns remained.

With financing from Canada, Germany, Japan and other countries, Mozambique’s churches gave farm tools or sewing machines to people who turned in guns, thus going beyond simply talking to actually doing disarmament. “We collected over 100,000 weapons,” Sengulane reports. Police and military officials made the guns unusable, and in some cases the guns themselves were turned into artistic works. “Why can’t this be done globally?” he asks.

Sengulane has also been responsible for the Anglican church in Angola since 1990. He hopes that when a settlement is reached between the contending forces there, a “swords into ploughshares” programme could be undertaken similar to the one in Mozambique.

Small arms: a national, regional and global problem
While disarmament advocates continue to seek reductions in major weaponry such as nuclear bombs, missiles and military ships and planes, world attention since the end of the cold war has increasingly focused on the deaths caused by extensive use of small arms.

A draft version of the document proposed for adoption at the UN conference declared that “regional efforts, by their very nature, do not address the global nature of the sources of small arms and light weapons, and the increasingly transnational networks of brokers, dealers, financiers and transporters”. The document called for action “at the national, regional and global levels” to deal with the problem.

Though the problem is global, Africa is of special concern. In Africa many internal conflicts are fought with revolvers, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons that are easily carried and concealed, even by children. When civil wars end, large numbers of guns remain for people with grievances to use against each other.

Ernie Regehr, a Mennonite who directs Project Ploughshares at Canada’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, says the governments of sub-Saharan Africa are “strongly on board” the move to get international action on the issue, while the European Union is “generally supportive”.

The January prepcom, along with one held earlier and a third scheduled for 19-30 March, had the task of preparing a document for action when the actual conference is held in New York 9-20 July.

The WCC and the NGOs it works with hope the UN conference will issue a declaration acknowledging the urgency of the problem, adopt a plan of action “that gives credence to that declaratory statement” and then provide for a review process. The level of resources devoted to implementing the programme of action will be critical, Regehr says.

NGO cooperation on small arms
The WCC is a founding member of an International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) formed at a 1998 meeting in Canada and formally launched 11 May 1999 at the Hague Appeal for Peace.

IANSA members published a joint statement before the second prepcom and a response to the draft Programme of Action. Pointing out that “Small arms are now the principal weapons in most conflicts worldwide” and that the most vulnerable members of society are often victims, the statement claimed that women constitute only a small percentage of the users but are a “substantial proportion of the victims” of small arms.

Supplementing WCC work with IANSA, Salpy Eskidjian, a member of the WCC International Relations Team responsible for peacebuilding and disarmament, coordinates an Ecumenical Network against Small Arms. The WCC sponsored two regional consultations – in Brazil and Kenya – on the issue last year. Regehr attended the Brazil consultation and will attend another WCC consultation in Western and Southern Africa in April. He will also join the WCC delegation at the third prepcom in March and at the UN conference itself.

All this is part of a larger programme expressing WCC concern. At its 1998 assembly in Harare, the WCC voted to make 2001-2010 a Decade to Overcome Violence. The decade was formally launched 4 February in Berlin.

Barriers to progress
Although a large number of NGOs are working for the success of the UN conference in July, some are opposed to weapons control. As an example, Regehr cites the US National Rifle Association. Because of such influences “the Americans are dragging their feet,” he says. The US has also refused to accept a prohibition on selling arms to “non-state actors” such as the anti-government UNITA forces in Angola.

Other countries also want to limit proposals for controlling weapons sales. According to Regehr, China is “very resistant” and insists that the UN conference deal only with “illicit” weapons, i.e., those sold in violation of law. But other countries managed to get “in all its aspects” added to the conference title as a way to open up discussion on which practices are licit and which illicit, Regehr said.

Meanwhile, negotiations are underway in Vienna to deal with the problem of weapons used in crime, through a Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition; the protocol is to supplement the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Regehr says some countries are warning against interfering with the “Vienna process”. He sees this as an excuse for blocking significant action at the July conference in New York.

The draft document under consideration for the conference would commit governments to “establish appropriate national legislation, administrative regulations and licensing requirements that define conditions under which small arms and light weapons can be acquired, used and traded by private persons”. And under the proposed plan, governments would “submit annual reports on their progress” in carrying out the commitments they make.

Regehr predicts that the document will be “watered down” before July, but thinks the conference can be expected to call for governments to accept some obligation to control the current proliferation of small arms, and to provide for a review process.

While emphasizing the importance of government action, Regehr says that because of how small arms are distributed at the local level, dealing with them will require more civil society involvement than negotiations on major weapon systems. So churches must become actively involved and work more energetically to enlist their constituencies, he concludes.

Spread the Word