Devastating Human Costs of Small Arms and Light Weapons

Tasneem Jamal

World Council of Churches team at UN small arms prepcom

Representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at a United Nations (UN) meeting in New York this week have reported that a consensus is developing for a wide-ranging but weakened UN document on control of small arms.

The document will be acted on at the Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, to be held at UN headquarters in New York 9-20 July.

Delegates to the third and final preparatory committee (prepcom) meeting at the UN 19-30 March were seeking to develop a text that is less ambitious than the draft report tabled at the second prepcom in January but that has a better chance of gaining the approval of all governments, though delegates to the July conference will likely engage in further negotiations before voting their approval.

The WCC sent representatives to the second prepcom and sponsored another delegation – composed of members of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) – to the March session. Salpy Eskidjian, responsible for peace-building and disarmament in the WCC International Relations team, also joined the delegation.

Heading the WCC delegation, Ernie Regehr said the draft Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects had been “extensively revised” in the light of debate at the previous prepcom. It is now briefer and, because of the need to act by consensus, weaker in some important respects such as in addressing the humanitarian impact of small arms and applying international controls on trade.

The churches have “less enthusiasm” for the document in its revised form, but hope it may still be strengthened, and will nevertheless welcome its adoption in July. The key requirement is that the final version not close off possibilities for additional steps in the future, he said.

Follow-up meetings for review on a regular basis – one provision favoured by the churches – remains in the revised document. And it still refers to spending money for implementation, though without firm commitments. The WCC delegation emphasised the responsibility of states to publicly and concretely commit to the provision of the resources needed to actually implement the agreed programme of action.

Humanitarian impact
Through wars, crime, domestic violence and suicides, small arms claim an estimated 500,000 lives annually, cause many more injuries, hinder relief efforts, and violate the rights of people in other ways. “Churches rooted in local communities around the world have first-hand experience of the devastating human costs of small arms and light weapons. But as communities of faith and commitment to justice, we also believe that we are not helpless in the face of this extraordinary challenge,” said Eskidjian. Because churches are working with the victims of small arms, they have the moral authority to come to the UN and tell governments that action is possible and imperative, she said.

The WCC considers the UN conference important but views it as the beginning rather than the conclusion of a process. The churches are saying they can support a document that contains less than they would like if it turns out to be something they can build on in the future.

Regehr, a Mennonite who directs Project Ploughshares, a Canadian ecumenical coalition sponsored by the Canadian Council of Churches, said the revised draft of the conference document has given less prominence to the humanitarian impact of small arms and is virtually silent on the human rights implications of small arms proliferation. He insists that recognition of both of these elements is essential to credible small arms action by the international community.

One primary concern of the churches is the vulnerability of children. Uncontrolled small arms destroy the families and communities that are central to the lives and futures of children. “One particularly pernicious feature of these weapons is their size and ease of use. These mean that children as young as 10 years are being forced to carry and fire them in conflicts the world over,” he said. “One is at a loss to find the language to adequately describe the failure and culpability of an adult world that tolerates this horrific abuse of the young.”

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 300,000 children are combatants – many of them in Africa’s civil wars. Eskidjian said reports are also coming in of children being drawn into drug gangs and urban violence. “One bottom-line test of the value of this UN conference,” she said, “will be the extent to which it truly and persuasively acknowledges the plight of children, and what the international community actually undertakes to do about it.”

The demand for – and control of – small arms
Regehr said revisions had weakened the draft programme of action on its “demand side”, i.e., consideration of the social, political and economic factors that lead individuals and communities to acquire small arms in the hopes of providing for their personal safety and livelihood, community survival and advancement, or pursuit of justice. An unregulated supply of small arms leads more and more groups to demand an equal supply to others, he said, leading in effect to debilitating local arms races and escalating destruction and violence.

Almost all illegal weapons start out as legally manufactured and sold commodities, and then get “siphoned off into illegal possession”, Regehr said. So any effort to control illicit trade in arms must include marking weapons so they can be traced, and keeping records – a degree of control some governments are reluctant to accept. “The first version of the document was more progressive on this issue, but the present more limited version still includes commitments to international standards for marking and tracing small arms and light weapons,” Regehr said.

However, the programme of action in its current form speaks only of national and regional criteria for regulating the international transfer of small arms. This specific exclusion of international standards and constraints on the legal trade in small arms is unacceptable, said the WCC delegation. Strict regulation, according to global standards against the supply of arms to regimes that violate the fundamental rights of, and are in armed conflict with, their own people, is essential in order to keep buyers from shopping around to find the country with the weakest regulations, the church representatives believe.

Regehr said the governments of sub-Saharan Africa were especially concerned about getting UN action on this issue, and “we hope they won’t tolerate further weakening of the document”. Many governments would like to see it strengthened, and some improvements may be possible despite the requirement of operating by consensus.

The WCC delegation also included Stein Villumstad, assistant general secretary of Norwegian Church Aid, and Marwan Bishara, a native of Nazareth, Israel, who now teaches and does research on strategic studies in Paris. Shirley DeWolf, a minister in the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, was to join the delegation in the second week of the prepcom.

Villumstad emphasised that the churches globally must be at the forefront of opposing small arms proliferation because “it kills thousands of people, causes serious health risks, hampers development and prevents economic growth”. Norwegian Church Aid illustrates an innovative church approach to the small arms problem through its collaboration with the Norwegian Red Cross, the Oslo Peace and Research Institute and the Norwegian Institute on International Affairs to form the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers.

Bishara, a Palestinian Christian, highlighted the use of small arms in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and their particular impact on youth. “A host of small arms and light weapons from rifles to grenade launchers and 120-millimeter tank shells have resulted in the deaths of over 350 Palestinians and injured over 11,000, the majority of them children and young adults” stated Bishara. “The same weapons that are used against these young people are also traded internationally, with the promoters proclaiming them to be effectively tested in real battle conditions.” He called on the international community, including the non-governmental organisations attending the prepcom, “not to allow weapons traffickers to act with impunity”.

The churches’ viewpoint
The WCC was a founding member of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and continues to take an active role in the network, reflecting the presence of WCC member churches in all parts of the world and their ministries on the frontlines where victims of uncontrolled small arms are found. The WCC also joined the network and the World Conference on Religion and Peace in sponsoring a service of Interfaith Prayer for Peace at the prepcom on Wednesday, 21 March.

When IANSA produced a response to the draft programme of action, it included a proposed addition expressing the churches’ viewpoint: dealing with the issue of small arms requires “respect for human rights, the rule of law and governance, as well as economic recovery, equitable growth and other measures such as reform of the security sector and programmes to reverse cultures of violence and create cultures of peace”.

Eskidjian said the WCC/CCIA will take up the small arms issue at a meeting in May, and seek to develop its policy position further. The WCC hopes to sponsor a large ecumenical delegation to the UN’s July conference, concentrating particularly on the inclusion of delegates from areas of the world most affected by small arms proliferation.

After that, the Council will continue to promote the development of “international norms, standards and laws to control the manufacture, sale, transfer, export/import, storage, possession, use, tracing, collection and destruction of small arms and light weapons”.

The churches also hope to see the development of covenants that will be binding in international law, Eskidjian said.

Growing public interest in the issue was indicated by the fact that twice as many church-related and other non-governmental organisations sent representatives to this prepcom as to the last one.

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