Small Arms and Light Weapons — Raising Public Awareness

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2002 Volume 23 Issue 2

As we move towards the 2003 follow-up session to the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, Project Ploughshares continues to work on increasing public awareness about the issues related to small arms and light weapons (SALW). In March 2002 Project Ploughshares, in collaboration with South Asia Partnership Canada, held a public engagement roundtable in Ottawa that brought together over 60 participants including policymakers, academics, and members of the NGO and faith-based communities. This event built on work done in preparation for and arising from the UN conference.

The Ottawa event sought to promote greater public engagement in issues related to SALW, not only in Canada but also in countries where partner organizations are based and are confronted by the negative effects of SALW on a daily basis. It was also an opportunity for a wide range of civil society actors and government officials to dialogue about SALW.

The event had specific objectives:

• To communicate to the wider Canadian peacebuilding and development communities the process leading up to the UN Conference and a review of the outcomes;

• To advance the understanding of how arms control and peacebuilding frameworks can address the problem of SALW through regional case studies;

• To discuss how to expand and make more effective the engagement of the Canadian public;

• To explore ways to build support for NGOs working on SALW-related issues.

The roundtable opened with a discussion about the achievements and weaknesses of the UN Conference from both government and civil society perspectives. The background paper, The UN and a small arms program of action; measuring success,2 by Ernie Regehr formed the basis for this session. The majority of participants agreed with the paper’s overall conclusion that although many NGOs and some UN members had been disappointed with the Conference’s outcome, the resultant document, the Programme of Action (PoA), was at least a step in the right direction, particularly in terms of improving compliance on agreed measures of control at the national, regional, and global levels; and by raising the level of commitment of states to address the issue.

The PoA assigns primary responsibility for solving the problems of SALW to national governments, which have committed themselves to wide-ranging improvements in the way they manage the production, transfer, export, re-export, storage, marking, and collection and destruction of surplus SALW. It encourages states to co-operate more readily with relevant international and regional organizations, including NGOs, and provides the grounds for all these actors to monitor, report on, encourage, and if necessary apply political pressure to those states that do not implement those measures mandated by the PoA.

States have agreed to set up National Focal Points (NFP) offices to co-ordinate national SALW control measures and co-operate on other regional and global measures.3 In general, the NFPs would be “responsible for policy guidance, research and monitoring of efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in SALW in all its aspects,” including the manufacture, trafficking, and trade as well as the tracing, collecting, and destruction of illicit SALW. David Viveash, representing the government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, noted that Canada had designated its NFP and suggested that Canada might set up a ‘watch list’ to track the activities of other states’ movements in that direction.

The PoA spelled out the security, humanitarian, and socio-economic consequences associated with both the illicit trade in these weapons and their excessive and destabilizing accumulation. David Viveash was clear that one of the great successes of the conference was the recognition of the human dimension in the Preamble, which Canada had actively promoted. He hoped that by putting a human face on the “excessive and destabilizing accumulations” of SALW, impetus to move the PoA forward would continue to grow.

Another important result of the UN conference was NGO input and involvement, which served to strengthen their capacity to engage further in SALW activities at the international level. In total, 119 organizations registered and 380 delegates attended the Conference, representing a wide range of constituencies and interests. Ernie Regehr stressed that NGOs should look to the upcoming 2003 biennial UN meeting and the Review Conference in 2006 as key events when pressure can be exerted on member states to improve upon the PoA and its implementation.

The need to make an NGO presence felt and to engage NGOs in post-Conference work was reinforced by Wendy Cukier’s presentation on the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA has the capacity to link NGOs worldwide, enabling NGOs to share best practices and use each others’ expertise. IANSA also supports efforts to build up regional capabilities and sectoral initiatives that cut across regions. Above all, IANSA seeks to raise the awareness of the human cost of arms and their impact on communities through local data collection and analysis of what needs to be done to protect lives and ensure security.

The IANSA presentation made the important point that in 2001 more SALW-related meetings were held in the South than in the North. Citing examples from their homelands, the representatives of Southern NGOs impressed upon roundtable participants the seemingly overwhelming instability caused by the proliferation of SALW. As one of the presenters acknowledged when speaking about the tragedy of gun-related violence in Central America, “…guns have always been an important part of the lives of the people; we need to develop a permanent campaign to tackle this veneration of arms and the resort to violence.” Any comprehensive plan needs to look not only at controlling the existing weapons in regions where SALW proliferate, but addressing the root causes of the increasing demand for these weapons and the burgeoning local industries that contribute both weapons and ammunition to an already swamped market.

A number of presenters of regional case studies cited the need for democratization and good governance to be part of any comprehensive and sustainable plan to control SALW. Bethuel Kiplagat, Director of the Africa Peace Forum (APFO), noted that weak political and security power bases in the Horn of Africa have been mainly ineffectual in controlling the clan, ethnic, and religious tensions that have fuelled conflicts in the region and that are further exacerbated by the widespread availability of SALW. Viviana Arroyo of The Arias Foundation claimed that most people in Central America thought their governments had abandoned their responsibility to guarantee citizens’ security, delegating it to private security enterprises and the citizens themselves. Unregistered weapons in the hands of civilians and unregulated private security companies proliferate in the region. The presentation by Ayesha Agha, an independent security analyst, highlighted the problems caused by a South Asia arms industry that has grown exponentially over the years, particularly following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent Western arms deals to neighbouring countries. Cheap and readily accessible weapons are being sought by people because the current political structure does not guarantee their security.

Despite some differences in the focus to control and combat the misuse of SALW, in all the case studies, and in many of the participants’ comments, civil society organizations were seen as actors that could and should play key roles. Participants felt that NGOs must include in their programs on SALW information gathering and exchange, advocacy, research, public engagement, and awareness raising. NGOs, particularly those in the South, need to cooperate with each other to increase sustainablility, and share resources, ideas, and experience.

Regional efforts between nations and through inter-governmental organizations should be, and are, in some cases, supported by civil society. For instance, civil society actors could do more to encourage their governments to establish NFPs and encourage those that have been established to implement their mandates.

Participants from the North stressed the need for civil society to work on applying pressure to donor countries to uphold their commitments to the PoA and other instruments of control and to increase ‘sustainable’ funding towards these ends. In this regard, it was felt that civil society in Canada could become more active, particularly in policy development, dialogue with relevant government bodies, and networking through existing bodies such as the Small Arms Working Group of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee (CPCC) and other international networks such as IANSA.

Overall, the roundtable underlined the ongoing need for a wide range of civil society actors to become engaged in the issue. They must use existing resources to the full to ensure that future global events such as the UN biennial meeting in 2003 will renew pressure on governments to respond to this urgent and global problem.



  1. This excerpt is taken from the full roundtable report, which can be found on the Ploughshares website.
  2. The full document can be found on the Ploughshares website.
  3. Further information on these and other regional and multilateral documents can be found here .
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