Small Arms Demand Reduction and Human Security: Towards a people-centred approach to small arms

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 01-5

Don Hubert

Don Hubert is a Human Security Consultant on leave from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DFAIT.

This briefing is based on a paper presented by the author to the International Workshop on Small Arms Demand Reduction, Toronto, March 14-17, 2001.

The purpose of this paper is to examine small arms demand reduction from the perspective of human security and peacebuilding. The paper will begin with a brief discussion of what it means to adopt a human security approach. It will then draw out the implications of such an approach, first for small arms generally, and then for small arms demand reduction specifically.

A human security approach differs from more traditional approaches to security in two main respects: it focuses in the first instance on the security of people and their communities (national security and international peace and security remain important, but they are means to an end rather than an end in themselves); and it broadens the scope of the concept from a narrow range of military threats (to deter military attack if possible and to defend against military attack if necessary) to a broader range of threats that impact on the safety of individuals.

While expanding the range of threats (health, environment, poverty, etc.) has received much of the attention, shifting the focus to “people-centred” security is ultimately more significant. And in the context of small arms, ensuring people’s safety from physical violence due to armed conflict, repressive governments, or crime is at the core of the human security agenda.

Perspective         Rationale
State Security/International Peace and Security         Transnational organized crime
          “Excessive and destabilizing accumulations”
Human Security         Respect for human rights and international humanitarian law
          Impact on public health
          Impact on public safety (domestic crime)
          Impact on human development


A human security perspective suggests a shift in focus of the small arms discourse from weapons to people, a shift that has a number of implications. While a general concern for the widespread availability of weapons is justifiable, overall numbers of weapons are far less important than their impact. In fact, focusing on disarmament and deweaponization without taking into account the broader social context can have perverse effects – as was the case in Somalia where a weapons collection program created an imbalance of power with guns in the hands of only criminals and warlords. Reducing the number of arms is a means to an end rather than an end in itself – the real objective is not just fewer guns but safer people.

Adopting a human security perspective focuses attention on the human costs of the widespread availability of small arms. In practice this means greater attention to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and to the impact that small arms have on public health, public safety, and the prospects for human development.

A human security approach therefore privileges the security that individuals actually experience, yet the small arms issues is currently framed to respond principally to the interests of state security or international peace and security. And as mentioned above, state security is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for human security.

Transnational organized crime and “excessive and destabilizing accumulations,” both state security concerns, have been the dominant rationale for government engagement on small arms. While drawing additional attention to the demand dynamics begins to redress existing imbalances in the small arms debate, the first priority should be to reframe the entire debate in terms of people’s security.

The 2×2 matrix below, with human security and state security on one axis and small arms supply and demand on the other, illustrates that the small arms issue is currently dominated by one of the four boxes – state security / supply. It is the dominance of a state security logic that has privileged and will continue to privilege the supply side of the equation. When examining the demand side of the small arms equation, the limited attention that exists again favours the state security / international peace and security logic, while the more explicitly people-centred dimensions are underdeveloped (e.g., grassroots peacebuilding and conflict resolution, security sector reform, community-based policing and socio-economic development).


    Supply    Demand
State Security/ International Peace and Security Perspective   Marking and transparency   National peace agreements
    Brokers and dealers   Regional moratorium and confidence building measures
    UN embargoes   Post-conflict disarmament, demobilization and reintegration
    Law enforcement coop    
Human Security Perspective   Codes of conduct   Grassroots peacebuilding and conflict resolution
    Private weapons sales   Security sector reform
    Early warning systems   Community-based policing
    Monitoring violations of human rights and international humanitarian law   Socio-economic development
    Restrictions on paramilitaries and private security    

While focusing on the supply dimensions of the small arms equation provides a reasonably cohesive policy agenda (based on a large but nevertheless limited number of producers), the demand dimensions do not (due to the almost infinite range of consumers). One way around this problem is to break down both the range of relevant actors (militaries, paramilitaries, police, insurgent groups, sectarian groups, criminal groups, law-abiding citizens, etc), and the three separate elements of the cycle of the weapons consumer (acquisition, possession, and surrender). Attention to the cycle of consumption is particularly important as demand affects both the proliferation of new weapons and the redistribution of existing weapons, dimensions that may require different policy responses.

In each case it is important to analyze, and then attempt to restructure, the prevailing incentives and disincentives that encourage acquisition of, and reinforce the inclination to retain, weapons. While awareness campaigns have an important role in raising the profile of the issue, and in challenging popular myths (e.g., owning a gun increases one’s safety and security), priority should be given to analyzing the reason why specific individuals and groups acquire and continue to hold weapons, as an integral part of weapons collection programs.

A particularly important dimension of the human security side of the demand for small arms is the potential for a deteriorating spiral of weaponization, particularly in the civilian sector. An insecurity trap can exist where the acquisition of arms for defensive purposes (e.g., civilian purchasing guns, the resort to armed security) creates a cycle of arming and rearming, resulting in proliferation in terms of both numbers and weapons sophistication. The principal response here must be security sector reform / transformation (with particular emphasis on the three dimensions of the criminal justice system – police, courts, and the penal system), and with particular emphasis given to community-based policing.

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