Tackling Trouble in Paradise: Regional Action on Small Arms in the Caribbean

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2010 Volume 31 Issue 1

With partners in Trinidad and Tobago, Project Ploughshares hosted a two-day workshop near Port of Spain in January that brought together state officials and civil society representatives to advance a regional response to the mounting threats and damage of illicit firearms in the Caribbean.

The problem of small arms in the Caribbean

Although the massive devastation in Haiti from the recent earthquake was in everyone’s thoughts, participants assembled to tackle a phenomenon that is also shattering lives in the region: the widespread misuse of small arms and light weapons. Officials from 14 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states and associates, many of them senior police officers, joined representatives of Caribbean civil society organizations to find common cause in the “Regional Workshop to Advance Caribbean Action on Small Arms,” held January 20-21 at the Institute of International Relations on the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Through joint sponsorship of the event, the workshop provided the first occasion for Project Ploughshares to collaborate with the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), the Caribbean regional point of contact on issues related to small arms and light weapons.

Early workshop presentations detailed the impact of illicit firearms on the region. In her statement during the opening session, the Executive Director of IMPACS, Lynne Anne Williams, noted:

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear, illegal weapons are contributing to a growing state of lawlessness and fear in our society, undermining our quality of life in these times of economic scarcity, and tarnishing the Region’s image in such a way that it may even affect our future prospects for development.… No country in the region has escaped the effects of this crippling reality in which youth are disproportionately represented both as victims and the perpetrators.

This message was reinforced by research presented by two speakers from the University of the West Indies. Drawing on situational analysis of gun-related crime in the Caribbean conducted on behalf of the Caribbean Coalition for Development & Reduction of Armed Violence, Annita Montoute spoke of the challenges of crime prevention and resolution. In St. Lucia, for example, low success rates in solving gun crimes pose an ongoing challenge. Deborah McFee emphasized the need for gender analysis to reveal the complexities of crime in the region. It is insufficient to construct an understanding of criminality around the young urban male, who is statistically the most active. A closer examination of the role of women in crime and violence is also necessary.

Developing regional solutions

New and innovative programs intended to address gun violence are emerging in the region. Montoute described St. Lucia’s Community Action Program for Safety, which seeks to integrate crime prevention with social programs. Following his presentation of data on the alarming rise in firearms violence in CARICOM countries (see Figure 1), Francis Forbes, Director of IMPACS Liaison Office, outlined programs that the Caribbean Community has established in response. In addition to encouraging the appointment of national points of contact on small arms issues across its membership, CARICOM has instituted political and institutional initiatives to counter small arms proliferation and criminal use. These include ballistic information and firearms tracing systems designed to assist regional police in the identification and tracking of weapons used for crime. The recently established Regional Integrated Ballistic Information Network, for example, is intended to target “crime guns” from ballistic data, to be shared not only among CARICOM law enforcement services but also with the states that are the sources of the guns.

Even so, the region faces major challenges to fully implementing a strategy to address the illicit use of guns. In his presentation, Bill Godnick of the UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UN-LiREC) outlined the UN small arms-related processes that are available to CARICOM states and noted the relatively low level of regional participation in each. Since low implementation of multilateral commitments by Caribbean states is due, at least in part, to limited resources, Godnick highlighted available UN-LiREC assistance, including legal assistance, training courses for security officials, and programs for the destruction of confiscated and surplus firearms stockpiles. Similarly, Alison August Treppel of the Department of Public Security at the Organization of American States (OAS) described OAS assistance programs to build law enforcement capacity by, inter alia, training judges and public prosecutors and strengthening border controls. The OAS can provide each member state with a laser marking machine to mark firearms, as required by the OAS firearms convention and other international agreements.

To facilitate OAS assistance, Treppel stressed the importance of the appointment by each CARICOM state of a National Point of Contact on small arms (NPC). Serena Joseph-Harris, Director of the Strategic Services Agency and National Contact Point for Trinidad and Tobago, provided a compelling elucidation of the role and significance of the NPC. In Trinidad and Tobago the NPC has linked the obligations that flow from international small arms instruments to requirements in national laws, regulations, and procedures in 11 key areas—from manufacture and import of firearms through stockpiling, export, and disposal. In areas where there are problems or blocks at the national level, the NPC takes on the task of prompting the appropriate remedies.

The two-day workshop provided time for working groups to explore six thematic areas related to small arms proliferation and misuse. The working group which discussed regulation of the possession of firearms, for example, returned to the plenary session with detailed recommendations for future regional cooperation and programming. These included a call for common regional licensing standards, based on best practices in the region, in areas such as competency (for example, the level of safety awareness or marksmanship of an applicant), vetting procedures (for example, the nature of background checks on licensees), and the duration of licences. The group also recommended that national licensing authorities replace the usual current system of gun licensing by Commissioners of Police.

Similarly, the working group on cooperation with civil society called for the identification of specific activities, such as the tracing of weapons, where government security services (mostly police) could collaborate with civil society groups. The group also recommended more support for civil society attention to the social issues that create the demand for guns. Other working groups on firearms marking and tracing, export and import, small arms storage, and private security forces returned to report parallel recommendations.

In all the working group reports there were calls for greater regional collaboration and uniform regional standards. By providing specific recommendations for joint planning and activities by states and civil society groups, the workshop served to advance a collaborative, Caribbean approach to the firearms trafficking and misuse that plague the region. Indeed, workshop participants laid the foundation for an effective “regional plan of action” on small arms and light weapons to serve the interests of all CARICOM member states. It is apparent that the next steps will be to detail and prioritize such a plan and, with international cooperation and assistance facilitated through the UN Programme of Action on small arms, to work to implement it.

Spread the Word