The World Council of Churches on the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2006 Volume 27 Issue 1

The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Geneva, September 13-16, 2005, speaks out on small arms and light weapons to affirm God’s vision of life in peace and fullness. We commend to citizens and authorities the establishment of good order in a culture of peace. We stand in solidarity with all who suffer the consequences of gun violence or live at risk.

Churches of the WCC have long pledged to live without resort to arms (Nairobi Assembly, 1975). Human security “rests in God [and] in mutual respect among the children of God” (Consultation on Militarism and Disarmament, Geneva, 1989). The WCC has repeatedly applied policies of disarmament and reconciliation to public life. WCC churches have designated the first ten years of this century as the Decade to Overcome Violence, a goal inseparable from the control of small arms and light weapons.

Among the many biblical admonitions for peace, one verse from the prophet Isaiah inspires churches on every continent. Its call to arbitrate, reform and begin anew is echoed in today’s disarmament debates:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)

In recent years churches have become leaders for peace in certain crisis zones, with women’s groups resolving conflicts, pastors restoring shattered lives, peace education rising on the parish agenda, and public demonstrations supporting the rule of law. Faithful leaders and parishioners are exercising their unique potential to make the proliferation and misuse of small arms/light weapons a matter for public awareness, concern and remedial action.

Meanwhile church and other humanitarian and development agencies are finding ways to protect beneficiaries, aid workers and programmes from the threat of small arms. Programmes to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate ex-combatants are being refined over time, with some of the churches involved also stressing the need to work reconciliation into the same process.

Churches and church-related organisations in East, West and Southern Africa and in Latin America play key roles in community, national and regional projects to break the chain of supply and demand for weapons. Churches and church-related development organisations in the global North are strong supporters of such initiatives in the South, including the pioneering civil society and government scheme for regional arms control, the Nairobi Protocol. In Northern countries with significant small arms problems of their own, WCC member churches figure prominently among the advocates for corrective action.

In nations where the growing problem of firearms proliferation and misuse becomes the focus of a thorough public debate, new limits can be imposed on weapons possession and use. Experience in country after country shows that the road to stricter, more universal and more enforceable controls is arduous, but that progress is well within current capacities for governmental rule-setting, corporate responsibility, and public education.

At the international level today states are building a worldwide regulatory framework for the control of small arms and light weapons. The first pillar was the United Nations Programme of Action in this field in 2001. The UN instruments currently under discussion must assure implementation of measures already agreed and begin to address the broad challenges to human security that remain. States are not alone in this endeavour. Leading up to the UN Review Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in 2006, new arms control partnerships between civil society groups and public authorities offer new models for success. A world of 640 million firearms that are largely uncontrolled requires this and much more.

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Small arms and light weapons are weapons designed for use by one or two people. They range from pistols and sub-machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. Ammunition and landmines are part of the general category. Portability, low cost, ease of use and minimal maintenance of these weapons increase individual use, private ownership and black market potential.

Small arms and light weapons are used in the vast majority of the world’s deaths by violence, taking about 1,000 lives each day. Small arms are used in some 350,000 suicide, homicide and conflict deaths each year. Many more deaths and injuries are caused indirectly when small arms accumulate and spread in unstable circumstances. Their presence fuels conflict, exacerbates abuses of human rights, criminal law and international humanitarian law, and creates obstacles to development. Weapons dispersed in war also remain available for years to disrupt peace, or derail it.

Most of those who die from firearms are people in the prime of life.

The risk factors associated with firearms apply within all countries, rich and poor. Small arms are especially dangerous: wherever masculinity is associated with violence; wherever disputes are settled by violence; where law enforcement is ineffective or gangs hold sway; where poverty and socio-economic inequality are high. Mere access to firearms is itself a major risk factor for violence—in suicides and in family and civil disputes.

Men perpetrate the most armed violence and are first among gunshot victims. Women experience a greater range of secondary consequences as well as direct injury and death. Women in affected areas deal daily with the threats and consequences of small arms violence. In conflict zones, their vulnerability tends to increase as societal constraints on men weaken. Damage to livelihoods, nutrition, health and education places additional burdens on women, as does the absence or loss of male family members. Women also use guns in combat and fill support roles for armed forces and armed groups.

The fate of children in conflict is increasingly shaped by small arms. Added to the direct toll in child casualties are intense fear, the loss of parents, providers and friends, uprooting, abduction, lost education, healthcare and aid, plus long-term traumas. Small arms technology makes it possible for children to carry and use adult weapons. An eight-year-old can be taught to fire an assault rifle.

All ages endure violence in the media, an increasingly important factor in the complex phenomenon of violence today. Incessant, unrealistic, glorified—it conditions childhood behaviour, influences cognitive development and shapes perceptions of reality throughout life. Media violence influences violent behaviour in the same way that advertisements influence consumer behaviour, with repetition, temptation and personal gratification. Media violence puts violent options on the agenda of society on a scale that would be difficult to replicate by any other legal means.

Small arms manufacturing takes place in more countries than any other sector of the global arms industry. The production and sale of small arms is dominated by the world’s leading economies, but more and more developing countries have become involved since the end of the Cold War. Supplied mostly from that licit trade, the illicit trade in small arms is also widespread, an exercise in underground globalisation. Weapons are a commodity—along with drugs, diamonds, timber and even human beings—traded on the black market to illegal groups. Arms brokers use the existing infrastructure of the world economy to circumvent national and international arms controls, enabled at times by inept or corrupt officials.

Approximately eight million firearms are manufactured each year. Some 300,000 guns are destroyed through micro-disarmament projects. The world community has the potential to reverse this trend. Change will come as political and corporate authorities, and individuals and groups at all levels, take greater responsibility for the geopolitical economy in small arms.


The Executive Committee calls on churches to take responsibility in the following areas related to the control of small arms and light weapons:

  • Promote and support legislation and programmes that enhance community safety and well-being, address gun violence, and reduce related human suffering.
  • Work with civil society and governmental bodies to enhance controls over the production, trade, possession and use of small arms, light weapons and ammunition; and to judge the effectiveness of such efforts by reductions in the numbers of victims.
  • Make multilateral and interdisciplinary collaboration an integral part of church policies and actions on gun violence.
  • Build networks within and between churches to advocate for change, including the adoption of an effective international Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Share local and national information and best practices with church counterparts and others internationally.
  • Commit more fully to Christian teaching about peace and disarmament within and beyond the church and to promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict within society and between nations.

Responsibility for Use

  • Exercise the unique potential of the church to curb demand for small arms and light weapons, especially by changing public attitudes, shaping community values and becoming a public voice against gun violence. Recommended actions include education of children about firearms, parish collection and destruction of weapons, mentoring of ex-combatants and at-risk youth, dialogue with pro-gun groups, and political support for local, national and international arms control measures.
  • Provide pastoral care and assistance for gunshot survivors and carry out public education and advocacy work about gun violence with and for survivors.
  • Provide early warnings of conflict if small arms are introduced or increase in areas the church serves or monitors.

The Executive Committee calls on governments and civil society groups, as well as churches, to take responsibility for the possession and use of small arms as follows:

  • Support and strengthen programmes that enlist broad community participation in reducing gun violence and that address the respective roles and responsibilities of women and men in overcoming gun violence.
  • Include activities to prevent gun violence in public health, public security, human rights and development programmes.
  • Promote and apply international human rights and humanitarian law as the standard for judging the use and misuse of firearms by military and armed groups.
  • Implement, monitor and evaluate international standards for post-conflict disarmament and demobilisation, for the long-term reintegration of ex-combatants in society, and for reconciliation within affected communities.
  • Include small arms controls in responsive measures where vulnerable populations face extraordinary risks, as part of the international norm known as the ‘Responsibility to Protect.’
  • Ensure that former child soldiers are reintegrated into communities, schools and homes. Advocate for a binding international convention to prohibit children from serving in any capacity with any armed force. Ban arms sales to governments and groups that use children as soldiers.

The Executive Committee calls on businesses, governments, civil society groups and churches to take responsibility for violence in media:

  • Address, as a matter of profound relevance for the long-term reduction of violence, the portrayal and dissemination of violence in media and electronic games. Take remedial action against the delivery and consumption of violent media content in homes and communities.
  • Set community-based standards to limit violent content in electronic and broadcast media and to support a workable rating system for games and media programmes. Boycott or ban games with excessive or gratuitous violence. Promote and encourage non-violent games, films and programmes.

Controlling Supply and Suppliers

The Executive Committee calls on governments and inter-governmental organisations to control the supply of small arms and regulate weapons suppliers:

  • Provide for implementation of existing small arms/light weapons controls at the 2006 United Nations Review Conference and, there and in future, add new and binding agreements that prohibit transfer to non-state actors, govern the licensed trade in small arms, limit civilian possession, and control arms already present in communities.
  • Negotiate a comprehensive and legally binding treaty to make arms transfers lawful, limited and licensed, to stop transfers to the black market, and to make suppliers partially liable for human rights violations committed with their products. Ensure that any such Arms Trade Treaty sets clear criteria for compliance and verification. Adopt regional codes of conduct for governments regarding the legal trade in arms.
  • Adopt and implement the international agreement of 2005 on marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons.
  • Prohibit the civilian possession and use of assault rifles and other excessively dangerous gun types and ammunition.
  • Given appropriate licensing and storage provisions, define legal possession and use of small arms based on types appropriate for military, police and security personnel and types appropriate for licensed hunters, target shooters and weapons collectors.
  • Enlist the small arms industry in aligning the design, manufacture, advertising, sales and brokering of lethal weapons with the usage of those weapons that is allowed under international and national law.
  • Levy taxes on small arms sales and exports in order to offset costs incurred by gun violence in society, including the cost of training in the non-violent resolution of conflicts.

Ensuring Accountability

The Executive Committee calls on governments, inter-governmental organisations and businesses, in partnership with civil society to:

  • Clarify commitments and maximise transparency in corporate and government arms affairs through the use of legislation, investigation, and lobbying and public disclosure. Define and achieve specific accountabilities throughout the product cycle—in design, manufacture, sales, brokering, trafficking, acquisition, storage, use and demolition.
  • Require full disclosure of small arms and light weapons exports by all arms-exporting nations; sanction states that are malfeasant.
  • Integrate United Nations standards for law enforcement and security usage of firearms into national legislation; establish civil society mechanisms to evaluate national compliance with those standards.
  • Provide political, financial, technical and spiritual support for the implementation of policies recommended here.

This statement was adopted on 16 September 2005.

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