Towards a Global Small Arms “Programme of Action”

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2001 Volume 22 Issue 1

Ernie Regehr represented Project Ploughshares at the United Nations small arms Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) session held at UN headquarters in New York, January 8-19, 2001, where he was also part of a two-person delegation, with Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane of Mozambique, representing the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs.

This second small arms PrepCom (with one more to be held in March) made some unexpected progress toward the development of a constructive Programme of Action to be approved at the UN Conference on The Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in July 2001. The Committee Chair tabled a draft document for discussion and debate, and the churches and the NGO community, prominently present through the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), were pleasantly surprised by the ambitious and comprehensive scope of the draft.

The document called for action “at the national, regional and global levels,” acknowledging that “regional efforts, by their very nature, do not address the global nature of the sources of small arms and light weapons, and the increasingly transnational networks of brokers, dealers, financiers and transporters.”

It affirmed the importance of national controls on small arms and light weapons, as well the need for controls on their international transfer. The draft supported a number of technical measures related to international standards for marking and tracing weapons, as well as record-keeping and effective controls over government stockpiles. Provisions for the destruction of surplus and recovered illicit weapons were also included, as well as specific calls on the international community to cooperate in law-enforcement measures to prevent illicit trafficking (the main focus of the conference). It called on the international community to provide concrete assistance to governments in heavily gun-affected regions to carry out the programs in the proposed plan of action.

While the NGOs called for the document to be strengthened and expanded in a number of areas, it was generally well-received, but the debate on the document soon made it clear that much of what was in the first draft would not remain in the final document without a great deal of effort.

A central point of disagreement was and remains the question of the scope. Some countries, such as the United States, China, and India, argued in varying degrees that the UN should focus exclusively on addressing the illegal trade, by concentrating on measures to improve law-enforcement cooperation and capacity, and thus avoid any effort to establish global standards regarding legal transfers and national gun control legislation. Others, including Canada, most European states and sub-Sahara Africa (and supported by the churches and the IANSA NGOs), argued for a much more comprehensive approach, saying that in order to control illicit trafficking there must be clarity on and international standards for the regulation of legal possession and transfer of small arms.

The states of sub-Sahara Africa have played a constructive role in the process leading to the July conference. The Organization of African Unity (OAU), meeting in Bamako, Mali last December, issued a broad declaration, based in part on a similar declaration by East African states in Nairobi in November 2000, calling for urgent and concerted international action. African states speak to the issue with a high level of authenticity for, even though the problem is global, it is especially manifest in Africa. The many internal conflicts in Africa are fought with revolvers, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons that are easily carried and concealed, even by children. When civil wars end, large numbers of guns remain for people with grievances to use against each other, and as a result, crime rates have soared and cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg have become extraordinarily insecure.

The churches through the World Council of Churches (WCC) are pressing the conference to recognize and act on the human significance of damage done by uncontrolled small arms and light weapons. As Bishop Sengulane emphasized in meetings with various delegates, the sad truth in Mozambique is that while they kill only one person at a time, “small arms are doing big harm.” He pointed out that people in his country have not only read news reports or pondered statistics, but have suffered the deaths of their parents and their sons and daughters because of the uncontrolled presence of small arms.

In the WCC’s talks with delegation officials, UN staff, and representatives of other NGOs, Mr. Sengulane also reported on a Mozambican churches’ project called “swords into ploughshares.” After his country’s long armed struggle to win independence came years of internal conflict between government forces and Renamo rebels. And when the large-scale fighting finally ended, huge numbers of guns remained. With financing from Canada, Germany, Japan, and other countries, Mozambique’s churches gave farm tools or sewing machines to people who turned in guns, thus going beyond simply talking to actually doing disarmament. “We collected over 100,000 weapons,” Sengulane reports. Police and military officials made the guns unusable, and in some cases the guns themselves were turned into artistic works (an exhibition of this “gun art” toured Canada in 2000). “Why can’t this be done globally?” he asks.

Bishop Sengulane has also been responsible for the Anglican church in Angola since 1990. He hopes that when a settlement is reached between the contending forces there, a “swords into ploughshares” program similar to the one in Mozambique could be undertaken.

NGOs have also emphasized that the small arms problem will not be effectively addressed without sustained attention to the political, social, and economic conditions that tend to generate demand for weapons. The draft program of action provided some recognition of the need to address both supply and demand dimensions of the small arms question, while the Nairobi and Bamako declarations explicitly insisted that the combat of illicit trafficking requires the pursuit of positive policies and measures to create social, economic, and political environments that are conducive to reducing the resort to arms by individuals and communities. NGOs at the PrepCom urged delegates to include in the program of action an explicit endorsement of the African declaration that, to address the problem of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in a comprehensive, integrated, and sustainable manner, it is necessary to reduce the demand for weapons through measures that promote the strengthening of democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law and good governance, as well as economic recovery and growth. The NGOs also called for action on additional related measures such as reform of the security sector and programs to reverse cultures of violence and promote cultures of peace.

Whatever the results of the July Conference, it is clear that it will only be an early stage of the global struggle to come to terms with the small arms crisis. The churches and the NGOs want the UN conference, at a minimum, to issue a declaration acknowledging the urgency of the problem, to adopt a plan of action that gives credence to that declaratory statement, and then to provide for an ongoing process to monitor the progress, or lack of it, on implementation. The level of resources devoted to implementing the program of action will be critical.

This report draws in part on a February 26, 2001 press release from the World Council of Churches.

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