Towards de-weaponisation

Print edition : September 01, 2001

A United Nations conference adopts a programme of action to combat, reduce and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, which poses a grave threat to security and peace.

THE United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, which was held in New York between July 9 and 20, reached a consensus on many important first steps needed to alleviate the grave threat that weapons pose to international peace and human security. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised these steps as being essential in building norms and in implementing collective measures against the global scourge. He noted in particular the potential benefits for all states from improved control over both the private ownership of military standard-weapons and, even more critical, the transfer of such arms to non-state groups.

An artist gives finishing touches to his "gun sculpture" entitled 'The Art of Peacemaking' at the United Nations headquarters.-SHAWN BALDWIN/ AP

The issue of small arms and light weapons has been on the U.N. agenda since the mid-1990s. Studies indicate that more than 500 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation around the world, that is one for every 12 persons.

It is a little known fact that the number of civilian casualties involving small arms is much greater than the number of deaths in armed conflicts. Since 1990, these "weapons of mass destruction" have caused four million deaths: 90 per cent of the dead were civilians, 80 per cent of them women and children. Smaller conflicts do not attract the attention of governments because they are not all-out wars. About 80 per cent of the 20,000 people killed in South Asia in the last 50 years were victims of such conflicts.

Convinced of the need for a global commitment to prevent, reduce and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, the conference resolved to undertake a number of measures at the national, regional and global levels.

The measures were contained in the Programme of Action, which was adopted without a vote and as orally amended on July 21, after the conference was extended by a day in order to enable the participating states to arrive at a consensus. The programme also emphasises the need for states to cooperate and ensure coordination in the implementation of all such measures and the steps agreed upon for effective follow-up. Conference president Camilo Reyes Rodriguez (of Colombia) said that the adoption of the Programme of Action was a significant step forward in addressing one of the most urgent problems facing world peace and security. He, however, expressed disappointment at the failure to agree on controls over private ownership of arms and over arms transfers.

At the national level it was agreed to put in place adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures in order to exercise effective control over the production of small arms and light weapons within their areas of jurisdiction. It was also agreed that laws concerning the export, import, transit or retransfer of such weapons were required in order to prevent the illegal manufacture of and illicit trafficking in these weapons, or their diversion to unauthorised recipients.

While no reference was made to stockpile management, it was obvious that the governments did not want any international binding instrument to monitor governments or legal manufacturers.

Efforts to control small arms proliferation would entail major amendments to the national laws existing in all South Asian countries, which follow the Arms Act of 1878 and the parameters for the manufacture, sale and ownership, as well as the import and export of arms throughout British India. Only cosmetic changes have been made by a few governments. When a strong nexus exists between political parties and mafias that are close to arms manufacturers, control is difficult to achieve.

The programme stipulates the establishment of national coordination agencies responsible for policy guidance, research and monitoring of efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade.This is a welcome step in South Asia. Civil society groups can resort to a single reference group instead of running to different ministries.

The document provides scope for identifying groups and individuals engaged in the illegal manufacture, trade, stockpiling, transfer, possession and financing for acquisition of illicit small arms and light weapons. It provides for action to be taken under appropriate national laws against such groups and individuals.

It ensures responsibility for all small arms and light weapons held and issued by the state and provides for effective measures to trace such weapons. This is a major step in recognising the origin of arms used in cross-border terrorism as in the case of Kashmir. Bangladesh and Myanmar are often accused of supplying arms to insurgent groups in northeastern India. Indian groups are accused of supplying arms to Maoist groups in Nepal. There are cases of pilferage from government godowns in Sri Lanka and in other countries.

The Programme of Action has agreed:

* To put in place and implement adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures to ensure effective control over the export and transit of small arms and light weapons, including the use of authenticated end-user certificates;

* To make every effort, without prejudice to the right of states to re-export small arms and light weapons that they have previously imported, to notify the original exporting state in accordance with their bilateral agreements before the retransfer of those weapons (at least one country in South Asia is said to re-export arms, and the measure will go a long way in checking this); and

* To develop and implement, where possible, effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes, including effective collection, control, storage and destruction of small arms and light weapons, particularly in post-conflict zones, as well as to address the special needs of children affected by armed conflict.

This is a major achievement. In Bangladesh, arms that were in circulation were not collected and destroyed after the country's liberation. The arms in the system have had a disastrous effect on its society - there are violent political clashes on the streets, and small arms are rife on university campuses. Arms from the Afghanistan conflict exceed 10 million pieces.

Nepal is negotiating a settlement with the Maoist rebels. In India and Sri Lanka, there is the likelihood of peaceful resolution of the conflicts. In such an eventuality, collection and destruction procedures will help a great deal.

The programme aims to encourage regional negotiations to draft relevant legally binding instruments aimed at preventing, combating and eradicating the illicit trade, and where such instruments do exist, to ratify and fully implement them.

It encourages the strengthening and establishment of moratoria (or similar initiatives) in affected regions or sub-regions on the transfer and manufacture of small arms and light weapons and/or regional action programmes to prevent, combat and eradicate illicit trade, and to respect such moratoria, similar initiatives and/or action programmes.

At the regional level, the programme has agreed to establish, where appropriate, sub-regional or regional mechanisms, in particular trans-border customs cooperation and networks for information-sharing among law enforcement, border and customs control agencies. This will help control trafficking across borders. Bangladesh and Nepal are at present the transit points in South Asia.

States and the World Customs Organisation will be encouraged to step up cooperation with the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) to identify groups and individuals engaged in the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, in order to allow national authorities to proceed against them in accordance with their national laws. Insurgent groups backed by international groups could be checked thus.

With regard to implementation, international cooperation and assistance, states undertook to encourage the establishment and strengthening of cooperation and partnerships at all levels among international and inter-governmental organisations and civil society, including NGOs and international financial institutions. This will enable civil society and governments to work together to combat the problem.

States and appropriate international and regional organisations that are in a position to do so should, upon the request of relevant authorities, consider seriously sending assistance, including technical and financial support such as small arms funds, where needed.

The issue of small arms could also be an element in awareness education intended to spread a culture of peace. This will enable countries in South Asia to engage solidly in de-weaponisation programmes.

The participating states undertook to cooperate with one another, including on the basis of the relevant existing regional and global legally binding instruments, in tracing illicit small arms and light weapons, particularly by strengthening mechanisms based on the exchange of relevant information.

As a follow-up to the conference, it was recommended that the General Assembly convene a meeting not later than in 2006 to review the progress made in the implementation of the Programme of Action.

The programme is silent on transparency in the matter of arms trade between governments, which is essential in South Asia, where much of the unresolved conflicts are related to post-colonial-period problems such as Partition, annexation of provinces, and insecurity among the minority communities and other vulnerable groups. Some of these issues were never approached within the framework of peaceful resolution of conflicts. What were initially transit points for small arms have now become end-users.

The programme addressed mostly the supply side of the small arms problem. There is no solution to the basic problems of demand facing South Asia, which is a weapon-dependent society.

The document has not outlined a clear plan of action in terms of people-centred conflict resolution and peace-building in a society which is both weapon-dependent and experiences excessive arms accumulation. The availability of arms both with government and non-state actors impedes the peaceful resolution of conflicts and undermines security and the freedom of expression and promotes forced migration.

In South Asia, there is a large number of internally displaced persons and war-affected women and children. The U.N. Conference does not ensure freedom from fear for the civilian population from those who seek weapons and private armies to protect themselves. Can governments protect their own civilian populations from violent armed conflicts and reduce human insecurity? This was the question this writer, as one of the two dozen NGO representatives from all over the world, raised at the conference.

The problem of small arms has to be approached from a human security perspective where human development is assured for the civilian population. The conference did indeed discuss 'Small Arms in All its Aspects' but arrived at a consensus only on a few aspects. It is time civil society leaders followed up on what was achieved at the conference and planned for the review conference in 2006.

Dr.W. James Arputharaj is the executive director of the South Asia Partnership International (SAPI), a regional network of non-governmental organisations. SAPI is part of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

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