Small arms, big problems

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Four years ago, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines took the world by storm, and with remarkable speed and compelling logic mobilised the world against these instruments of death. Equally deadly, and even more pervasive, are small arms such as revolvers and rifles, machineguns and mortars, hand grenades, anti-tank guns and portable missile launchers. They should be the next focus of urgent global attention. That is the main message that will be sent out by a United Nations conference that begins today (July 11) in New York.

The world is flooded with small arms and light weapons numbering at least 500 million, enough for one of every 12 people on earth. Most of these are controlled by legal authorities, but when they fall into the hands of terrorists, criminals and irregular forces, small arms bring devastation. They exacerbate conflict, spark refugee flows, undermine the rule of law, and spawn a culture of violence and impunity. In short, small arms are a threat to peace and development, to democracy and human rights.

Small arms are easy to buy: in some places, an AK-47 assault rifle can be bought for as little as $15, or even for a bag of grain. They are easy to use: with minimal training, even a child can wield one. They are easy to conceal and transport. Since they require little maintenance, they can last for decades. They cause big losses: the Inter-American Development Bank has estimated the direct and indirect costs of small arms violence at $140 to $170 billion per year in Latin America alone. Most of all, they are deadly. According to the independent Small Arms Survey 2001, small arms are implicated in well over 1,000 deaths every single day, the vast majority of them women and children.

This week’s conference is not meant to infringe on national sovereignty, limit the right of states to defend themselves, interfere with their responsibility to provide security, or subvert the right of peoples to self-determination. Nor is it meant to take guns away from their legal owners. Its targets are unscrupulous arms dealers, corrupt officials, drug trafficking syndicates, terrorists and others who bring death and mayhem into streets, schools and towns throughout the world.

To fight back, we need better laws and more effective regulations. States have established international norms in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation, and banned chemical and biological weapons and anti-personnel landmines. Yet there is no such framework of binding norms and standards to eliminate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

We also need the help of manufacturers, who can make weapons easier to trace by marking them clearly, and by selling them only through registered brokers. And we must reduce the vast stocks of weapons that exist. In societies emerging from conflict, ex-combatants must be disarmed, demobilised and helped to find jobs. As we are learning in Albania, El Salvador, Mozambique, Panama and elsewhere, it can be very effective to offer non-monetary incentives – such as tools and schools, construction materials, healthcare services and road repairs – for the voluntary surrender of weapons. Unfortunately, states which have spent billions of dollars intervening to impose a ceasefire are often unwilling to spend even a few hundred thousand on these less dramatic tasks which are vital if peace is to last.

In recent years, campaigns against landmines, for debt relief and for an International Criminal Court have demonstrated the extraordinary capacity of ordinary people to band together behind a cause and fundamentally change the policies of governments. Surely, the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons deserves similar attention.

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