A 'New' Approach to the Small Arms Trade

By Lumpe, Lora | Arms Control Today, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview
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A 'New' Approach to the Small Arms Trade


Lumpe, Lora, Arms Control Today


In recent years, governments have focused unprecedented levels of attention on the proliferation of light weapons-in relation to both crime and humanitarian concerns.

The UN General Assembly voted in 1999 to hold a global conference-its first ever-on the "illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects." As a result, world governments will gather in New York in July 2001 for what might be to armed violence what Beijing was to women's rights or what Rio was to the environment. This conference will place a spotlight on the gunrunning that sustains bloody conflict around the world, and it will provide an important platform for civil society-including humanitarian relief workers, organizations trying to aid sustainable development, business people, and ordinary civilians whose lives are impacted daily by armed violence-to press governments for serious action.

Serious action, however, is not likely at this venue. While governments have moved frenetically on this issue in the past five years-relative to its complete absence from the international agenda before that time-the likely result of this meeting, as with most small-arms control initiatives, will be a non-binding political declaration with no enforcement mechanism. That said, the question remains as to whether this conference is solely a governmental exercise in public relations, or whether it will help build consensus among governments and lead to further-reaching steps in the near term.

One approach that might help activist states and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) achieve more tightly binding measures would be to link the illicit arms trade agenda to that of UN arms embargo enforcement.

Several trends gave prominence to the issue of gunrunning in the past decade. Newly opened borders, massive postCold War arms surpluses, and the rapid expansion of free trade contributed to the over-availability of arms and the ease of smuggling. And increased governmental and media attention to phenomena such as drug trafficking, international crime, and bloody civil wars raging around the globe caused governments and non-governmental activists to focus more on the tools of violence and on the markets that supply them.

Small arms individually are not mas- sively deadly, as are nuclear or other "special" weapons. However, the sheer bulk of guns, grenade launchers, mortars, and other infantry-style weapons in circulation outside lawful state control-and their constant misuse-truly renders this category of arms "weapons of mass destruction." No one knows with any precision how many of these weapons are out there, but a credible estimate of 500 million has been put forward by private researchers and reiterated by UN officials.1 The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, reported in 1999 that the increased availability of small arms and light weapons had contributed to an alarming rise in civilian casualties during the 1990s, with an estimated one out of every two people killed in war in that decade being a civilian.2

The humanitarian impact of this broader category of weaponry greatly exceeds that of anti-personnel landmines. And the success of the international NGO-government campaign to ban mines encouraged some states to take on this more complex issue. At the same time, that successful campaign spooked others. Whether seeking to be part of "the next big thing" in international affairs, or hoping to co-opt the process and stave it off, governments in recent years have focused unprecedented levels of attention on the proliferation of light weapons-in relation to both crime (principally drug trafficking) and humanitarian concerns.

As one of the earliest actions, in December 1995 the UN General Assembly instructed the secretary-general to prepare a report on small arms, with the assistance of a panel of governmental experts. This effort was motivated by concerns about the efficacy of UN peacekeeping operations in areas flooded with guns.

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