In November 2012, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs released a publication, Civil Society and Disarmament 2012 – Applying a Disarmament Lens to Gender, Human Rights, Development, Security, Education and Communication: Six Essays. Given the Auschwitz Institute’s mission, this post focuses on the essay, “Minimizing the impact of illicit small arms and diverted weapons transfers in the commission of atrocity crimes, human rights violations and other violence” by Hector Guerra of International Action Network on Small Arms and Robert Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict.
This piece centers on illicit small arms and the ways in which they contribute to mass atrocity crimes and community violence throughout the world. One statistic states that “of the 740,000 people who die each year as a result of armed violence, 500,000 are fatalities related to situations of violence other than armed conflicts, fatalities largely related to the use of small arms and light weapons.” The United Nations has endeavored to solve the problem of illicit weapons via various programs and protocols; this past summer, an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was negotiated. However, agreement on a final text was elusive and a new meeting will take place in March 2013.
According to the authors, “the irresponsible transfer of weapons and ammunition and the proliferation of illicit small arms have direct implications for our ability to secure our streets, deliver aid to unstable areas, prevent abuses of human rights and the commission of mass atrocities, and create environments conducive to full political and policy participation by women and cultural minorities.” Many ‘illicit’ weapons originate in the legal sector before moving through unregulated transfers into the wrong hands. The uses of such weapons have far-reaching dangerous impacts, including:
- Illicit arms perpetuate conflicts that could otherwise be resolved.
- Illicit arms undermine development and inhibit the flow of assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, and others in dire need.
- Illicit arms in the hands of both State and non-State actors have been used to violate civilian populations’ human rights and impede efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.
- Illicit arms and ammunition hinder the ability of governments to carry out some of their most important functions, including the primary responsibility to protect civilians from violence.
- Illicit arms “undermine the integrity of the security sector, creating or exacerbating levels of unacceptable risk for women and others seeking their proper place in society.”
- Illicit arms “contribute to cycles of violence and criminality that reinforce structures of poverty as women and men continue to expend large amounts of energy on security needs that could more beneficially be spent on pursuing educational and economic opportunity.”
All of the above is in addition to the immeasurable physical and psychological damage suffered by civilians as a result of illicit weapons access by criminals, insurgents, or other non-State actors. One of the most serious aspects of the proliferation of illicit weapons is “related to the role those weapons play in the commission of mass violence, including the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and the massacre at Utoya, Norway in 2011.”
The UN has had the prevention of mass violence, both at the community level and within broader international legal frameworks, at the forefront of its agenda since its inception. Urgency in this area escalated in 2005 with the advent of the Responsibility to Protect norm. This is because the illicit trade in conventional weapons and ammunition severely complicates efforts to build State capacity and otherwise help governments fulfill their primary responsibility to protect their civilian populations. Moreover, their are staggering costs to fragile States from mass atrocity and other conflicts fueled in part by illicit weapons. For example, Africa loses ~$18 billion per year due to wars, civil wars, and insurgencies. Conservatively, armed conflict shrinks an African nation’s economy by 15%.
In order to combat the multitude of problems outlined above, governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders must work together. Concrete steps include:
- Exploring local and regional linkages between the presence of illicit arms and the threat of mass violence/human rights abuses.
- Calling attention to and addressing the linkages between legal arms sales diverted to non-State actors and criminal elements, and “the commission of human rights abuses, the suppression of access to jobs and services, and the chilling impacts of a compromised security sector on women’s participation in political and social life.”
- “Assist States, especially fragile States, to guarantee the security of existing weapons stockpiles (or remove them altogether), and help ensure marking, tracing and record keeping of arms that is cost-effective and sufficiently interactive with the highest international standards in this area.”
- Restricting the illicit flow/diversion of ammunition for small arms.
- Assisting States in promoting citizen disarmament.
- Assisting States in implementing important responsibilities resulting from the illicit arms trade, e.g., provide victims’ assistance and flag potentially diverted transfers.
Other resources include the UN’s recently revised Disarmament: A Basic Guide, and voices from impacted communities.