Removing military weapons from civilian hands

A draft discussion paper circulated for comment

Christophe Carle and Patricia Lewis
UNIDIR Geneva August 2000
W
e look forward to receiving your comments ([email protected] and [email protected]).


Over the recent months, a momentum has begun to build around the idea of focusing a world-wide campaign against the prime types of weapons that are killing and maiming people in conflict and post-conflict regions.

This embryonic campaign, now a collaboration between governments, NGOs and IGOs, is exciting because it stems more from the humanitarian action and health communities than it does from the disarmament sector. The focus of the campaign is on what is needed rather than what is thought to be politically possible.

We have written this discussion paper in order to assist and the growing debate on military-style weapons. There is a strong urgency associated with this process. While we dither people are dying and being in injured in large numbers. Societies are being destroyed and futures are being ruined. We realise that a serious campaign could well use the 2001 small arms conference as its springboard and urge that action is taken before then to ensure maximum support for this process.

This draft paper is intended for researchers and policy-formers working in the fields of conflict prevention resolution, humanitarian aid, refugee aid, emergency health, disaster prevention, development, post-conflict building, arms control and so on. We hope that it will stimulate discussion and we would like feedback before 31 October 2000. Please feel free to circulate this paper on an informal basis, but please do not cite it in its draft form or quote from it as it now stands. We think it likely that the paper will be extensively modified before it is published and we look forward to receiving your comments ([email protected] and ccarle @unog.ch).


The problem

Of all of the small arms that are killing and maiming people throughout the world, military and military-style automatic weapons are as terrible as landmines in their devastating effects. Like landmines, their destructive power far outlasts the conflicts they were originally designed to fight.

These weapons are made for war. They have been designed to be used by trained military personnel. However they have spread well beyond their intended clientele, into the hands of the illicit arms traders. Their abundance and firepower can exacerbate violent conflict, prolong the fighting, increase the participation of civilians and make conflict resolution even more difficult.

This is a humanitarian issue of the first order. Bringing to bear a humanitarian/human rights focus on the small arms efforts in the international arena ¾ and thus concentrating on the spread, use and individual solutions to the problem of military style weapons in civilian hands ¾ may succeed in removing one of the most deadly threats to people in the world today.

The legacy of military style weapons is seen on the streets of countries in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia where they can prolong conflicts, and propagate the interests of organized and opportunistic criminals. In other regions, such as North America, Western Europe or Oceania, their widespread availability has landed them onto the streets of cities to serve the purposes of organized crime and the drug barons. In some cases they have found their way into the hands of unstable individuals with tragic consequences. They have played a central role in destabilising civil law and order where its grip is often tenuous.

They are used in small and large-scale conflicts throughout the world. They include arms such as Kalashnikovs, G-3s, M-16s and FN FALs. What makes them so dangerous is that they are highly destructive, with a rapid rate of fire, powerful, easy to use, inexpensive and in abundance. For example, it is estimated that more than 70 million assault rifles have been produced since World War II and used in well over 90 countries

Their ease of use and widespread availability makes it more likely that civilians will be drawn into war-fighting. This is particularly true for young people because these weapons require very little skill and training to use and their small size means that they can be carried and used even by children.

Following a conflict, a number of paths lie open to the spread of civilian-held military-style weapons:

Such weapons distort societies, they make it increasingly difficult for a society to rebuild itself following a period of bloody conflict, they make it harder for the State to regain the legitimate monopoly of force, they enhance the capabilities of criminals, thus compromising the effectiveness of police forces and encouraging law-abiding civilians to arm themselves for protection, they lower the threshold for violence and they are very easy for children to obtain and use.

Military-style weapons are a threat to people in war-ravaged societies. When they remain in the hands of ex-combatants following a conflict they continue to keep the violence-threshold low and increase the likelihood of a return to full-scale violence, thus perpetuating conflicts.

Not only do these weapons find their way into conflict zones and into the hands of civilian combatants, but they also turn up in weak or failed states, in states with permissive legislation (where they can be legally-held) or poorly-enforced legislation and in states with paramilitary forces, terrorist groups and uncontrolled reserve militia.

The presence of military-style weapons in the hands of civilians not only has an impact in terms of the direct humanitarian effects (deaths, terrible injuries, long-term disabilities and so on) but this situation can severely undermine the delivery of humanitarian assistance in conflict zones and in refugee camps by compromising the security of personnel who are working in vital humanitarian assistance.

They are transferred through both licit and illicit means, through brokers, through the illegal sale of legal military equipment by the armed forces, police and corrupt officials. Once in the illegal market they can be bought at very low prices or they are stolen ¾ such crimes going unreported. Primarily, they are bought or stolen because of a perceived need - a need to fight or protect, a need to gain status, provide food and security, a need to dominate in the face of scarce resources.

Solutions

This is such a complex and widespread problem that there is no one solution or approach. There have to be regional, subregional, national, unilateral, multilateral, bilateral, global approaches working in tandem in the hope of making some dent in the problem.

It has to be acknowledged at the outset that none of these approaches can be fool-proof or leak-proof. Most solutions to these problems can only be significant in the long run, and success will vary according to context, but fewer people will die, fewer people will be maimed and, where conflict-prevention fails, societies will more easily rebuild themselves after violent conflicts.

1. Banning sales to non-State actors?

One solution would be to have national, international and regional agreements or codes-of-conduct on selling military weapons to regular armed forces only.

The big problem with this idea is that there are sometimes strong reasons for non-state actors to require such weapons in order, for example, to overthrow an illegitimate, cruel and corrupt government when non-violent means have been exhausted etc. In addition, there are many concerns as to who would impose such bans and who would monitor them.

There are arguments, however, that such concerns are over-emphasised. Certainly, with a handful of significant exceptions, violent overthrows of corrupt regimes often end up with equally corrupt and inhumane successor regimes. Non-violent pressure is often far more successful in achieving the long-term progress of a country than armed struggle. In addition, the atrocities committed by paramilitaries, particularly those that have recruited children as combatants, have been so horrific that curbs on sales of military weapons to non-state actors may have to be considered as one of the approaches to be taken, with some provision for an exemption clause depending on agreement within the international community.

2. Breaking the chain

Destroying surplus weapons and stockpile management

Dealing with surplus weapons has two main aspects. The first is for governments to destroy weapons deemed obsolete or in excess to national needs, rather than sell them. This may not always be easy, particularly in countries in which governments themselves do not keep precise accounts of their own inventories or in countries where sales or surplus weapons are used to fund purchase of new weapons. Some countries may also lack the means for effective and environmentally friendly means of destroying surplus weapons and their associated ammunition. Both inventories and destruction techniques and equipment may sometimes require the provision of specialised assistance from states and companies (often the major arms manufacturers themselves) with more experience in these matters. This applies particularly to ammunition. However, for the weapons themselves, simple destruction by crushing and burning by local factories and foundries may well suffice. Indeed, experience shows that the political process of obtaining agreement to begin a weapons-collection programme and the organization of the programme itself is the most difficult part. However, a weapons collection programme that doesn't include a destruction phase, is vulnerable to becoming a focal point for the illicit redistribution of the weapons once collected.

The only way of ensuring that military small arms do not fall into the wrong hands is to make sure that they are securely held and accounted for by legitimate state authorities, and better still, that they are destroyed if and when the state no longer requires them. International or regional standards and regulations could be developed to assist in proper stockpile management. South Africa's initiative to destroy its redundant stockpile of weapons, and the assistance provided by Norway to that end, are recent experiences from which lessons and inspiration should be derived in other national and regional settings.

The second aspect is more difficult. It would involve the mopping up of automatic weapons currently in the hands of civilians, as a prelude to their destruction. Cash for weapons is an option that raises well-known problems. Weapons for goods and services, in particular "weapons for development" seem more promising. Such an approach requires the collective approval of a community, individuals are not rewarded ¾ rather the village or region obtains something for the collective good. Those handing in the weapons are then seen as contributing to the community, whereas before they may have been seen as people bringing terror and crime into the area. This option presupposes an accurate identification of genuine and practical development needs in order to offer useful and attractive incentives for civilians to hand in their weapons and that these needs will contribute to genuinely permanent solutions. Above all, it also presupposes the ability of the State to provide adequate protection for civilians and for the development projects themselves.

National, regional and international attempts to increase transparency and to develop transnational systems for tracing military style weapons transfers, along with legal measures to prohibit civilian possession could be developed. Multilateral, bilateral and unilateral measures could all work in parallel on the different regional levels, depending on the requirements of the varying situations.

3. Brokering

Brokers trading in weapons, as they would in any other commodities, commonly act as legal and illegal purveyors of small arms to regions, countries and factions in conflict. Customers desperate for weapons can be expected to pay a premium for arms provided in this way. Such brokering is unregulated and difficult to trace because most countries lack legislation covering such activities by their own nationals, and because fake documentation (especially end-user certificates) is easily obtained from corruptible officials. Transactions typically involve several countries as transit points both for the weapons and for funds, without the weapons transiting through the country from which the broker operates.

Adequate national legislation should require the registration and licensing of brokers, whether operating from their own country or from abroad. This will require international cooperation and information exchange. They should be held responsible for any unlicensed activity, or for contravening export-control laws and international embargoes. Such strictures should apply equally to brokering in weapons and in ammunition. The development of an international agreement to increase transparency and to regulate the activities of arms brokers, agents and transport companies, could be seriously considered - ¾ including the concerns ver the use of brokers by governments in order to cover-up illegal sales.

4. Ammunition control

The 7.62 or 5.56 calibre ammunition for military-style automatic rifles is widely produced and traded. In conflict situations, it is used in large quantities. Regulating its supply from both domestic and foreign suppliers could therefore assist in reducing the incidence of violence and the duration and destructiveness of conflicts. Where weapons are widespread and offer no immediate hope for successful mopping up, and where combatants require resupplies in ammunition, restricting ammunition supplies can be the only significant option. Reducing the ease with which ammunition can be acquired can also make it less attractive for former combatants and civilians to retain their weapons in post-conflict situations. As with the weapons themselves, legal governmental stockpiles of ammunition need to be properly managed and accounted for so as to increase the legitimate control of stocks. Ammunition stocks need to be regularly monitored and surplus and obsolete along with unusable and unstable stocks need to be destroyed rather then sold off.

5. Civil society campaign

One of the great difficulties with the debates around controlling small arms and light weapons is the large numbers of legal, about-to-become-illegal and illegal weapons in circulation and the complexities involved that are raised by increased availability ¾ not least of which is the often understandable need for such weapons in a number of situations. This has made it easy for opponents of small arms control in any form to knock down initiatives and ideas as quickly as they spring up. It has also meant that it has been hard to find a collective focus for a civil society-based campaign on the issue, with NGOs working on a myriad of scattered initiatives, and often seeming to be running around in circles.

In addition, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to gather reliable data on the types and quantities of small arms that are in existence and that are doing the damage.

However, both from quantitative research and strong anecdotal evidence, there is clearly a major problem with military weapons in the hands of civilians as outlined above.

If a concerted campaign were to be formed to remove such weapons from civilian hands this would have a number of distinct advantages:

  • It would strike to the heart of the humanitarian problem - their removal and control would have a significant impact on the numbers of killing and maiming during and post conflicts;
  • It would provide a clear focus and sense of purpose for NGOs and governments alike;
  • It would be hard for the anti-control lobby to argue against such an initiative - after all who could easily justify the right for civilians to bear arms built for military purposes and thus argue taking automatic and semi-automatic weapons off the streets of cities and out of schools;
  • The public is likely to readily understand and support such a campaign in both developed and developing countries;
  • It might be easier to gain cross-country support and assist like-minded (and interested parties) initiatives;
  • It might be easier to implement both nationally and sub-regionally with support at the international level than attempts to control a much wider cross-section of weapons.
  • International cooperation both at the regional and global level will be required
  • Civil society organizations could develop an education and awareness campaign for preventing the spread of military style weapons and for the collection and destruction of those in circulation.
  • Conclusion

    The time seems to be ripe for a different approach to small arms control. This approach should be focused on the weapons that are doing most harm to people and their security. Efforts in small arms control, such as marking, tracking, ammunition control, production control could all form part of this approach, but only as part of a bigger whole, driven by humanitarian needs. Such efforts then would no longer be perceived as tinkering at the edges of the problem, rather their efficacy could be determined in the light of the larger goal. Tackling civilian-held, military-style weapons may provide an approach that could strike to the heart of the problem, obtain global and regional support, provide a focus for governmental and non-governmental action and achieve lasting good.



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