Minister of International Development and Human Rights Hilde Frafjord Johnson

International support for the moratorium on light weapons in West Africa

The Meeting of ECOWAS Ministers of Foreign Affairs on the Modalities of the Programme for Co-ordination and Assistance for Security and Development in West Africa (PCASED), Bamako, 24 March 1999

Statement by Ms. Hilde F. Johnson

Mr. President,
Mr. Chairman,
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

One of the most painful and shocking experiences I had last year was meeting former members of the Lords’ Resistance Army in Uganda. Children that had been abducted, brainwashed and forced to kill. Even people from their own village and family. Children who will forever have to cope with memories of the pain and the suffering they inflicted on others. And there are other children in West Africa with similar stories to tell.

Today’s widespread proliferation of small arms is one of the factors that makes the Resistance Army's tactics and cynical exploitation of children possible. Modern technology has made small arms easy to operate and easy to carry. This makes it all the easier to recruit and arm children.

The use and abuse of child soldiers is one of the ugliest aspects of the issue we are discussing here today, and it is also one of the most important. It is our responsibility as political leaders to prevent the traumas of these children being shared by even more youngsters in other parts of the world.

We know that small inexpensive hand weapons today kill a far greater number of people than the heavier types traditionally used in military engagements. Their uncontrolled use lead to widespread atrocities and violations of human rights. We are seeing an increasing number of civilian casualties. In today’s conflicts up to 90 per cent of the casualties are civilians. The weakest, the women and children, are the hardest hit.

Armed conflict is a major barrier to development. More than half of the world’s 38 poorest countries are involved in an armed conflict . Violent conflicts now occur more often within, rather than between, countries. Only six of the 101 armed conflicts between 1986 and 1989 were conflicts between countries. The rest were various kinds of civil war. The widespread distribution of small arms makes it too easy to resolve conflicts by violence. It also makes it more difficult to resolve existing conflicts. Without peace and stability development is difficult. Without development it is often impossible to solve the problems that lead to violence. This vicious circle must be broken.

I therefore wholeheartedly support this comprehensive approach to security and development, and it is with great pleasure that I am attending this meeting. The uncontrolled accumulation of light weapons is a threat to human security in many countries, both in West Africa and elsewhere. An integrated view is necessary. Action is necessary.

Mali is a natural venue for the launching of the Programme for Co-ordination and Assistance for Security and Development in West Africa (PCASED). And the third anniversary of the Flame of Peace in Timbuktu is a highly appropriate date for this event. Because it was here in Mali that it all started. The modest beginning was the demobilisation, weapon reduction and reintegration programme in northern Mali. This has since developed into the region-wide moratorium on all import, export and manufacture of light weapons that we are here to celebrate today. Indeed, many of the concepts of the ECOWAS Moratorium and UN implementation mechanism were first tested in northern Mali.

We all have a moral obligation to alleviate the human suffering caused by small arms, to work towards greater control of these weapons. There is a role for all of us in such efforts, whether we represent governments, donor countries, the United Nations, regional organisations such as ECOWAS or civil society.

I therefore applaud the courageous decision taken by all 16 ECOWAS countries. This is a unique initiative, based on practical and effective measures. The Moratorium will stop the influx of light weapons and facilitate the collection of surplus guns within a broader developmental framework. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the President of Mali, Mr. Alpha Oumar Konaré, and to the people of Mali. Without their bold new approach and untiring efforts we would not be here today.

The Norwegian Government is proud to have been part of the initiative from the very start. We have contributed about USD 2.5 million to the demobilisation and reintegration programme in northern Mali. We organised an international meeting on the proposed Moratorium in Norway in April last year, in connection with the visit to our country by President Konaré, and were encouraged by the wide support expressed for the initiative, both by western weapon-producing countries and by West African countries. Norway was the first country to pledge funding for the Moratorium. We contributed USD 1 million even before it was formally declared.

I am pleased to note that several other donor countries and the United Nations have undertaken to provide funds for the implementation of the Moratorium. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the large gap that still remains between what has been pledged and what is needed for full financing of the PCASED.

Norway will co-sponsor an international meeting in Geneva on 5 May to provide information on the Moratorium and solicit additional funding. This meeting will be organised by the UNDP, the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, the Henri Dunant Center in Geneva, and the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers. We will also continue to call for information to weapon producers and for regulation of their activities, in order to ensure that the Moratorium is fully respected.

Norway will continue to support and promote concrete international action against small arms. As one example of our efforts, I would like to mention that together with Mali we will be co-sponsoring a workshop on light weapons during the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference in Geneva in November. This workshop will focus on the international humanitarian law aspects of the uncontrolled proliferation of light weapons.

The launching of the PCASED to help implement the Moratorium will be a milestone in the lives of millions of West Africans. But its significance goes far beyond this region. The uncontrolled accumulation and use of light weapons is a plague that has spread from country to country. But nowhere else in the world have states agreed to implement such practical and far-reaching remedies as in West Africa. The West Africa Moratorium and the PCASED are therefore shining examples for other countries, in and outside Africa.

I am convinced that the decisions of the ECOWAS countries have created a momentum that will inspire similar action in other regions of the world. I have met several foreign ministers who are now considering taking up the challenge in their respective regions. We rely on you, the governments of West Africa, to continue to provide leadership in the international efforts to control light weapons.

I have high hopes of the action plan that will be discussed here today at the meeting of the foreign ministers of ECOWAS. Among the key questions where I look forward to your guidance are decisions on which actions should have priority on the road towards an effective Moratorium and on what practical support is needed from the United Nations, ECOWAS and donor countries.

Your answers will not only be an important means of ensuring that the instruments in the region are in place to implement the Moratorium effectively. Your meeting today should also be an important factor in forging sufficient international support.

We all know what is at stake. During this decade alone, an estimated 6 million people have been killed in conflict or post-conflict zones around the world, most of them the victims of light weapons. This cannot continue. We have seen pictures of what can happen when such weapons are spread and used indiscriminately. Personally, I will never forget the traumatised eyes of the child soldiers in Uganda. We have all been shocked by the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone and Liberia against suffering children, women and other innocent civilians.

Change is desperately needed. We must all join forces, war-torn countries, donors, international organisations, the international community and NGOs. We must give them a chance, a chance for change.

I can assure you that the Government of Norway will stand by you, ready to support your efforts. Together we will make your bold initiative a success.

Thank you for your attention.

This page was last updated April 21 1999