Tuesday , July 16th , 2024  

Violent Deaths by “Small Arms & Light Weapons”: UN Chief’s Warning Dead on Target

Empty large calibre bullet casings on the floor of a heavy machine gun position of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) at Kismayo International Airport in southern Somalia. Credit: UN Photo/Ramadaan Mohamed

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 24 2024 – Perhaps two of the biggest misnomers in military jargon are “small arms” and “light weapons” which are the primary weapons of death and destruction in ongoing civil wars and military conflicts, mostly in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

In a statement last week, at the opening session of the Fourth Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was dead on target when he said there is nothing “small” or “ight” about the damage these weapons cause.

“Small arms and light weapons play a major role in these conflicts. Small arms are the leading cause of violent deaths globally, and are the weapon of choice in nearly half of all global homicides,” Guterres said.

The UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) on small arms and light weapons has an ambitious goal – to “prevent, combat, and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects.” But it’s a tough assignment in a political world dominated by the gun lobby and the military-industrial complex.

During the weeklong meeting, scheduled to conclude June 28, diplomats from around the world will review its implementation — against the backdrop of a political agreement that originated back in 2001. Members of civil society are also on hand to present their analyses and lobby and inform governments.

Speaking on behalf of Guterres, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu told delegates global military expenditures are on the rise.

And countries, regions and communities across the globe are suffering. New and protracted conflicts are placing millions of people in the line of fire.

“They aggravate crime, displacement and terrorism. From conflict zones to homes, they are used to threaten and perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence”.

According to the UN, “light weapons,” are primarily, weapons designed for use by two or three persons serving as a crew, although some may be carried and used by a single person.

They include, heavy machine guns, handheld under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of antitank missile and rocket systems, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortars of a calibre of less than 100 millimetres.

The current civil wars, where the choice of weapons is largely small arms and light weapons, are primarily in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen—besides the two ongoing major wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

But in these two devastating conflicts, the Russians and Israelis are using more sophisticated weapons, including fighter aircraft, combat helicopters, drones, air-to-surface missiles, armoured personnel carriers and battle tanks, among others.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, who represents the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in her work at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues, told IPS there are many obstacles to the full implementation of the UNPoA, both during the Review Conference and beyond. Two sets of these obstacles seem particularly noticeable at this year’s Review Conference.

The first set of obstacles is external.

In the end, the UNPoA is a political document, designed to be implemented primarily at the national level. States must have the political will to carry out the commitments in the UNPoA and the outcome documents of the various biennial meetings of states and review conferences, she said.

Smaller, less well-resourced States may also need financial assistance to be able to implement some portions of the UNPoA.

As a result, some smaller States are unwilling to accept programs and policies they fear will cost them money to implement, even with the potential availability of international assistance, Dr Goldring pointed out.

“The political challenge is complicated by the major roles played by the arms industry. Weapons manufacturers have financial incentives to sell as many weapons as they can. And States that supply weapons can be dependent on the power of those manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers are so intent on protecting their profits that they even attend, speak, and lobby at these conferences”.

The second key obstacle, she said, is internal.

“The Programme of Action process generally runs on a practice of “consensus”. In theory, that sounds laudable – why wouldn’t we want the process to be dominated by reaching consensus? But in this process, consensus is effectively defined as unanimity. That means that a single negative voice can block change – or progress”.

Because of the consensus process, she argued, these conferences and meetings often face an uncomfortable choice between two main options. One possibility is a strong outcome document, reached through votes, but lacking consensus. Another possibility is a weaker outcome document, reached through consensus.

“If it seems as though consensus is not going to be possible, then the supporters of the UNPoA could – and arguably should – construct an ambitious outcome document that would better fulfill the promise of the UNPoA and would require votes on some of the most controversial paragraphs. Arguably, the worst outcome would be for the proponents of a robust UNPoA to accept a lot of compromises on the text and still not reach consensus,” declared Dr Goldring

Guterres said small arms and light weapons aggravate crime, displacement and terrorism. From conflict zones to homes, they are used to threaten and perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence.

They block vital humanitarian aid from reaching the most vulnerable. They put the lives of United Nations peacekeeping forces and civilian personnel at risk.

And the situation is growing worse, as new developments in the manufacturing, technology and design of small arms — such as 3D printing — make their illegal production and trafficking easier than ever before, warned Guterres.

Rebecca Peters, Director, International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), said in an oped piece in the UN Chronicle, that a thousand people die each day from gunshot wounds, and three times as many are left with severe injuries. If the death, injury and disability resulting from small arms were categorized as a disease, it would qualify as an epidemic.

Yet the media and popular perception tend to suggest that gun violence is simply an unavoidable consequence of human cruelty or deprivation, rather than a public health problem which can be prevented or at least reduced, she said.

“The circumstances of gun violence vary so enormously, it would be simplistic to suggest a single solution. A comprehensive approach, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the problem, is needed to bring down the grim toll of global death and injury.”

Nonetheless, the high school massacres in the US, the armed gangs in Brazil or the systematic sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all share a common denominator: the availability of guns (or small arms, as they are known in UN circles).

She said practical steps toward reducing the availability and misuse of small arms can be classified under four headings:

    1. Reducing the existing stockpile
    2. Reducing the supply of new weapons
    3. Closing the gates between the legal and illegal markets
    4. Reducing the motivation for acquiring guns (demand)

Elaborating further, Dr Goldring said the issue of whether or how to include ammunition in the UNPoA is a key example of the difficulty of reaching consensus. This has been the case since the initial negotiation of the UNPoA, when the United States and a few others States showed their willingness to block consensus over this issue. That fight continues at this meeting.

The President of the Review Conference, she said, is a remarkably able diplomat from Costa Rica, Permanent Representative Maritza Chan Valverde. If anyone can thread the needle on having a strong outcome document and reaching consensus at the same time, it’s likely to be Ambassador Chan. But it’s a herculean task.

“I greatly admire her skill and dedication, but I think that the chasm between the supporters of the UNPoA and the obstructionists may simply be too large.”

In discussing the outcome document of the September 2024 Summit of the Future, Ambassador Chan said, “The Pact for the Future cannot remain anchored in the language of the past. Consensus must be forged, not found. Ambition must prevail in the text, and the progress of the many cannot be hindered by the reservations of the few.”

That quote, Dr Goldring said, seems to suggest that she would be willing to have votes in order to avoid having the document be undermined by the obstructionists. But only time will tell.

In the early- to the mid-90s, the international trade in small arms and light weapons was a specialist topic within an extremely small community internationally, and was not on the international policy agenda in a significant way.

Because of the work of analysts and advocates to bring attention to this issue, subsequently accompanied by the work of dedicated diplomats at the UN and elsewhere, it is now an established part of international work to reduce the human costs of armed violence.

“Unfortunately, quantitative measures of the UNPoA’s effectiveness are difficult – if not impossible — to develop. Instead, we often measure outputs and activities, rather than outcomes. We simply don’t know the counterfactual – what the situation would have been without the UNPoA,” she declared.

Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and Military Editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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