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A world awash with weapons

By Mary-Anne Andersen

Although small arms cause the greatest bloodshed in today’s conflicts, little has been done to restrict their availability. In addition to the high cost in human life, the abundance of weapons among civilians in war-torn countries poses a direct threat to humanitarian operations. A global effort must be made to combat this growing problem.

There was a time when the most likely place to see young boys roaming the streets equipped with heavy assault rifles was a Hollywood film set. Today, they are more commonly seen in post-conflict countries beset by disparity and despair, where those in possession of the weapons set the rules for society. The proliferation of small arms has become a constant threat to fragile peace agreements, and civilians in general have become the targets.

“When former combatants suddenly find themselves out of a job and with no education, getting hold of a weapon basically means they’re back in business,” explains Christophe Carle, Vice Director of UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research). In societies where people struggle to survive, a weapon serves as a blank cheque.

According to studies carried out by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, the proportion of civilians killed in armed conflicts has risen from around 10 per cent at the beginning of this century, to around 75 per cent today. A recent study of the ICRC’s medical database on weapons-related casualties showed that in one post-
conflict setting civilian injuries and deaths caused mainly by small military-style arms decreased by only 20 to 40 per cent during the 18 months following the end of hostilities.

“The availability of small arms may not be what ignites a conflict, but it’s often what fuels it, prolongs it and makes it more lethal. It also breeds a climate of insecurity in which it is at times simply impossible to carry out humanitarian work,” says Peter Herby, from the ICRC’s Legal Division.



Constant danger

In 1996 the ICRC saw nine of its staff killed in Burundi and Chechnya in direct attacks, and was forced to withdraw from both places. These attacks are part of a trend in which ICRC staff have experienced an increase in security incidents, most involving arms, from 21 in 1990 to 153 in 1996. National Society and International Federation staff have also come increasingly into the firing line. In addition to the effects on personnel, the financial cost of many humanitarian operations rises dramatically when supplies have to be transported by air due to security problems. Whether the protective symbol is a blue helmet, a red cross or a red crescent, the problem is the same.

“The fact that weapons intended for military purposes become widely available among civilians threatens to undermine the foundations of international humanitarian law and our mandate to promote respect for it,” says Peter Herby. “That law is based on the assumption that military-style weapons are in the hands of armed forces which are subject to a certain discipline and receive training in the legitimate use of these arms.”

Cause for urgency

The humanitarian problems provoked by the largely unregulated flow of small arms have reached such a level that there is now an urgent need to find ways of addressing them. In 1995, at the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the ICRC was asked to conduct a study on the availability of arms and violations of international humanitarian law. An overview of the ICRC’s field experiences, the scope of the problem and recommendations on how to solve it will be discussed at the annual meeting of legal advisers within the Movement in September.

Whereas the massive volume of small arms in worldwide circulation has caused most of the bloodshed and human suffering in recent conflicts, the weapons most often targeted by traditional disarmament efforts have been major weapon systems such as missiles, fighter aircraft and nuclear weapons which are, fortunately, less frequently used. The current small arms crisis is evident to many, and has given rise to several initiatives aimed at finding concrete ways of solving the problem.

Among them is the government-funded “Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfer”, a joint effort by the Norwegian Red Cross, the International Peace Institute of Oslo, the Norwegian Church Aid and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, to study ways of controlling and limiting the transfer of small arms.

“There are too many arms in too many countries, and that is one of the biggest humanitarian challenges of today,” explains Jan Egeland, former Norwegian Deputy Minister of State, now director of the Norwegian Initiative. He sees the initiative as a natural extension of the active role Norway played in achieving an effective ban on anti-personnel landmines last year, but he does not expect the same success: “This issue is much bigger and more challenging, and it would be dangerous to believe we can repeat the success, it is simply not possible to ban small arms altogether, but their availability can be limited.”


An example to follow

The task of curbing the bloodshed caused by the easy availability of arms may well be difficult, but not impossible. After six years of unrest in Mali, where a 23-year-old military dictatorship was overthrown on 26 March 1991, nearly 3,000 rebels agreed to exchange their weapons for the means to readapt themselves to civilian life. Since then some 10,000 more have followed suit. The process was facilitated by UN agencies who greased the wheels of peacemaking by providing funds for weapons to be exchanged for land and for the education of former rebels. The weapons collected were destroyed on 27 March 1996 in a big fire in Timbuktu, an event now known as the “Flame of Peace”.

Many problems created by the conflict still remain unsolved in Mali, but by reducing the number of arms in circulation, the country has become both safer and more attractive to foreign investors.

We have to tell donor governments that it is worth spending money on collecting weapons before launching development projects in a war-torn country. Without a minimum of security, development cannot take place,” says Christophe Carle of UNIDIR. “The debate on the need to control small arms and ammunition has started – it is a matter of the right people paying attention.”

Mary-Anne Andersen
Mary-Anne Andersen is a freelance journalist formerly with the ICRC’s Mines Unit.

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