The UN Secretary-General’s warning is spot on — it’s a global issue
Empty large-caliber cartridge casings on the floor of an African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) heavy machine gun nest at Kismayo International Airport in southern Somalia. Photo credit: UN Photo/Ramadan Mohammed
  • Tarif Dean (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

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

The United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPoA) has an ambitious goal: “Prevent, combat and eliminate illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects.” But in a political world dominated by the gun lobby and the military-industrial complex, this is a daunting task.

The week-long conference, scheduled to end on June 28, will see diplomats from around the world review the implementation of the political agreement, which came into force in 2001. Members of private sector organisations will also be present to present their analysis, lobby and provide input to governments.

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

And countries, regions and communities around the world are suffering. New and protracted conflicts put millions at risk.

“They exacerbate crime, displacement and terrorism. From conflict zones to the home, they are used to intimidate and perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence.”

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

These include heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles, launchers for portable anti-tank missile and rocket systems, launchers for portable anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortars of less than 100 millimeter caliber.

Besides the two major wars currently underway in Ukraine and Gaza, civil conflicts in which small arms and light weapons are the primary weapons of choice are occurring primarily in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen.

But in these two devastating conflicts, Russia and Israel use more sophisticated weaponry, including fighter jets, attack helicopters, drones, air-to-surface missiles, armored personnel carriers and tanks.

Dr Natalie J. Goldring, director of the Acronim Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, which works on conventional arms and arms trade issues at the UN, told IPS that there are many obstacles to the full implementation of UN disarmament treaties, both during and after the review conference. Two of these obstacles seem particularly prominent at this year’s review conference.

The first set of obstacles is external.

After all, the UN Plan of Action is a political document and is designed to be implemented primarily at the national level. Countries must have the political will to implement the commitments in the UN Plan of Action and the outcome documents of the biennial country meetings and review conferences, she said.

Smaller, less resourced countries may also require financial assistance to implement parts of the UNPoA.

As a result, some small countries are reluctant to accept programs and policies that may qualify for international aid, fearing they will be costly to implement, Dr Goldring said.

“The political challenge is complicated by the large role played by the arms industry. Weapons manufacturers have an economic incentive to sell as many weapons as they can, and countries that supply them can depend on the power of those manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers are so keen to protect their interests that they attend these conferences, speak and lobby.”

The second main obstacle, she says, is internal.

“The action planning process is typically driven by a ‘consensus’ exercise. In theory, that seems laudable. Why wouldn’t we want the process to be dominated by reaching a consensus? But in this process, consensus is effectively defined as unanimity, meaning that a single negative voice can stymie change or progress.”

She argued that because of the consensus-building process, such conferences and meetings often require a difficult choice between two main options: one possibility is a strong outcome document, reached by voting but not by agreement, and the other possibility is a weaker outcome document, reached by consensus.

“If agreement is unlikely, proponents of the UN Plan of Action could, and perhaps should, craft an ambitious outcome document that better delivers on the promises of the UN Plan of Action and requires a vote on some of the most controversial provisions. Perhaps the worst outcome would be for strong proponents of the UN Plan of Action to accept many compromises on the document and still not reach agreement,” Dr Goldring asserted.

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

These prevent vital humanitarian assistance from reaching the most vulnerable people and put the lives of UN peacekeepers and civilians at risk.

Mr Guterres warned that the situation is worsening as new developments in small arms manufacturing, technology and design, such as 3D printing, are making the illicit production and trafficking of small arms easier than ever.

Rebecca Peters, executive director of the International Action Network on Small Arms and Light Weapons (IANSA), wrote in an op-ed for the UN Chronicle that 1,000 people are killed by gunfire every day and three times that number are seriously injured. If death, injury and disability caused by small arms were classified as a disease, it would amount to an epidemic.

But the media and public perception tend to suggest that gun violence is simply the inevitable result of human cruelty or poverty, rather than a public health problem that can be prevented or at least mitigated, she said.

“Gun violence landscapes are so diverse that it would be overly simplistic to propose a single solution. Reducing the global toll requires a comprehensive approach that reflects the multidimensional nature of the problem.”

Yet mass killings in American high schools, armed gangs in Brazil, and systematic sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo have one thing in common: the availability of guns (what the UN calls small arms).

She said practical measures to reduce the availability and misuse of small arms could be grouped into four areas:

  1. Reduction of existing stockpiles
  2. Cutting back on new arms supplies
  3. Closing the gates between legal and illegal markets
  4. Decreasing motivation (demand) to acquire guns

Goldring further noted that the issue of whether and how to include munitions in the UN Peacekeeping Operations Treaty is a key example of the difficulty in reaching agreement. This has been going on ever since the first negotiations of the UN Peacekeeping Operations Treaty, when the United States and several other countries indicated their intention to block agreement on the issue. This battle continues at this conference.

He said the chair of the Review Conference is Maritza Chan Valverde, a highly skilled Costa Rican diplomat, and that if anyone could navigate the challenges of crafting a strong outcome document and reaching an agreement at the same time, it would be Ambassador Chan. But it’s a tall order.

“I have great respect for her abilities and her commitment, but I wonder if the gulf between supporters and obstructors of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is too great.”

Discussing the outcome document of the September 2024 Future Summit, Ambassador Chan said, “The Future Agreement cannot remain bound by the words of the past. Agreement must be built, not found. Ambition must prevail in the document and the reservations of the few must not thwart progress by the many.”

Dr Goldring said the remarks seemed to suggest she was prepared to vote to avoid the document being ruined by obstructionists, but only time would tell.

In the early to mid-1990s, international trade in small arms and light weapons was a specialized topic within a very small international community and not much on the international policy agenda.

Thanks to the work of analysts and advocates who have sought to draw attention to the issue, followed by dedicated diplomats at the United Nations and other organizations, it is now firmly established as part of international efforts to reduce the human cost of armed violence.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult, if not impossible, to quantitatively measure the effectiveness of the UNPoA. Instead, we measure outcomes and activities, not results. We never know the counterfactual of how things would have been without the UNPoA,” she asserted.

Tarif Dean He is formerly director of foreign military markets for Defense Marketing Services, senior defense analyst at Forecast International, and Middle East/Africa military editor for Jane’s Information Group.

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