Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 12 June 2008

Dealing with gun violence

Last week (June 2-8) was the official Global Week of Action against Gun Violence. Judging from the reports that have continued this week to arrive in my email inbox from the organisers of this initiative - the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) - it would seem that this year has seen the most global activity by civil society to raise awareness of the problem of gun violence since IANSA launched the 'week of action' idea in 2003. Details of all of the activities that have taken place worldwide can be found here.

In the same vein, I also gave a talk earlier this week to participants in the Geneva Centre for Security Policy's course on 'New Issues in Security' on the topic of 'dealing with small arms and light weapons.' Preparing for this allowed me to reflect on the various ways in which the international community has tried to respond to the global scourge of gun violence since the issue first emerged on the international agenda in the mid-1990s.

A lot has certainly been achieved. In 2001, States party to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime agreed a protocol to that convention to combat "the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition." This is still the only global, legally-binding instrument on guns in existence today. As important as it is, the protocol is essentially a crime control measure, however, and does not regulate State-to-State transfers of firearms nor, indeed, any other transfer of firearms authorised by a State.

Also in 2001, all UN Member States adopted the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. Although it is not a legally-binding agreement, it does commit States to a broad range of actions at the national, regional and global levels that, if properly implemented, could make a real difference.

Some provisions in the UN Programme of Action have also been further developed. In 2005, UN Member States agreed an International Tracing Instrument that, if properly implemented, would allow them to identify the points at which small arms and light weapons cross the threshold from the legal into the illicit realm (this is crucial since most illicit guns start their lives as perfectly legal weapons). In 2007, a UN Expert Group issued useful recommendations to States on how to prevent small arms brokers within their jurisdictions from engaging in illicit brokering activities.

Outside of this framework, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development - a stand-alone initiative coordinated by Switzerland and subscribed to by 94 States (and rising) - aims to achieve a measurable reduction in the global burden of armed violence, as well as tangible improvements in human security by 2015.

The United Nations has developed global standards for the disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration of former combatants in post-conflict situations and has plans to develop another set of global standards for a broad range of small arms control measures. The World Health Organisation is running a Global Campaign for Violence Prevention. Finally, ambitious efforts are underway with strong support from UN Member States to develop an Arms Trade Treaty that would regulate the global trade in all conventional weapons, including guns.

All of this is just what is happening at the global level (and this is not even an exhaustive list). A lot more is happening at the regional and sub-regional levels but outlining this would require a lot more space than is available to me here. It is at the national level, however, where action has been most disappointing. Implementation by States of their existing commitments, especially under the UN Programme of Action, has, generally speaking, been weak and uneven. (UN Member States will have an opportunity to review this situation and to do something about it when they meet next month for their third 'Biennial Meeting' to assess implementation of the UN Programme of Action.)

And yet, despite all of this activity, guns continue to flow into and around the illicit market, aided by shady brokers. They continue to find their way around UN arms embargoes. They continue to be transferred in an irresponsible manner. And, most importantly of all, they continue to be misused on a massive scale, leaving death, disability, displacement and destitution in their wake.

There are no simple, 'one-size-fits-all' policy solutions to the complicated problem of the proliferation and misuse of guns. A full three-quarters of the world's estimated 875 million firearms are thought to be in the hands of civilians. Two thirds of the 300,000 or so killings carried out each year using guns happen not in traditional 'armed conflict' situations, but in the context of criminality and inter-personal violence. And there is no simple link between the availability of guns and their misuse.

Despite having been on the international agenda for more than a decade now and despite a lot having been achieved during that time, we are still in the relatively early stages of really getting a grip on this problem. Focusing on the effects that guns have on people - as the global week of action does - is a useful way of setting priorities for the next decade of action on this issue.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Video credit: "Stop the bullets. Kill the gun." Film by Choice FM available on the IANSA Global Week of Action website.