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Minimizing the impact of illicit small arms and diverted weapons transfers in the commission of atrocity crimes, human rights violations and other violence
Hector Guerra, International Action Network on Small Arms & Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict
Applying a Disarmament Lens to Gender, Human Rights, Development, Security, Education, and Communication: Six Essays
UN Office on Disarmament Affairs
November 2012
31 January 2010. In Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the border with the United States, once infamous for being the most dangerous city
on Earth and for its number of femicides, a group of assassins stormed a house in the neighbourhood of Villas Salvácar. (…)
These particular attacks are but a token of the reality and potential for mass atrocity crimes and community violence that is ever present and which creates extensive and continuous challenges to the freedom-from fear objectives of human security. (…)
Over the past decade the international community has taken steps to tackle the problem of illicit weapons. Most important among them are the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA), the related United Nations Firearms Protocol (2005) and the International Tracing Instrument (2005). More recently we and other NGOs participated in preparations for formal negotiations (Summer 2012) on an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). (…)
Backed by a series of disarmament, humanitarian and human rights treaties and structures that help ensure transparency and compliance, these agreements
and activities represent important platforms from which to address threats to human security ranging from atrocity crimes to school and community violence. Specifically, these agreements address the threat posed by illicit arms, both their proliferation and illegal use: Too many arms are in the wrong hands, and lives, limbs and livelihoods are being needlessly lost.(…)
(…) The General Assembly convened in early September to discuss the need for “third pillar” prevention and implementation tools to address the threat of mass atrocities under the “responsibility to protect” framework. While a few States are hindering efforts to control illicit weapons and fulfil our responsibility to protect civilian populations from abuse, the majority of United Nations Member States favour robust and comprehensive instruments to prevent the spread of illicit arms, including small arms, light weapons and ammunition, arms that most States recognize can fuel mass atrocities or otherwise contribute to human suffering in our communities. (…)
(…) The uses of unregulated or diverted conventional weapons (weapons in the “wrong hands”) have numerous detrimental impacts, including the following:
• Illicit arms inflame conflicts that might otherwise be resolvable, including conflicts that have the potential to incite major violations of human rights or even escalate to the level of mass atrocities. (…)
• Illicit arms in the hands of State and non-State actors have been used both to violate the human rights of civilian populations and to impede efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. (…)
• Illicit arms (and ammunition) greatly impact the ability of governments to discharge many of its most important functions, including the primary responsibility to protect civilians from violence by criminals, non-State actors, or even by rogue government elements. (…)
Illicit Weapons, Atrocity Crime Prevention and our Responsibility to Protect.
While there are indeed many insidious aspects of the proliferation of illicit weapons, perhaps the most serious is related to the role those weapons play in the commission of mass violence, including the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and the massacre at Utoya, Norway in 2011. Since its founding, the United Nations has had the prevention of mass violence at the heart of its agenda, both violence in communities and especially within broader international legal frameworks defined by crimes against humanity and genocide.
Urgency regarding that agenda escalated in 2005 when the World Summit unanimously endorsed (with greater and lesser levels of enthusiasm) the “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) norm. The norm affirms the primary role of States in protecting citizens from mass violence but legitimizes international response in those instances where States cannot or will not offer that protection. The RtoP norm endorses “three pillars” of response, mostly preventative and focused on supporting the primary obligation of States to protect their own citizens from abuse. Through capacity-building within States, early warning systems, robust diplomacy, civilian-based capacities and “last resort” interventions, the international community is attempting to find the right formula that can respond to the “smoke” of mass atrocities before it evolves into fire, and also make it possible to respond rapidly and effectively to the “fire” without the need for costly and controversial military operations.
It seems clear that the illicit trade in conventional weapons and the ammunition that fuels them greatly complicate efforts to build State capacity and otherwise help governments fulfil their primary protective responsibilities with respect to their civilian populations. Fragile States facing threats to their control from non-State actors with access to plentiful weapons will be hard pressed—even when protection is a stated priority—to provide security for their populations in ways that fully respect human rights and reduce rather than exacerbate the threat of mass atrocities. So long as illicit arms inflame conditions that are beyond full government control, internal conflicts with grave implications will continue to flare and any effort to protect civilians, whether atrocity crimes are present or not, will be severely compromised.
Moreover, across the board, the costs alone to fragile States from mass atrocity and other conflicts fuelled in part by illicit weapons are staggering: As reported in “Africa’s Missing Billions”, the continent loses around $18 billion per year due to wars, civil wars and insurgencies. On average, armed conflict shrinks an African nation’s economy by 15 per cent, and this is probably a conservative estimate. The real costs of armed violence to Africans could be much higher, perhaps even exceeding the value of aid received in the same period. Such costs, alongside the trauma of mass violence, are highly wasteful and damaging to vital human potential. Encouragingly, many of these same States have also affirmed that the protection of civilians from mass violence is part of our collective responsibility and have in key respects also affirmed the need for tools and capacities—including early warning mechanisms, more dialogue between the Security Council and countries contributing troops to peacekeeping operations, and more inter-agency engagement on mass atrocities—that can capably augment implementation of RtoP.
While RtoP represents a limited frame of reference on civilian protection as it is focused solely on mass atrocities, both this norm and the general notion of international responsibility for the protection of civilians (once a controversial matter inside and outside of the peacekeeping community) are now accepted by virtually all States, including those taking part in the influential “C-34” Peacekeeping Group. Of course, not all of these States are rigorously drawing connections between the presence of large quantities of illicit arms and the increased likelihood of intra-State violence and even the commission of mass atrocities; nor are they always drawing connections between the ubiquitous presence of weapons and the preponderance of gender-based and school-based violence. But we believe these connections have great merit, and as such there is ample cause for civil society and government policymakers worldwide to both discuss and address linkages forthrightly. (…)
Solutions to the Impacts of Illicit Weapons
Beyond the importance of sustained regional dialogue, what are some of the other solutions to the many-faceted and highly problematic impacts of illicit weapons? (…) While States have a United Nations Charter-recognized right to legitimate self-defence, the proviso is that such defence must take place at the lowest possible levels of armament. Moreover, extending the military capabilities of fragile States that are already awash in illegal weapons is a dubious proposition at best.(…)
As international civil society insists that States do more to protect civilian populations, including and especially from mass atrocities, it must collectively take more responsibility as well. There are many things that governments, civil society organizations and other stakeholders can do more of together
• Explore local and regional linkages between the presence of illicit arms and the threat of mass violence or severe abuses of human rights. (…)
• Assist States, especially fragile States, to guarantee the security of existing weapons stockpiles (or remove them altogether), and help ensure marking, tracing and record keeping of arms that is cost effective and sufficiently interactive with the highest international standards in this area. (…)
• Assist States in promoting citizen disarmament, especially in post-conflict situations or where the propensity of unregulated, unlicensed weapons threatens education, participation, health and related options within communities.
• Assist States in implementing important responsibilities stemming from the illicit arms trade—including providing victims’ assistance and “flagging” potentially diverted transfers.
Concluding Remarks
(…) As we move from concern to practice, voices from impacted communities can also be a source of inspiration and insight. Citizens who have been threatened by insurgents, intimidated by unregulated weapons, or abused by government and non-government agents have demonstrated with their lives the urgent need to see the linkages between the elimination of illicit weapons and diverted arms transfers, and the prevention of mass violence. We can learn much from these communities, specifically their persistent commitment to peaceful change, their engagement of a broad range of interrelated security concerns, and their willingness to engage whatever insights and capacities are needed to create a more predictable, fair and transparent security sector in which weapons are used by appropriate authorities in an appropriate manner. Clearly there are many tangible benefits that can accrue to a world no longer awash in illicit weapons. It is past time to do all that we can in all global regions to help make that world possible.
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