Barbara Frey is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the prevention of human rights violations committed with small arms and light weapons and director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed Special Rsapporteur by the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights in 2002 and given the task of preparing a comprehensive study on the issue of preventing human-rights violations committed with small arms and light weapons. Elements of the study have included the examination of the interaction between existing international humanitarian law and human rights law, and state actions with respect to arms transfers, and of the policies and practices of 35 states. Frey’s final report will be submitted to the sub-commission at its August 2006 session.QUESTION: How are human rights affected by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons?
ANSWER: It is fairly obvious that small arms used both by state agents and in the hands of nonstate actors have tremendous effects on the human rights of individuals around the world.
Around 200,000 to 270,000 people are killed in nonconflict settings on an annual basis, and a similar number are killed during armed conflict, meaning that people in enormous numbers have the most fundamental right – that is, the right to life – taken away from them. In addition, other violations of bodily integrity, such as torture and rape, may involve small arms or be committed at gunpoint.
An entire spectrum of economic and social rights is also affected. For example, huge population displacement is caused by the threat of small arms. Even development itself has been affected. Just look at Medellín in Colombia, where children are unable to go to school and people cannot walk safely down the streets.
Small arms have a pervasive impact on human rights, and it is thus of vital importance to highlight this impact and to outline what legal obligations states may have to take against such abuses.
Has the increasing focus on the relationship between small-arms abuses and human-rights violations helped to promote a greater acceptance of the need to address small-arms misuse?
It has helped in a small way. The concept has certainly taken root in discussion – the relationship between the violation of human rights and small-arms abuse has been a key focus of the United Nations conference process, and the UN Programme of Action.
The human-rights community is, on one hand, keen to see what concrete steps can be taken to prevent small-arms abuse and to understand better its role in clarifying international norms so that states will know what is required of them. But the majority of human-rights lawyers who examine classic human-rights abuses are generally not arms experts and are often reluctant to get involved in the development of norms and regulations to control arms. Even experts such as the UN special rapporteur on summary and arbitrary execution may not note the role of weapons with any special interest.
Those people documenting human-rights violations must acknowledge the significance of weapons and identify the role and type of weapons that are used in committing such violations. Highlighting this technical link between weapons and the abuse of human rights is critical. A conceptual link such as this will help to elucidate the responsibilities of states to prevent human rights abuses committed with small arms.
Community-policing efforts are an excellent example of how states can be proactive. Not only do such programmes work at a community level, with the aim of promoting disarmament and addressing the demand for firearms, but they also train police in their human-rights obligations. Q: Are the existing international legal standards sufficient to oblige states to address small-arms abuse?
A: Existing human-rights standards are not enough. There needs to be further articulation of guidelines and principles that connect a state’s obligation to protect the right to life and the obligation to control the transfer and misuse of small arms and light weapons.
In the area of international humanitarian law, principles that can be applied to small arms misuse are much clearer, as the drafters of these laws are often fully engaged with issues specifically generated by armed conflict.
The will to act is ever increasing, as states recognise the vast collective costs of small- arms misuse – from terrorism to criminal and gang-related violence. However, states are unwilling to disarm themselves if they perceive their own national security to be threatened. It is imperative that practical solutions work to lower these concerns.
While there is no international legal requirement for states to disarm, there are great incentives to do so. Some states have begun to think in terms of the benefits of limiting small-arms transfers, and I hope that various protocols for the prevention, control and reduction of small arms that have been implemented in some national and regional contexts bear fruit and serve to get other states involved. Q: Wouldn’t governments be more reluctant to curb small-arms transfers, given the economic interests of those benefiting from this trade?
A: My feeling is that the economic costs of the small-arms trade far outweigh the economic benefits, particularly in the illicit sphere. The people who are benefiting from illegal transfers are not significant national companies employing thousands, but rather are criminals and unregulated brokers who make small profits at any human cost.
Incentives must provoke the realisation among states that they need to crack down on the worst criminal violators – those, for example, who manage to transfer weapons into Darfur at significant human cost. Only if small-arms manufacture and transfer are regulated and if the international outlaws facilitating this illegal activity are tracked down will governments begin to understand the benefits that will accrue in terms of the international economy and development.
Indeed, it is the richer nations who have the most to gain from a reduction in armed violence, and it is they who must provide incentives for more marginalised countries. Just as there are numerous incentives for countries not to produce nuclear weapons, a similar approach must be developed to deal with small arms.
There is no panacea – the small-arms trade presents multifaceted problems and demands multifaceted solutions. As the nascent international justice system develops, we should perhaps consider prosecuting the worst arms brokers, some of whom are effectively complicit in genocide. Even if such prosecutions do not stem the flow of weapons, they will send a strong message. The fact that brokers as notorious as Victor Bout [an international arms dealer whose fields of operation have included Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola] are allowed to walk about as free men should be an embarrassment to the international community. Q: Have efforts to draw attention to the connection between small-arms abuse and human-rights violations been successful?
A: At least we have started talking. A number of states are beginning to realise that the problem of small arms goes beyond illicit transfers – incentives must be provided to curb transfers of small arms more generally and norms must be developed that deal with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that result from any form of small-arms abuse, including with arms that may have been obtained through legal transfers. A good starting point is reframing existing standards regarding use of force and firearms in light of human-rights obligations, an effort currently taking place in the sub-commission. We must encourage states to implement law enforcement standards into their domestic law and to train their law enforcement personnel to follow those standards.
We must also encourage a shift in focus to the illicit transfer of small arms and examine other forms of manufacture, transfer and use – all of which damage the wellbeing of states and, fundamentally, continue to harm humans across the globe.