Rebecca Peters,Director of IANSA.
Credit: IRIN
Rebecca Peters, Director of IANSA, the International Action Network on Small Arms.
IANSA is one of the three partners of the Control Arms Campaign, and is a global network of 700 civil society organisations. She played a critical role in the fight to ban civilian gun ownership in Australia in the 1990s and now is a high-profile commentator on issues relating to small arms, recently addressing the United Nations Security Council.


QUESTION: How did the Control Arms Campaign emerge, and who are the major participants?

ANSWER: The campaign emerged from existing efforts to establish an arms trade treaty that would require states not to transfer arms to countries known for human-rights abuses, or to countries in conflict or where sustainable development is likely to be undermined.

The idea originated with Óscar Arias Sánchez, former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1987. He came up with the idea of a code of conduct on weapons transfers and drafted in some other Peace Prize winners to promote the code. After this group of very eminent peace activists had promoted the Nobel Laureates’ International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers for some time, the idea was taken up by nongovernmental organisations around the world and became an international campaign. The campaign also attracted the attention of human-rights and development organisations, which is why Amnesty International and Oxfam got involved.

Between the many branches and affiliates of the three major partners, the campaign brought together a very large collection of groups. Both Amnesty and Oxfam have offices in many different countries, while IANSA brought in 700 NGOs, based in approximately 100 countries.

The campaign also recognises that if you want to bring both the arms trade and armed violence under control, it is not enough to focus on international arms transfers. Of equal importance is national and regional work to reduce armed violence – from national legislation and regional agreements to local programmes to reduce proliferation and misuse of guns.

The campaign was launched in October 2003, which is the time of year that the United Nations General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and Security meets for its four- to five-week session. We hope that this year, to coincide with the third anniversary of the campaign, there will be a resolution put forward to begin negotiations for an arms trade treaty. Around 50 governments are for the idea, and we believe that some will be moving the necessary resolution.

Q: What do you feel have been the key achievements of the Control Arms Campaign?

A: Certainly getting this many countries to express support for an international treaty in just three years has been an important achievement. Our work with national and regional bodies has also influenced some regional agreements introduced in recent years, such as the Nairobi Protocol, signed by states in Central and East Africa in 2004.

We have also been able to mobilise other global networks on the issue. The World Council of Churches, for example, has issued a statement of support, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now linking small-arms misuse with human-rights violations, which it had never done in the past.

The campaign has certainly helped to infect humanitarian organisations with the notion that if you are serious about human rights, you need to do something about small arms. The link between the proliferation of small arms and damage to human rights is a very new, but increasingly important, concept.

Equally, the campaign has successfully linked small arms with development issues, whereas previously they were only considered to be of concern in a military or security context. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, has recently recognised programmes designed to combat the proliferation and misuse of small arms as development work.

The campaign has certainly worked to get small arms on the agenda. The UN World Summit in 2005 only dealt with two issues relating to security: landmines and small arms. And the report of the Secretary-General’s high-level panel, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility”, also mentioned small arms specifically.

Q: Why are small arms such a major focus of the Control Arms Campaign?

A: Critically, guns are the weapons that kill the most people. In addition – and this is especially shocking considering the devastation they cause – small arms are the only category of weapons that are not governed by an international agreement. Indeed, the only thing regulating the trade in guns is demand.

Small arms are disproportionately harmful. Vast numbers of people are killed by guns – between 300,000 and 500,000 every year. While some countries argue that the arms trade is too important economically to be highly regulated, this argument does not necessarily hold. The trade in small arms, at around US $4 billion per annum, is actually worth very little compared to the value of the global trade in coffee, which is worth approximately $50 billion. Small arms do not have a high value in international trade, especially given the amount of devastation they cause. The World Bank has calculated that in Latin America, for example, armed violence removes 12 percent from the continent’s total gross domestic product.

Increasingly, the economic and public-health costs of firearms injuries are being calculated, and it is clear that the gun business is simply not worth enough money to make tolerating gun violence worthwhile. The impact of these costs is particularly significant in a developing country. A member of IANSA in El Salvador has calculated that the extra annual costs associated with dealing with gunshot injuries would equal the cost of a brand new hospital. Bullet wounds demand far more resources and attention than many other injuries, and victims are more likely to take longer to recover or to be permanently disabled. The sums just do not add up.

Q: If the costs of armed violence are so disproportionate, and the value of the trade –particularly in small arms – is not so great, then why is there resistance to the introduction of controls?

A: One of the major problems is that the people involved in these negotiations generally come from the military sector or defence departments. They have often spent their lives surrounded by weapons and do not, for example, feel the impact of armed violence on the health budget of a country. While they do of course care, progress will be much more substantial when we are able to convince officials from other departments, such as health and justice, to participate in discussions about arms controls. Only if a wider variety of government representatives are involved in discussion, will the true impact of small arms be realised.

In addition, although the global value of the gun industry is small, it is seen as large in specific countries. In Eastern Europe, for example, small-arms production plays an important economic role. As the guns are exported, the impact is not felt in the country of origin, but rather in countries in Africa, for example. It is not surprising that officials who are negotiating on behalf of gun-producing countries are not concerned with the human impact of small arms – they might be if people were dying in tens of thousands in their own countries.

There is also an old idea, dating from the Cold War period, which equates a large number of weapons with national security, which is why countries invest in huge armies and arsenals. However, the paradigm has shifted, and the emphasis now must be on human security. The people who are in charge are still sticking to this Cold War assumption about national security, and unless officialdom is diversified and new concepts of human security embraced, thousands of people will continue to lose their lives for the sake of conventional practice.

Finally, the majority of small arms are in the hands of civilians, making it much more difficult for governments to deliver on their commitments. While larger weapons are generally government-owned, millions of individuals must be considered when drafting small-arms controls.

Q: How could arms embargoes be made more effective? How can arms transfers be better regulated to ensure that guns do not end up on the black market or in the illegal sphere?

A: Currently, arms embargoes rely on the goodwill of governments, as the UN does not have the power or the resources to enforce embargoes. One of the easiest changes a government could make is to alter their national law so that the violation of a UN arms embargo is a criminal offence. However, the old notion of a crime being committed by one person, in one location, has to be rethought, as often embargo busters may not physically be in the country through which the weapons pass.

Criminal law must keep up with all the twists and turns that gunrunners go through to avoid being caught. Governments have managed to put in place regulations governing the incredibly complicated pathways of international financial transactions – they must now do the same for weapon transfers.

Transfers of weapons can start off as legal – that is, when they are licensed by both the government of the exporting country and the government of the importing country – but can easily move into the illegal sector. For example, a government may refuse to allow the export of guns to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but permit transfers to Uganda, even if it believes that the same guns will quickly be moved over the border to DRC. Governments should have an obligation to ensure that the latter does not happen. They should demand evidence that the guns stay in the country to which they were transferred.

Q: How can the enforcement of gun-control laws be ensured?

A: The problem of guns does not stand alone – often issues of governance and questions of corruption are closely related. Police in many countries where armed violence is a problem often do not make the effort to enforce gun-control laws or are involved in the illegal gun trade themselves. Police are also known to misuse their weapons, or to abuse their own positions of power. All these contribute to a desire among citizens be armed – their own government is failing to protect them or, indeed, actively attacks them.

In addition, there must be policies in place that are designed in such a way that they can be successfully implemented. For example, a gun law should ensure that all weapons are registered, just like cars. Many laws demand that the gun is registered only after it is bought, thereby effectively making registration optional. In some countries, the seller must register the transaction upon purchase of the gun, and the buyer cannot take possession of the gun until the registration process is complete.

Sometimes laws are designed in such a way that they undermine their own effectiveness – the point in a transaction at which a gun is registered may seem to be very minor, but in fact makes all the difference. IANSA helps to develop principles for effective laws on civilian gun possession, to ensure that laws have the greatest chance of being enforced. In addition, effective enforcement will depend on improving police integrity and record-keeping capacity.

Q: If a global arms trade treaty was successfully introduced, how should the guns that are already in circulation be dealt with?

A: One good thing to come out of the UN process on small arms is the acceptance of the need to manage the existing weapons stockpile. While it seems obvious, the notion of destroying guns once a state is finished with them is a revolutionary concept for governments. In the past, when a country was upgrading its arsenal, or confiscating weapons from criminals, the guns would be sold, without any thought for how they might be used in the future. When the huge armies in the Soviet Union demobilised, millions of guns were sold.

New guns are being produced at a rate of eight million per annum, but being destroyed at a rate of one million per year. We are falling further and further behind. We must reduce production of small arms and increase their destruction.
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