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POLITICS: Report Slams Small Arms “Leakage”

Shiraz Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 18 2008 (IPS) - As the United Nations wound down its third biannual meeting on small arms and light weapons Friday, experts agreed that governmental negligence and the lack of basic safeguards have facilitated illicit small arms and light weapons proliferation in many regions across the globe.

An expert U.N. panel has defined small arms by their ability to be carried by one person, as opposed to light weapons, which require transportation by two or more people, a pack animal, or a light vehicle. Examples of small arms include rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, revolvers, and light machine guns.

“[Illicit small arms brokering] is probably the greatest challenge posed to the U.N. Programme of Action on eradication of illicit trade in small arms and light weapons,” said Nigerian Foreign Minister Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin, speaking on behalf of African nations.

“More serious but concerted efforts should be made by all stakeholders, either producers of SALW [small arms and light weapons] or the victims of their leakages with the serious repercussions on the safety and security of lives and properties especially in Africa and the developing world,” he said.

Small arms alone are responsible for 200,000 non-conflict deaths each year, according to a 2006 report by the Small Arms Working Group.

The 2008 survey, released this week, found that substantial amounts of these illicit small arms originate from massive government surplus stockpiles. Although the 2001 “U.N. Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects” calls for the safeguarding or destruction of surplus small arms, there is no international consensus on what type of arms must be considered surplus.

Since the decision of what portions of nations’ arsenals are surplus is left to their governments, they frequently exaggerate their small arms needs. According to the survey, of an estimated 200 million military firearms worldwide, at least 76 million are surplus.

“In the U.N. and in other negotiating forums, states are very reluctant to accept anything that might look like an international norm about you define surplus,” Keith Krause, programme director of the Small Arms Survey, told IPS. “That’s a national prerogative and they’ll do anything they can to justify keeping high reserves and surplus weapons.”

While there is substantial destruction of surplus small arms, destruction is still outpaced by the production of new arms and nations often prefer to export surplus arms rather than destroy them. Krause commented that to increase the rate of surplus destruction to at least match production each year “would not take a huge amount of effort on the part of the international community.”

Particularly alarming about the presence of these surplus stockpiles is the survey’s documentation of numerous successful attempts at theft and diversion that could have been prevented by the establishment of basic physical security and accounting safeguards.

“Sadly, [the system of stockpile management] is ineffective in many countries,” noted Swiss Ambassador Jurg Streuli, “In other cases it does not exist. The international community does not have the capacity to create perfect stockpile management systems in every state.”

While perfect stockpile management may be unfeasible, basic safeguards can prevent many less sophisticated arms diversions.

“Very simple administrative procedures can be put in place to safeguard ammunition as well as the weapons themselves,” said Krause. “There’s nothing technologically sophisticated about this. Why haven’t states implemented these safeguards? I think that until relatively recently, in the past four or five years, states weren’t really aware of exactly what the sources are of many of the weapons that are circulating in conflict zones.”

“Certainly in the late 1990s there was an idea that many of the weapons floating around in let’s say parts of West or East Africa were being imported by arms brokers and shady deals from the former communist bloc, but in fact a lot of the weapons that we see now are locally sourced. This makes sense because if you’re an armed group somewhere in Asia or Africa what is the most logical source of weapons? It’s the police station or barracks down the road, so its no surprise that that’s how they’re getting weapons and that tells us that we need close that part of the chain of leakage of illicit arms.”

The problem of poor safeguards of small arms stockpiles is not limited to developing nations alone, as evidenced by the survey’s report of the diversion of U.S. small arms intended for Iraqi security forces to militant groups abroad. The survey cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office report which stated that, “…the need to rapidly equip Iraqi forces conducting operations in a combat environment limited [the multinational force’s] ability to fully implement accountability procedures.”

Asked whether the United States’ strategy of rapid arms deployment at the expense of proper accounting was wise, Krause commented, “I think that logic was extremely short-sighted because the arms last a long time in these regions, and in the case of Iraq the situation is that the U.S. government does not know who should have and who is responsible for receiving those weapons. Iraq, when that war winds down, is going to be a terrible problem for proliferation in the region.”

Although the United Nations has convened regularly to discuss the implementation of the Programme of Action and reduce illicit small arms diversion, these meetings have not always produced significant progress. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the 2006 review conference on small arms and light weapons as “inconclusive.”

However, Krause spoke optimistically about the outcome of the ongoing Biennial Meeting of States.

“There is already a draft outcome document which is much more than we had in 2003 and 2005, and it does discuss at least three or four concrete issue areas including stockpile management, arms brokering, international tracing instruments, and cooperation assistance,” said Krause. “I think states realised after 2006 that they needed to get down to practical nuts and bolts discussions about implementation.”

Krause elaborated that although progress made at the diplomatic level is important, steps must also be taken to ensure that this progress is translated into effective action.

“A meeting in New York does not change the world. What’s important is what happens afterwards and how we can see if states actually do take practical steps towards implementation.”

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