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Small Arms: Big Impact, Consultation on Microdisarmament - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 1998

Towards a Culture of Peace

The processes driving the diffusion and use of small arms2 in the world are many and complex. They vary from setting to setting, from region to region. They include such factors as the lack of personal security, economic and social deprivation and lack of opportunity, the failure of governing structures, cultural views on the role of men in society, religious intolerance and many others. To the extent that these elements are successfully addressed, “demand” for small arms will be reduced. Only if they are addressed will the reality of physical violence be lessened.

2 Whilst there are a variety of definitions of the term small arms, for the purposes of this document, they are defined as including all weapons that are person-portable. In addition to guns and rifles of all calibers, this would also include shoulder-fired rocket and missile launchers, and anti-personnel landmines. A recent United Nations report provided the following definitions: small arms includes revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns; light weapons includes heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft missile systems (sometimes mounted) and mortars of calibers less than 100 mm; ammunition and explosives includes cartridges (rounds) from small arms, shells and missiles for light weapons, mobile containers with missiles or shells for single-action anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, anti-personnel and anti-tank hand grenades, landmines and explosives. From “Report of Governmental Experts on Small Arms,” A/52/298, United Nations, 27 August 1997.

But the wide-spread availability of small arms in and of itself fuels and exacerbates the social impact of these factors and worsens their physical, psychological and social consequences. Hence, it is increasingly understood that factors related to the availability of small arms must also be directly and effectively addressed at all levels of society. The analysis and directions suggested by the group, which are briefly summarized here, have been made with this framework of understanding in mind.

The Christian Church in its many manifestations in the world is actively engaged in society in working towards building a culture of peace. Therefore, it already can be seen to be working to reduce the causes driving the widespread diffusion of small arms. However, given the pivotal ways in which the availability of guns impacts on society, effective social witness by the Church towards a culture of peace must also focus on small arms. Many avenues were identified demonstrating how churches can be effectively involved in the control and reduction of small arms.

Existing Initiatives that Address the Proliferation and Trafficking of Small Arms

In recent years awareness has greatly increased of the specific challenges posed by the proliferation of guns and other light weapons, and by illicit arms trafficking. A wide range of initiatives have been taken to try to address these problems, operating at all levels - local, national, regional and global. The group reviewed and discussed these existing initiatives, and the opportunities for further development and action.

At the local level, there are many examples of initiatives to control and reduce the availability and use of guns, involving community groups, local authorities, churches, NGOs, aid agencies, institutes, police and other locally-based bodies. Indeed, they typically form a key part of projects to prevent crime and violence and build peace and development. There are, for example, many projects throughout the world aimed at: collecting or destroying guns; reducing or preventing youth involvement in crime and gun violence; persuading armed groups to stop the killing; reversing cultures of violence; re-integrating ex-combatants after conflicts; and developing cooperation between police and the community. The WCC and its member churches are very often centrally involved in such efforts, for example through its “Peace to the City” campaign.

At the national level, the wide availability and use of (legally- and illegally-held) small arms presents a potent challenge to many states’ capacity to ensure the security of citizens, promote economic and social development, or even govern parts of their territory. There have been, for example, noteworthy programmes recently to strengthen national gun controls in the UK, Australia, Mali, South Africa, Brazil, and several other countries, often stimulated by horrific massacres or high murder levels. Some countries (such as the USA, Belgium, Czech Republic, Namibia) are also taking more action to prevent their territories from being used as a source or transit route for illicit or destabilizing arms shipments. An increasing number of governments (including several EU member states, Canada, USA and Norway) have developed programmes to strengthen the capacity of countries in regions of conflict to prevent or control light arms and illicit trafficking, or to assist with the collection and destruction of ‘surplus’ arms.

At the international level, it is useful to distinguish between several different levels of action. There are global and regional programmes, and also initiatives to develop international support for regional actions. Finally, many bilateral or trilateral cooperative arrangements have developed between two or three neighbouring countries.

Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly over the last two years, there has been significant progress towards the development of a global framework for action against small arms proliferation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, UN General Assembly Resolutions developed a policy agenda focusing on potentially destabilizing effects of arms accumulations and transfers, their possible impact on economic and social development, and concerns about illicit or covert arms trafficking. The UN agenda emphasized strengthening national controls, promoting restraint, and enhancing openness and transparency in arms transfers (including the establishment in 1992 of the UN Register of Conventional Arms).

In 1995, concerns about small arms came explicitly to the fore, with the publication of the UN Secretary-General’s report ‘Supplement to An Agenda for Peace’ - an addendum to his 1992 Agenda for Peace - which highlighted the need for ‘microdisarmament’. The following year, a UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms was established to report on: the types of small arms and light weapons being used in conflicts; the nature and causes of flows and accumulations of such weapons and their impacts; and some possible ways and means of tackling the problem. The UN Panel produced an important report, published in summer 1997 and endorsed by the General Assembly. A new follow-on UN Group of Experts begins to meet in May 1998, to examine international efforts to address the problem of light arms proliferation and illicit trafficking and to prepare a framework for possible coordinated global action. It is due to report in summer 1999. In 1998 several efforts have emerged to establish a coalition of ‘like-minded’ states, to accelerate the development of such a global action programme.

At the same time, a range of UN and other global bodies have also been developing programmes to address these issues. Building on a series of UN General Assembly Resolutions on illicit arms trafficking, the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has surveyed firearms regulations and adopted a resolution to strengthen such regulations for the purposes of crime prevention and public safety. Together with Interpol, it is examining ways of strengthening efforts to combat illicit possession, trafficking and use of firearms. The G-8 has endorsed a programme to establish an international convention to address this problem.

In parallel with this, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank have been developing programmes to support security sector reform, gun-collection, border controls, demobilization and re-integration of ex-combatants, and the capacity of police and other institutions to maintain citizen and community security. The UNDP in particular has become closely involved in supporting the ‘security first’ approach to development assistance and peacebuilding, in which balanced and integrated programmes to address both security and development concerns are developed in conflict-prone areas.

At the regional level, several important initiatives have developed recently. Following a national initiative by Mali for UN assistance to tackle small arms proliferation, a group of countries in the Sahara-Sahel, West Africa, have developed a regional action programme to control arms flows and develop harmonized national gun controls, and soon hopefully to launch a regional moratorium on light and small arms transfers. In Southern Africa, initial steps have been taken to develop regional cooperation on border controls, policing, tackling arms trafficking, and gun collection and disposal.

In Europe, on the initiative of the Netherlands, EU states adopted in June 1997 a framework ‘Programme for Preventing and Combatting Illicit Trafficking in Conventional Arms’. This has subsequently been developed during the UK’s presidency of the EU in 1998. At the same time the UK has pushed forward with negotiations to establish an EU Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers which elaborates the criteria for limiting arms transfers and establishes information exchange and consultation mechanisms on implementation. The new Code of Conduct should be agreed in June 1998.

In the Americas, the Organization of American States agreed in November 1997 on a far-reaching ‘Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials’. This establishes substantial commitments to strengthen collective controls on arms transfers and efforts to combat arms trafficking, and is probably now the most highly developed regional agreement of its kind. Closely associated with it is an effort, coordinated by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, to establish a harmonized systems of import and export controls on arms and ammunition based on agreed best practice. The Mercosur group of South American states are reportedly developing sub-regional cooperation to further strengthen efforts in this area.

The problem of small arms proliferation is global. Regional action plans and agreements are very important, but they can greatly benefit from outside cooperation and assistance. Initiatives to provide such outside support, and to link global and regional programmes are therefore particularly significant. Perhaps the first contemporary example is the cooperation between Mali and its neighbouring West African states and the international community. Since 1995, the UN (and especially the UNDP) has established precedent-setting programmes to shape and support efforts by Sahara-Sahel countries to promote ‘microdisarmament’ and control arms flows. Individual donor countries, such as the Netherlands, the USA and Japan, have also been actively involved, and most recently Norway launched its Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) to support the possible establishment of a West African moratorium on light arms transfers.

Similarly, it is a key part of the EU Programme to Combat and Prevent Illicit Arms Trafficking to develop EU programmes to support efforts by countries in regions in conflict. In line with this, during its EU presidency in the first half of 1998, the UK sponsored a conference for officials from Southern Africa and EU countries to develop a draft action plan for tackling light arms proliferation and illicit trafficking in Southern Africa and to identify ways in which the EU could help. An action plan was agreed, and it is hoped that the next SADC/EU ministerial meeting will use it to establish a cooperative programme.

Finally, it is important to note the significance of bilateral and trilateral initiatives at the international level. There are many examples, such as agreements to combat illicit trafficking between: Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland; Mali and Niger; Mexico and the USA; India and Sri Lanka; and Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

In a sense, such arrangements between two or three countries form the bedrock on which wider regional and international cooperation can be built. In practice, however, international initiatives in this area have developed simultaneously at all levels - global, regional, international/regional, and bi/trilateral - and can be mutually re-enforcing. For example, bilateral cooperation can be facilitated and made more effective if it takes place within the framework of regional or global agreements, and with practical support from outside.

The group emphatically agreed that local, national, regional and international initiatives should be seen as mutually reinforcing. Work at all levels should, in principle, be supported; this is true for the churches as for all other concerned groups. Churches play a key role in many local projects to prevent or tackle the impact of small arms proliferation, and these projects should be developed and encouraged. The WCC and its member churches should play an important role in promoting useful national and international actions. Although the existing initiatives, as outlined above, are promising, it is important not only to work to ensure effective implementation but also to generate new initiatives.

Developing Policy Responses to the Problems of Small Arms

The group noted the devastating consequences associated with the unregulated and unrestrained proliferation of small arms and, building on previous statements by the WCC relating to restraint in the international transfer, sale, and acquisition of arms, emphasized the need for enhanced controls and improved regulation over the transfer and ownership of small arms. Accordingly, the group called for the development of policy responses with a view to controlling and reducing the availability, circulation and use of small arms. These measures to control small arms are proposed in the context of a basic recognition that fundamental to the control of small arms are measures to promote social, economic and political conditions that provide for the safety of individuals and societies and thus reduce the demand for weapons. Churches have a special role in supporting the development of positive social climates that address the individual and collective needs of societies threatened by conflict.

In examining these existing initiatives, the group identified a number of ways in which churches should contribute to ongoing processes whose purpose is to control and reduce the availability, circulation and use of small arms. Accordingly, the group identified four broad areas where policy and action should be developed:

i) Improved domestic regulation of firearms;

ii) Improved controls governing the production and transfer of small arms;

iii) Measures to address the illicit transfer of weapons;

iv) Measures to remove weapons from post-conflict situations, and to ensure their destruction as part of a broad framework peacebuilding.

i) Domestic Regulation and Control of Small Arms

The group recognized that the widespread and unregulated availability of small arms within civil society is a major contributing factor to insecurity and can contribute to a culture of violence. Possible measures identified included:

· A review of existing state controls over the civilian ownership of small arms, and an examination of ways in which such controls can be strengthened;

· Improved co-ordination and co-operation between states to ensure that laws are applied uniformly across regions;

· The promotion of compliance with such laws;

· Strengthened regulations governing the use of small arms by state officials to ensure that official security and law enforcement practice, including the use of small arms for security purposes, is consistent with international human rights standards and good governance;

· The need to ensure transparency and accountability among security forces, in order to promote and respect principles and practices of good governance.

ii) Export Controls

The WCC has already called for restraint in the production, sale, and transfer of arms; in view of the particularly destructive impact that small arms are having on societies around the world, there is a need for particular restraint in the manufacturing and transfer of small arms.

· Ways and means should be found of promoting the international adoption and adherence to strict codes of conduct on arms transfers, which take into account and enhance such principles as the protection of human rights, the promotion of international peace and stability, the promotion of transparency, accountability and good governance.

iii) Combatting Illicit Trafficking

The group also acknowledged that in all regions of the world, a sizeable proportion of small arms transfers are conducted illicitly, and are therefore not subject to formal established processes of control. This is a particular problem in regions of conflict. It was also acknowledged that, to date, a number of initiatives have focused primarily on the illicit transfer of arms. While this is a welcome development, it is also important to note the linkages between the illicit and the licit trade in arms, and to begin to tackle the licit trade in its own right, as noted in ii) above.

· Existing policy initiatives addressing the illicit transfer of arms should be supported and developed;

· Co-operation should be fostered between states so that such initiatives can be extended to the broadest possible level.

iv) Reduction of Small Arms

While controlling the supply of small arms is an important priority, excessive existing accumulations of weapons are, in many societies, actively contributing to violence, conflict, and insecurity. The group therefore examined a number of existing programmes to remove arms from societies, and discussed means by which these and other programmes should be developed. It is important that such processes be located within a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to raise awareness, developing norms of non-ownership of small arms, and building a culture of peace. Specifically, there is a need for:

· Support for existing programmes aimed at removing weapons from society, at all levels. In particular, demobilization programmes should ensure that former combatants are adequately reintegrated into civil society;

· The removal and destruction of surplus weapons, particularly in post-conflict societies.

The Witness of the Church: Ways and Means

The WCC can seek to be involved in a number of ways - by identifying key regulatory changes that need to be supported; by building alliances with other agencies (other faiths, elements of civil society, national and international agencies, etc.); by using existing programmes (such as justice, peace and economic and social development programmes); by developing and supporting non-violent alternatives in the management of conflict. In addition, the consultation recommended that small arms issues should become a core focal point of the WCC Programme to Overcome Violence and its work on disarmament.

The WCC should undertake a thorough exploration, analysis, and explication of the theological and ethical foundations for its work on the problem of small arms and illicit arms trafficking.

i) Raising awareness

A requirement for addressing the problems of the availability and use of small arms is a basic understanding of the nature and scope of the issue. This is important both within Church constituencies, amongst other faiths and civil society as a whole. In this respect, churches have a role to play in critically addressing the role of small arms, and in making known the role these weapons play in fuelling conflict and insecurity at all levels of society. In this way, churches can help establish the widespread proliferation and use of small arms as a public health issue that requires urgent attention.

At a fundamental level, churches should reaffirm their commitment to the Biblical values that undergird the pursuit of justice and the development of social and political institutions that provide the physical and spiritual well-being of all people, without resort to the use of weapons for security. The WCC should urge member and associated churches to address small arms issues through pastoral work, and through educational and teaching programmes (from seminaries to institutes of higher education). The WCC should accept a particular role of publicizing and bringing to prominent attention the work of churches in support of gun recovery and microdisarmament efforts, e.g. by organising monitoring missions, reporting related events and programs, finding supportive funding, and so on.

The WCC should examine and raise awareness of the linkages between small arms and other issues, such as economic and social development, crime and insecurity, justice, impunity, post-conflict reconstruction, etc.

The WCC should also examine issues of concern in different regions associated with the widespread availability and use of small arms. These would include drought, crime, poverty, and drugs. The WCC should examine ways in which these linkages can be addressed.

ii) Improved Domestic Regulation Of Small Arms

· Churches should support initiatives set out in the Existing Initiatives section of this document, and should promote and support policy initiatives set out in the Developing Policy Responses to the Problem of Small Arms section;

· Churches should promote non-violence training, and lobby for codes of conduct among police;

· Churches should promote links between state security institutions and civil society to improve confidence and transparency.

iii) Improved Controls Governing The Production And Transfer Of Small Arms

The WCC should seek to engage concerned parties - (both national and international) to participate in the existing policy initiatives set out in the Existing Initiatives section of this document, to ensure their implementation, and to engage in a process of information exchange in order that best practices might be identified to form the basis of broader, more inclusive international initiatives.

iv) Measures to Remove Weapons from Post-conflict Situations, and to Ensure Their Destruction as Part of a Broad Framework of Peacebuilding

The WCC should broaden its current involvement in post-conflict situations to promoting disarmament and demobilization initiatives. Ideally, this will involve co-ordination with other national and international organizations, as well as elements of civil society as part of planned and co-ordinated local, national, or regional initiatives:

· Churches have a critical role to play in reintegrating ex-combatants into civil society, where ties and norms will often have been disrupted. They should ensure that support for such programmes is comprehensive, structured, coordinated and sustained;

· Churches must also work towards the provision of just economic and social structures to promote viable alternatives to the use of small arms, and prevent the re-emergence of conflict;

· Churches also have a role to play in promoting the public destruction of small arms as part of comprehensive peace-building programmes. To this end, the churches should become involved in public outreach and media campaigns to ensure awareness of the programmes, and should work at the ‘grassroots’ level to ensure support for the initiatives.

v) Gun Recovery

The group felt that the churches should become involved in promoting non-possession of guns. There are a number of ways in which non-possession of guns could be promoted and pursued:

· At a basic level, churches should be promoted as ‘gun-free zones’ - both as buildings and, more generally the ideal of gun-free Christian homes should be promoted among members of the congregation;

· Women should be mobilized to take up this issue;

· Alternatives to gun ownership should be promoted as part of a sustained move towards a culture of peace;

· Mechanisms should be used to promote arms reduction and to enable ordinary citizens to become involved in campaigning for this;

· Public campaigns should be used to remove weapons from parishes, involving education, outreach campaigns linked into the Church calendar and appropriate events, and the media;

· WCC and its member churches should offer support to gun recovery programmes - for example buy-back, turn-in, and exchange programmes. This support should take the form of funding, awareness raising and other support, such as the use of churches as collection points.

vi) Youth

Gun violence affects youth disproportionately and youth are substantially involved in the perpetration of gun violence: this goes all the way from youth gangs in Rio or Los Angeles to child soldiers in Liberia. There is a need to recognize this not only as a local phenomenon, but as one having regional and international dimensions. Particular efforts suggested include:

· The WCC and its member churches should also seek to engage youth groups, and should support international and national campaigns related to the child soldiers issue;

· The serious threat to children should be used as a campaigning issue around which to promote disarmament.

vii) Partnerships/Linkages Between Different Groups

· The WCC and its member churches should identify and engage relevant groups concerned with and affected by small arms proliferation;

· The WCC and its member churches should develop alliances and networks with other faith communities and elements of civil and state society (including the health community, police, women’s groups);

· The WCC and its member churches should engage other involved parties, including producers and trades unions.

viii) Victim Support

Churches are theologically committed to engaging clearly in support of the victims. This means to be in solidarity with the survivors/victims and serve them by:

· Helping to establish victim support agencies;
· Addressing the issue critically from their perspective.


The points of possible action by the WCC and its member churches cited here are only illustrative of a rich discussion. Further detail can be found in the full records of the consultation. The essential point is that the members of the consultation were clear that there is indeed a major role for the churches to play in small arms awareness and in small arms control and reduction at all levels of society, from the local to the international. A major commitment by the WCC to this work should play a very important part in the global struggle to lessen the violence, lower the number of victims, and build a more peaceful world community.

Members of the consultation wish to take special note of the importance this encounter in Rio has had in their own thinking and understanding in the area of the control and reduction of small arms. In calling this meeting, the World Council of Churches has therefore already made an important contribution to the emergence of concerted global action in this area. The group is certain that the new learning which has taken place and the new partnerships which have emerged will grow and deepen because of the opportunity which this meeting has provided. For this, the participants express profound gratitude to the WCC’s Programme to Overcome Violence, as well as Saferworld and Viva Rio, for what these organizations have enabled them to do here.

Rio de Janeiro
May 1998