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Catholic groups join U.N. in push to end small arms trade

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Hoping to influence the first international discussion on global gun control, a handful of Catholic-based nongovernmental organizations attended the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons held July 9-20 in New York City.

The world’s expanding and unregulated arsenal of small arms is called by some a “modern scourge” that wreaks havoc globally.

Colombia is a case in point. The villages along the road between Cali and Buenaventura are full of violent stories, says Franciscan Sr. Florence Deacon. In one, a massacre of seven men that occurred a year ago has left the residents in a state of terror. “The people go to the village during the day, but at nightfall they sleep in the forest,” she said.

Deacon recently returned from an investigative trip to Colombia. She is the newly appointed director of Franciscans International, one of the nongovernmental organizations -- or NGOs --that have representatives at the United Nations.

“So many people [in Colombia] were dispossessed because of the level of violence,” Deacon said, “a violence made possible by small arms.”

According to U.N. estimates, a half a billion small arms and light weapons are currently in circulation, killing on average 500,000 people a year. In 46 of the 49 regional conflicts fought throughout the last decade, small arms were the weapon of choice, causing four million deaths. Ninety percent of those killed were civilian, 80 percent of whom were women and children.

The meaning of these statistics is all too clear for humanitarian relief workers and religious stationed in developing countries where armed conflict has become a component of poverty.

The United Nations defines small arms as those that can be used by one person. These include submachine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns. Light weapons are designed for use by several persons and include mortars, heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.

According to U.N. sources, more than two million Africans have been killed by small arms since 1990. This is approximately half of those killed by small arms in this period worldwide.

Hampshire College professor Michael Klare, who is also co-director of the Project on Light Weapons at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, notes that the “availability of automatic rifles and submachine guns has given paramilitary groups a firepower that often matches or exceeds that of national police or constabulary forces.”

Armed with a point and spray weapon, an untrained civilian, even a child, “can become a deadly combatant,” Klare said.

Small arms proliferation coupled with undisciplined combatants has meant an increase in violations of humanitarian law, says the International Committee of the Red Cross. In conflicts, more civilians are getting killed. Relief operations are frequently suspended and services denied because aid workers are targeted. Post-war societies inheriting caches of weapons are inheriting a culture of violence as well.

The humanitarian crisis prompted the formation of the International Action Network on Small Arms, “a global network of 320 organizations from 70 countries around the world working to reduce the threat to life posed by the accessibility and widespread misuse of small arms.” The Catholic nongovernmental organizations are part of the network, which had over 200 member organizations in attendance at the U.N. meeting.

Unlike nuclear arsenals and large conventional weapons, small arms and light weapons have remained exempt from international control. The July conference was the first attempt to examine the problem worldwide and its expected outcome is a politically binding declaration -- a Program of Action -- focusing, in particular, on developing an international instrument for tracing the lines of supply and an international mechanism for restricting trade to registered manufacturers and brokers only.

The United States opposes international regulations. In remarks given on the opening day of the conference, John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs, expressed support for “international cooperation” but said that globally imposed controls would infringe upon a state’s sovereignty. Moreover, Bolton said, “The U.S. does not support measures that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms and light weapons. The vast majority of arms trade is routine and not problematic.”

Most illicit small arms, however, begin their existence as legal weapons. Cesar Villanueva, a vice-president with Pax Christi International, says it is impossible to address the illicit trade without “limiting the legal one.” A member of Pax Christi Philippines, Villanueva says there are approximately “300,000 loose firearms” circulating on the island of Mindanao. Most originated with the military. The floating arsenal, he says, has engendered a “gun culture. Arms are beginning to be like cellular phones. Everybody brings them out.”

The prevalence of light weaponry has fostered a rise in violent crime and made the country’s sectarian conflicts far more lethal. In addition, Villanueva said, the Philippines are experiencing the privatization of security, due mostly to the efforts of multinational corporations to protect their business operations.

According to Deacon, “hired guns protecting transnationals” is a Colombian phenomenon as well.

Colombia has the highest firearm homicide rate in the world, approximately 5 to 8 percent of the global total. The U.N. reports that “the economic cost of fire-arm related deaths and injury and property damage” is approximately 25 percent of the country’s GDP. Throughout most of Latin America, that average is 14 percent.

Pax Christi Philippines is just beginning to tackle the problem of small-arms trafficking. After learning that the Filipino government had approved 10 billion pesos ($200 million) for the modernization of the armed forces, the organization, along with two other Catholic peace groups, met with the military. “We asked for the destruction of confiscated weaponry but the army refused, although they did agree to destroy some antiquated guns. They preferred to recycle their old equipment,” Villanueva said. “But if they have more high-powered weapons, where will the old guns go?”

The Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace in Cameroon reports that the accessibility of small arms has lead to social instability and severe violation of human rights. Cameroon is awash in small arms and light weaponry, said commission member Dzomo Nkongo Romauld. “All around Cameroon there is war. Rebels who are fighting bring in a large influx of weapons. The people in Cameroon can find arms anywhere.” Many of the weapons have landed in the hands of highway bandits. Responding to the rise in criminal activity, the government of Cameroon “has created special military groups to fight banditry but their armed response has lead to a violation of human rights and in particular, an increase in extrajudicial executions.”

Diocesan peace and justice commissions throughout Central Africa are networking and speaking out about the problem, said Romauld. “When there is a violation of human rights, we [the commission] give the information to Cardinal Christian Tumi of Douala, who publicly exposes the abuse.”

Along with other members of the International Action Network on Small Arms, the Catholic nongovernmental organizations are lobbying for international conventions to control illicit small arms-trafficking. They emphasize that the goals of the U.N. conference are too modest. Villanueva would like to see the international body issue a legally binding document, one that “would have to be respected at international ports.”

In its statement delivered to the U.N. General Assembly July 16, Franciscans International called for “the surrendering, seizing and destruction of illicit and excessive small arms and light weapons” and urged that “surrendering programs” be “linked to capacity building, education and job opportunities.”

Deacon said she saw the input of nongovernmental organizations at the conference as the beginning of a long but ultimately productive process. “I think this problem is so big you have to come at it from all approaches. Here, you get it on the international agenda. You get the governments talking about the issue. Then the NGOs press for accountability.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001