Arms race

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A term out of proportion

By Cecilia Mcguire

The image conjured up by that over-used phrase of the moment, weapons of mass destruction is a big one large tanks, heavy artillery and the biggest blast of them all, nuclear weaponry. Think again. For the weapons causing most destruction to the masses these days are catalogued under the misnomer of small arms pistols, rifles, semi-automatics, hand grenades, land mines, incendiary devices, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers. These kill more people than die in conventional warfare.

Not so little after all. And with a capability that has outraged those who are aware of the growing menace and the deadly potential for still worse damage. The statistics are horrifying. Since 10 an estimated four million people have been killed, the majority of them were civilians (0%) and an overwhelming 80% women and children. According to a recent report from the UN, Two million children have been killed in the last ten years in conflicts where small arms have been used; five million have been disabled, and twelve million left homeless.

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To these fearsome totals however may be further added the non-mortal but equally disturbing figures of victims who suffer because of the threatening potential of small arms in armed robbery and violent acts; and, if that were not enough, count in crippling accidents and suicide (60% of suicides in Sri Lanka are committed with guns). Between a study made 7 years ago and today, the quantity of light weapons in circulation has multiplied by almost a third to an approximated 6M weapons globally.

A small arm thus exists for every twelve persons in the world, and 7M more are being produced every year. Weaponry is recycled from conflict situations; it is stolen from stockpiled confiscations; it is transferred illicitly via army personnel and deserters. The upsurge is aided and abetted by corrupt officialdom and inefficiencies in defence systems. It is a situation rightly described as an epidemic.

Cures are desperately sought. As Sri Lanka celebrated one year of ceasefire status, the South Asia Small Arms Network (SASA Net) and the South Asia Partnership International (SAP-I) held a -day seminar to concentrate on how the S. Asian proliferation may be reduced. Participants included NGOs and civil society representatives, contributing experiences from the five countries involved - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, plus SAP-I member country, Canada. International organisations came also from Oxfam; Amnesty International; Saferworld, a think tank organisation working to prevent armed conflict; and IANSA, the International Action Network on Small Arms.

With an aim of developing collaborative effort as a means to greater impact, the seminar was the second to be held in Negombo. Networked bodies such as IANSA and SASA Net operate with a common purpose although retaining autonomy for independent activity. This networking event was based on a draft Comparative Study on small arms legislation, a document that draws attention to parallels and differences between the legal determinants of the five countries. The findings will be presented to a UN meeting in July of this year.

With such baseline information, the stage was set for priorities to be discussed and action agreed upon. As well as the legal implications, the root causes of problems in this part of the world were examined; notably highlighted for blame were poverty and politics. In the small arms race the former is inevitably linked to criminality and degrees of desperate measures, whereas the latter is inextricably wound up in intrigue and complications the world over.

Particularly drawn up for criticism was political corruption though the report does indicate some sympathy for the Sri Lankan Government being faced with the task of fighting on too many fronts. Nevertheless one speaker took responsibility for spelling out in some detail what he perceived as injustices against his country. Mr Tassie Seneviratne, a retired Senior Superintendent of Police and currently a member of SASA Net, stated that he had been prompted to expose barriers to public peace, quoting the Dhammapada (v.57, ch.XIX) He who guides others by a procedure that is non-violent and equitable is said to be a guardian of the law, wise and righteous.

In talking specifically of election practices he was doubtless echoing experiences across South Asia, if not worldwide. The priority of a politician, once in power, is to secure his own position in power that he fears is forever under threat from his rivals. So he.. amasses resources to fight the next election - resources which include criminal elements, gun-slinging musclemen, and the politicisation of the Armed Services and the Police who in turn get corrupted to the very core. Susceptibilities that grow to be the norm and subsequently become self-fulfilling prophecies, establishing a cycle that it is extraordinarily difficult to break.

It is that breaking of any traditional modus operandi involving small arms that SASA-1 is keen to move forward. The message is forceful, that it is only by improving governance and revitalising democratic principles that alternatives will be found. Solutions will emerge from better adherence to human rights and by what Indian delegate, Dr Lawrence Prabhakar, poetically termed bureaucratic renaissance. He also made reference to failures in the developing world being based in a post-colonial way of thinking, whereby self-determination has been constrained by historical circumstance.

Many speakers referred to the negative impact of globalisation on Third World nations , where debt in thrall to the West has forced a mindset of despair, of voicelessness, especially among women. In making an impassioned presentation on the situation in NE India where she has undertaken substantive research, Ms Bimalakshmi Nepram shared facts that held particular resonance for the future among the many countries where ownership of small arms has been enmeshed in a prolific drugs trade. It acted as a salutary reminder of what may be round the corner if gun culture is not swiftly halted.

The NE Indian border is geographically ripe for infiltration, and the combined effects of human insecurity and abundance of small arms has led to a surge in related crime. With many young people directionless, they join irregular armies to increase their self-worth. Fifty-seven groups in the region have emerged from the 0 tribes and communities in the area. Each ethnic group has developed its own defence troop, bolstered by the easy availability of military hardware, and they are working towards the acquisition of autonomous territories.

Movements often start as peaceful ones but, she says, governments only listen to arms. Guns may be transported in ambulances into rebel zones where the official army fears to tread. And to pay for these arms and renegade soldiers? Narcotics more often than not. The extrapolation is swift drugs/ dependency/ crime. It needs no leap of imagination to think beyond rising numbers of heroin-users to increased cases of AIDS across this continent.

It must be difficult to know where to begin against such a barrage of bleak statistics and lethal threats. The SAP-I report lists over sixty proposed objectives in the legislative and judicial sectors, customs agencies, civil societies, foreign ministries, national co-ordinating bodies and international organisations. It analyses export and import, domestic production of small arms, marking and record-keeping; licensing, seizure and penalties, not to mention, amidst all these reforms, that of electoral procedures.

By the Sunday evening the SASA Net conference had agreed on four distinct priority areas for action. They will campaign to harmonise legislation, suggesting a programme in line with US action proposals; they also intend to form a National Co-ordinating Committee with the aim of publically-challenging governments across South Asia to address anomalies and failures. The other half of the programme concerns the equally crucial involvement of civil society and SASA Net are looking to reform the social sector, designing humanitarian strategies to disseminate better knowledge of the threats from the small arms trade.

There is a long way to go before ideals of decommissioning, gun amnesties or the eradication of the multifarious and illicit arms traders. But there seems to be absolute agreement that the first requirement is to make demands loud and clear for a greater transparency. IANSA expertise is on offer to assist delicate negotiations in the face of humanity under small arms siege. Getting things

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