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Alex Shea: Small Arms In The Wrong Hands

Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Small Arms In The Wrong Hands

By Alex Shea

In the time it will take you to read this article, five people will have been shot dead. It seems if nothing else, humans have perfected the efficiency of killing; one can now eradicate life with a slight movement of the finger. As Ronald Reagan's would be assassin, John W. Hinckley, Jr. once said, "Guns are neat little things, aren't they? They can kill extraordinary people with very little effort." However, the reality is they kill many more ordinary people with equal ease

30242 Americans died of gunshot wounds in 2002. That same year the U.S. Government began laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq under the pretext that Saddam Hussein was hoarding Weapons of Mass Destruction capable of killing tens of thousands of Americans. It is this kind of statistic that has led some Non-Governmental Organisations to declare that small arms are in fact the true Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Since 1990, approximately 2 million children have been killed by small arms, and every year an additional 200,000 people die in 'peaceful' nations alone. Small arms are now so abundant the world over that gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death amongst young men in Brazil, South Africa and the USA.

In an effort to curtail the of proliferation of small arms, a UN Review Conference on arms control was held between the 26th of June and the 7th of July. The conference began with a photo opportunity and presentation to Kofi Annan of a visual petition endorsed by over one million people. Nevertheless, after two weeks the summit collapsed in spectacular fashion after interference from the governments of Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States. Anna Macdonald from Oxfam International said in a press release after the close that "the world has been held hostage by a tiny minority of countries. At the current rate, up to 12,000 people will have been killed by small arms during this two-week conference. They have been betrayed."

What was lauded as the great hope of millions around the world affected by gun violence descended into a farce, and a further blow to the credibility of the United Nations. Julius Arile, the one-millionth petitioner said, "I came to this conference to ask the world's governments to stop guns flooding into the area where I live in northern Kenya. I have lost many friends and even my brother to armed violence. I'm deeply disappointed that the world has done nothing to help me, and the millions of people like me”.

Nevertheless, gun control advocates are undeterred by this failure and continue to lobby for a permanent and far reaching Arms Trade Treaty; a matter that will once again be discussed at the UN General Assembly. However, the question is what exactly would an Arms Trade Treaty do? Anti-gun lobbyist Philip Alpers told me, "An arms trade treaty could make it harder for those bent on armed violence, whether or not we sympathise with their aims, to acquire large quantities of illicit weapons… By common consent, the United States has put in place some of the worlds most comprehensive arms export controls. An arms trade treaty would encourage other nations to adopt, and hopefully to enforce similar restrictions, and to become more transparent in their exports."

Whether such a rose tinted treaty eventuates remains unknown, but such idealism seems unlikely to hold sway with governments safeguarding their own economic and geopolitical interests. The closest thing to a treaty so far comes in the form of a draft authored by seven nations, and unsurprisingly it is far from perfect. It misses one crucial aspect – a failure to ban the export of weapons to countries that engage in human rights abuses – countries such as Sudan, Burma, Iran, and Turkey.

Nonetheless, this point is surpassed by the larger issue of whether implementing a legal treaty is really going to affect those already operating outside of the law. Regarding this issue Alpers says, "An arms trade treaty should have a similar chance of being upheld as other legal sanctions, such as drink driving restrictions, an arms embargo or a law against burglary. Burglars still burgle and drunks still drive, but few would suggest that we abandon commonsense laws adopted by consent, simply because a small minority flout them… I doubt I've met anyone who truly imagines that the illicit trade in small arms can be eliminated, either in Burma or in Detroit. The idea in these and other places is to make those who fuel the arms trade more accountable”.

Even so, this could be more difficult than it sounds given the corrupt nature of the arms trade, and the fact that traffickers themselves usually have equally corrupt acquaintances in high places. Such is the case of Viktor Bout.

Charged by the U.N for supplying some of the bloodiest warlords in Africa, the U.S and U.K are shielding him from U.N officials who are seeking to freeze his assets. One may question why the two biggest coalition partners in the war on terror are protecting a man who supplied the Taliban with arms until 2001 – the answer lies in convenience – they need him in Iraq. His transportation company British Gulf provides logistical support for the coalition; a deal that appears to buy him a get out of jail free card.

All the same, such hypocrisy is not confined to just these two nations. To find other examples, all one has to do is look in the direction of the G8. Lauding its fight to eradicate poverty in developing nations, they are also the worlds leading suppliers of arms to those nations in question. Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International says, "Each year hundreds of thousands of people are killed, tortured, raped and displaced through the misuse of arms. How can G8 commitments to end poverty and injustice be taken seriously if some of the very same governments are undermining peace and stability by deliberately approving arms transfers to repressive regimes, regions of extreme conflict or countries who can ill-afford them?”

France exports bombs to Burma, whilst Canada exports military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and Italian law includes a loophole that allows thousands of 'civilian' firearms to be exported to Colombia and the Congo.

Therefore, with organisations like the G8 implicated in such counterproductive activities, the hope now lies with the General Assembly. Can the member nations put their differences aside to deliver the reality of the rhetoric outlined in one of the UN’s founding documents? The Declaration of St. James Palace states, “The only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security". In essence, it is up to them to decide whether or not humanity continues to fail itself.


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