Arms Proliferation Increases Repression

By: Musue N. Haddad
At UN, New York

The Perspective

July 20, 2001

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in Africa and other third world countries have been eminently stamped as channel that increases repression and the capacity by which those who govern repressively become more repressive against their civilian populations. The United Nations reports that some half a million people are killed every year by pistols and light machine guns, hence the need to limit the impact of small arms and light weapons.

Dr. Amos Sawyer, Former Interim President of Liberia (1990-1994) made this observation while serving as keynote speaker at the Africa Day program at the United Nations Small Arms and light Weapons Conference in New York. The UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons runs from 9- 20 July.

"The introduction and availability of small arms and light weapons change social order drastically. It brings a new sense of infallibility to those who carry them and authority relations are broken down. Moreover, people who are authoritarianly inclined, who want to run single repressive regime are aided, they can put in those types of policies of repression", Dr Sawyer pointed out.

He stressed that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons is a major factor that contributes to the collapse of peace settlement, undermines peace building, threatens economic and social development, and increases the culture of violence.

It is evident that Dr. Sawyer's presentation was partly drawn from his experience as interim president in an era where several rebel leaders controlled over 95% of Liberia and having witnessed the almost four years of rule of Charles Taylor, former leader of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia who was declared winner of the 1997 elections. As Board chairman of the Center for Democratic Empowerment (based in Monrovia), Dr. Sawyer was among several staff members that were brutally attacked by ex-combatants of President Charles Taylor's disbanded rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia after he organized a conference on small arms and light weapons. He fled and has since remained in exile.

" Once the introductory of weapons takes place in any local community, it changes the social order and the value system is undermined. For example, in Liberia, after our war, there was a new system and sayings: Oh, you have your MA, I have my M-16, you have your BA, and I have my AK", Dr. Sawyer exemplified.

He illustrated the link between the proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the establishment of democratic governance as an element that has to be elevated because of its strong impact on the quest to curtail the increased availability of small arms and light weapons. Democratic governments in relation with the proliferation of small arms and light weapons can not be attained in an atmosphere characterized by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Moreover, the curtailment of this proliferation can not be sustained even if it was initiated without pressing for democratization.

" What I am emphasizing is the empowerment of governance structures at the local level", the exiled former Liberian Interim president stressed.

He expounded; "where the local people are empowered and decisions are made at the local level in a transparent manner, they are in the position to know that the proliferation of weapons even if it creates a false economy, is not in their interest. When people are involved in sound decision making processes themselves, they understand how much resources are available, what the constraints are, the question of relative poverty, poverty of one group or individual in relation to another and ensuring that the issue of proliferation is addressed."

Dr. Sawyer pointed out that the control of small arms and light weapons be considered general human rights problems - problems connected with governance and democratization since there is a difficulty in sanitizing these problems and looking at it as a non political problem in spite of its strong political dimension.

On the supply and demand, the professor indicated that there is a need for partnership in resolving this problem of small arms and light weapons. He reasoned that there is a duality of responsibility of those purchasing and the recipients of these weapons and producers and justifiable reasons to call on them to stop. From the suppliers side, the arms proliferation driven by profit motive can hopefully be handled through alternative business opportunity, he hinted.

The Africa Day program was a discussion on the Impact of Illicit Small Arms and Light weapons..." on the African Continent. Other speakers were drawn from Uganda, Mozambique, Cameroon and Mali. Ms. Fatoumata Maiga of Mali described West Africa as the theatre for tragic events of conflicts with " Liberia and Sierra Leone civil wars that are characterized by child soldiers, cruel mutilation and displaced persons"

Ms. Maiga, a human rights advocate and president of De'long Association- a Rights organization, recounted the wide spread drug trafficking and money laundering continues to halt socio-economic development and destroys efforts aimed at attaining democracy and good governance.

She also disclosed that recent statistic indicates that a staggering US $ 1.7 billion is being used on armament and 10 million weapons are in circulation in West Africa. Ms. Maiga noted that the 10 million weapons that are accessible and in circulation are without cached arms.

While delegates, activists, weapons manufacturers discussed draft plan of action on Illicit trade in Small arms and light weapons in the UN conference rooms, several side events in the corridors and halls attract guests and conference participants. Among the side events is an exhibition by I Human society.

The Gun sculpture is a cubicle mass of 7000 deactivated weapons mounted by this humanitarian-based arts project in the front corridor of the United Nations Building.

Sandra Bromley and Wallis Kendal of I- Human Society disclosed that the weapons, all of which were once used were donated by police forces, armies, peace initiatives and communities around the world. The sculpture has been described as both "an arts work of terrible beauty and a horrific assemblage of weapons designed to kill". The sculpture is being seen and described as: a tomb, prison cell or religious shrine by many persons. While some see the sculpture as 'ugly" because of the various arms including landmines, others describe it as an " optimistic arts installation".

" The light in the dark sculpture is a symbol of hope. In this piece, it is in a way a moment of choice, a moment that people can make the decision to be proactive, to change things, to think about the issues of violence in society and hopefully alter it. It is a moment of peace and hope", Sandra Bromley of I-Human Society says.

The sculpture, for I Human is a momentum attributed to all those who have given there lives and lost their lives to small arms and illicit weapons. It is also a symbol of history and weaponry that gives a voice of victims and survival.

Many viewing the sculpture are also convinced that dialogue and discussions like the ongoing Small Arms conference could help halt illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

However, at the conference discussion, non-governmental organizations are concerned that more emphasis be placed on tightening the control on legitimate sales of small arms and light weapons. The concern by the organizations is that most legitimate sales of the weapons usually find their way into the illegal market by means of resale, cross border trafficking and thievery. States that do not support the concerns of the non governmental organizations want to keep out of the conference's final documents the issue of tightening the legitimate sale of small arms as well as the areas of civilian ownership of arms.

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