By Mark Malloch Brown and Jayantha DhanapalaInternational Herald Tribune
January 26, 2000
Farmers and villagers in the impoverished Albanian district of Gramsh are reaping the benefits of an unusual harvest. Lured by the promise of new schools, health care, telephones, street lights and repairs to roads and bridges, they have been clearing out their lofts, basements and other more secret hiding places and hauling cartloads of firearms and ammunition to local police stations.
Last September, President Rexhep Meidani unveiled a plaque in the Gramsh town square that communities in a score of troubled nations would give almost anything to have. It commemorates the collection of more than 5,700 weapons and 100 tons of ammunition and explosives that were hoarded during civil riots in 1997.
In March of that year, the collapse of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes bankrupted thousands of Albanians who promptly attacked and looted army depots across the country. Gramsh, with four army depots and a weapons factory, became a munitions market.
After a stream of killings, woundings and weapons-related accidents, representatives of the United Nations Development Program and the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs visited Gramsh, at the invitation of the Albanian government, to help broker an agreement by which community services would be delivered in proportion to the volume of arms and munitions turned in.
About 80 percent of the weapons believed to be in civilian hands in Gramsh have been surrendered so far. Other districts, now in the grip of winter, have also expressed interest in swapping their guns for improved social services.
Gramsh is emblematic of the possibilities for peaceful disarmament in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. In parts of Africa, an AK-47 assault rifle can be had for the price of a chicken.
Forty-five of the world's 49 major conflicts since 1990 have been internal affairs fought with small arms, many of them carried by civilians, including child soldiers. About 4 million people have died in these conflicts. Half of the casualties have been civilian, most of them women and children. There is a hunger for peace in these communities.
Mali has set an example by coming to terms with rebellious nomads in the sparse northern regions of the country. Some 13,000 former combatants have traded their arms for government investments in social services.
More than 2 million people have been killed by small arms in West Africa since 1990 and 16 nations in the region recently agreed to ban the production, import and export of small arms for a three-year trial period.
The stunning global reality is that there are about 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation - one for every 12 people on the planet.
In 1994, some 300 companies in 52 countries were reportedly manufacturing small arms and light weapons - a 25 percent increase since the mid-1980s. The world's wealthy nations are the main suppliers, but 22 developing countries also produce small arms, and 16 of these are exporters.
Weapons collection programs should be an integral part of peace agreements and the demobilization of armies. The prevalence of easily concealed weapons in post-conflict situations prolongs instability, puts UN peacekeepers at high risk and hinders efforts to reintegrate displaced populations and ex- combatants. Reconciliation between communities is almost impossible when both are armed to the teeth.
National governments must take the lead in destroying surplus, confiscated or collected small arms and light weapons, and ensure the security of state- owned weapons in storage facilities. International and regional controls are needed to prevent legal transfers from being rerouted to the illicit market.
Exporting and importing countries need stronger institutions and legislation to monitor, trace, and police legal arms transfers. There is an urgent need for international guidelines for tracing weapons and ammunition through serial numbers and transit records.
The Organization of American States has adopted a convention to strengthen border controls and share information on weapons producers and dealers. The European Union has adopted a legally binding joint action on small arms to help end their accumulation and spread.
More than 200 organizations have launched an International Action Network on Small Arms to stem the supply of weapons and reduce the stocks in circulation. The UN General Assembly will convene its first international conference on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in 2001.
But the experience in places like Gramsh illustrates that there is nothing like going out there and actually doing it!
Mr. Malloch Brown is administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Mr. Dhanapala is the UN undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.