Global Policy Forum

Small Arms:


Speech by Ambassador Pasi Patokallio of Finland,
Chair of the 2005 Biennial Meeting of States
June 8, 2005

Remarks at the Newsmaker Breakfast
The National Press Club of Canada, Ottowa

Ladies and Gentlemen of the press,

Thank you for the warm introduction, Bob. Bob is of course biased in his lavish praise of my achievements because of our shared Finnish ancestry. But I love his kind of bias.I´d also like to thank the RCMP for the display of small arms they´ve made available here. Seeing is believing, they say, and that´s true of small arms, too.

The last time I spoke to a Canadian audience on this subject was in March in beautiful, springtime Vancouver, British Columbia. Having arrived there from snow-bound and wintry Ottawa I could not help thinking that Queen Victoria made a grievous mistake in plunking Canada´s capital in Ottawa instead of in her namesake next to Vancouver. Today, in sunny and green Ottawa I´m prepared to reverse that grievously mistaken opinion.

Let begin by supplying you with a headline:

Small arms are a big issue.

Because they are, I was very happy to accept the kind invitation to come to talk to you about this big issue in the light of the upcoming UN conference that I will chair. The conference will meet for a week (from 11 to 15 July) at the UN headquarters in New York. Officially, the conference is known as the United Nations Second Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. That´s a bit of a mouthful, which is why everybody in the trade calls it BMS2, for short. The full title does illustrate, however, the complexity of the issue of at hand. I will come back to that in a moment. But first I think it is necessary to define what we mean when we talk about small arms at the UN.

The emblematic small arm is the Kalashnikov assault rifle – the AK-47 - capable of firing 300 rounds per minute. It is powerful, sturdy, simple, cheap and it is ubiquitous in today´s conflicts, especially in Africa. It´s so emblematic that it´s even on the Mozambican flag, if you look closely enough. Technically speaking, small arms are weapons designed for personal use (in other words, designed to be used by one soldier). These include revolvers and pistols, rifles and carbines, submachine guns, assault rifles (such as Kalashnikovs and M-16s) and light machine guns. Often "small arms" is also shorthand for both small arms and light weapons, although technically the two are distinct. The UN conference deals with both small arms and light weapons, as the title also makes clear.

Light weapons are weapons designed for use by several soldiers serving as a crew. They include heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns and recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems (better known as MANPADS, or man-portable air defense systems), as well as light mortars (mortars of calibers of less than 100 millimeters). So, when we are talking about small arms at the UN, we are not talking about toys for boys or pistols under pillows, we are talking about lethal instruments of war.

Let me now try to explain why the UN is concerned about small arms and why we should all be concerned about small arms. Why are small arms such a big issue? As any chairman of a UN conference worth his salt does, I'll begin with a quotation from Kofi Annan. Speaking to the Millennium Assembly of the UN five years ago he said, and I quote: The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems, and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction'. End of quote. Five years later, last March, Kofi Annan released his report "In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all" where he outlines a vision of collective security according to which – and I quote – "we must strive just as hard to eliminate the threat of small arms and light weapons as we do to eliminate the threat ofweapons of mass destruction". End of quote. Just as hard. I could not agree more. The facts, for once, speak for themselves.

It is estimated that the use of these everyday weapons of mass destruction causes the death of up to a half million people every year, half of them in the context of military conflict, mostly internal conflict and civil war, the rest in other kinds of gun-related violence, also in our own societies. War today is mostly civil war and mostly fought in the developing world. Ninety percent of the victims are civilians, many of them women and children but in fact most of them of young men. Young men, men in their twenties, predominate both as killers and as victims.

The Small Arms Survey, a respected independent research project in Geneva, Switzerland, funded among others by the Finnish and Canadian governments, estimates that there were 639 million small arms in the world in 2003 – one gun for every ten people in the world. Incidentally, the Small Arms Survey is, to me, the best international source of public information on all aspects of small arms. I recommend it. Its annual reviews – four so far - are all available on the internet.

Children are particularly affected. It is sobering to realize that the first piece of modern technology that a child in parts of the developing world will see is often a Kalashnikov. A Congolese NGO has estimated that there are up to 800 000 illegal small arms in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country where six years of conflict have caused millions of deaths.

The impact of readily available, cheap, simple and powerful weapons is devastating in the context of internal conflict and civil war. It is often equally devastating in post-conflict situations in countries awash in guns. It is estimated that – more than a decade after the civil war there ended - more than one tenth of El Salvador´s gross domestic product is lost due to gun-related violence, double the amount the Salvadoran government is spending on health and education. In 1997, I had an opportunity to visit El Salvador as a member of the UN panel on small arms. There was a regional seminar on the subject. The fact that really brought home to me the post-conflict Salvadoran reality were not the excellent presentations at the seminar but the fact that we had to be escorted by two heavily-armed police cars on our brief sightseeing trip outside the capital, one car bristling with guns in the front, the other in the back.

The prevalence of small arms in post-conflict societies but also in other fragile societies has obvious human rights implications beyond sheer mayhem. In many places, the widespread proliferation and misuse of small arms threaten the realization of human rights and security in many ways. In the hands of repressive forces, whether governments or paramilitaries or armed civilians, small arms can serve to intimidate, threaten and coerce whole communities, limit free movement and prevent access to basic services such as health and education.

The prevalence of small arms in such societies creates a general climate of fear and insecurity which not only holds back the realization of human rights but impedes overall development. It limits the provision and efficacy of foreign aid. Often foreign aid workers are simply too scared, and rightly so, to venture out to the countryside to implement their projects. It makes private investors stay away. And developing countries that spend a good part of their already over-stretched budgets on arms (typically small arms) for which they have no clear need are bound to have little left for health, education and vital infrastructure. In short, too many guns stifle good governance and people´s hopes of building themselves a better future.

Should the conclusion from what I have just said then be that we should simply do away with small arms since their prevalence and use cause so much misery and devastation? Why not simply ban small arms the way the world, under Canadian leadership, banned anti-personnel landmines? Alas, were it that simple. But it isn´t. Small arms have legitimate uses. Every country, yours and mine, has an inherent right to self-defense, solidly enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Every country has to ensure its external defense and it needs arms, including small arms, to do that. Every country needs to equip its police forces adequately as they safeguard public security. Small arms, especially non-military small arms, also have legitimate civilian uses, for hunting and sports for example. As things stand, the extent of civilian possession allowed is for each country to regulate for itself.

As no country provides for its armed forces and police through domestic arms production only (with the possible exception of inscrutable North Korea), arms are traded on the world market. Arms are exported, imported and transferred under other arrangements such as licensed production and government-to-government deals. According to the Small Arms Survey for 2004, at least 1249 companies in more than 90 countries are involved in some aspect of small arms and light weapons production. According to the same source, the estimated total value of authorized (i.e. legal) trade in small arms is four billion US dollars per year. That´s big business although not nearly as big business as people sometimes think. Obviously, we have no reliable figures on the extent of illegal trade in small arms. But it is substantial.

Any international effort to deal with the issue of small arms has to take into account this dichotomy between legitimate uses and trade and illegitimate uses and trade. We could and did ban anti-personnel landmines. We simply cannot ban small arms or their trade. Any international effort must thus acknowledge the complexity of the issue of small arms. Unlike dealing with traditional weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – or with heavy conventional weapons such as aircraft, ships and tanks – dealing with small arms is much more than disarmament, although disarmament (weapons collection and destruction) is an important tool. But it is just one of the tools. The goal is to reduce violence, not to maintain a balance of power at lower levels of armament, as classical disarmament negotiations would have it. In Canadian terminology, the goal of small arms diplomacy is human security, not state security. So, what is the UN´s role in all of this?

I take pride in saying - as did Dean Acheson - that I was present at the creation. Acheson could say so as one of the key players, I can only claim fame as a bit player, in a cameo appearance if you will. Before the mid-1990s the issue of small arms hardly registered at the UN. With the end of the cold war and the not entirely unrelated change in the nature of conflict – the proliferation of internal conflicts mostly in the developing world but also in the Balkans – things started to change. As so often at the UN, things started to change with a study. Beginning in 1996, a panel of governmental experts, followed by another panel two years later, studied the problem and came up with an analysis and a number of recommendations. I was a member of both UN panels.

Getting a handle on the nature of the problem was our first challenge. Small arms had of course been dealt with before internationally but the focus and the context had been different. The focus had been on firearms (whether civilian or military) and the context had been that of law enforcement. Our focus became military-style firearms, small arms and light weapons such as assault rifles, because those are the weapons of choice in conflict situations. Conflict, not law enforcement, was the context in which we looked at the role of small arms.

Raising public, and governmental, awareness of the small arms problem was our second, even bigger challenge. Even today, ten years later, while there is much more public awareness of the problem, the issue often gets crowded out of the agenda by more pressing concerns of the day, such as terrorism. Although there, too, there is a connection. One of the biggest fears today is that terrorists will shoot down civilian aircraft with small arms, ie shoulder-fired missiles, those MANPADS I mentioned earlier. There was already a close call in Kenya some years back. It is known that there are MANPADS in the hands of non-state groups, including terrorist organizations, but their share of the estimated 100 000 complete units (missile and launcher) produced worldwide thus far is unknown.

One of our recommendations by our panel was to call for a UN conference on trafficking of small arms in all its aspects. The tail "in all its aspects" was put there in recognition of the fact that illicit trade cannot be dealt with in isolation, divorced from its connection with legal trade and its societal causes and consequences. Most of the illegal small arms in circulation have, after all, started life as legal and only become illegal as a result of theft, corruption, poorly guarded stockpiles or breakdown of all authority, as in Albania some years back and in Iraq more recently.

The Small Arms Survey for 2004 contends that the collapse of Saddam Hussein´s regime led to the single most significant small arms stockpile transfer the world has known. The Survey estimates that, as a result, Iraqi civilians may have gained control of seven to eight million small arms (in a country of 26 million people). Strengthening controls on legal trade and possession, including stockpile security, are thus a vital part in preventing illicit trade and its consequences.

The UN conference we had suggested convened in July 2001 and produced a program of action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. That is the document whose implementation my conference – the BMS2 – will consider next month. In practice, the focus is on preventing and combating illicit trade. Eradication is probably an illusory goal.

The program of action is not a legally binding treaty but a political commitment, a set of recommendations instead of obligations. It outlines a whole host of steps that UN member states should take nationally, regionally and globally in pursuit of its objectives. It gives particular weight to international cooperation and assistance, particularly at regional and sub-regional levels. It also provides for follow-up in the form of biennial meetings to consider its implementation and a review conference five years later, in 2006. While the biennial meetings take stock of what´s been achieved – or not - the review conference can beef up and add to the program itself, if all states agree. The first biennial meeting was held in 2003 and mine is now the second BMS two years later.

Some of the steps agreed in the program of action are pretty basic, such as the one by which states undertake to put in place, where they do not exist, adequate laws and regulations to exercise effective control over the production, export, import and transit of small arms. But the reality is that in many countries such laws and regulations had not existed and in some countries they may not exist even now. Actually enforcing in practice what´s on the statute books is an even bigger challenge.

Nationally states also undertake, inter alia, to criminalize and penalize illicit activities, appoint national points of contact for internal and external coordination, ensure "appropriate and reliable" marking on weapons their firms produce, and establish standards relating to the management and security of their weapons stockpiles. Regionally they undertake, inter alia, to strengthen and establish, where appropriate, moratoria on imports.

Many of the undertakings are, however, diluted by weasel wording, such as "where appropriate". Thus a regional moratorium on small arms imports to, say, the Middle East is safely excluded from any consideration. There is no verification as such. The means by which progress in the implementation of agreed steps is monitored are national reports which states are requested to submit, on a voluntary basis, to the UN. The first batch of these reports was available to the first biennial meeting in 2003 for consideration. I´ve asked for a second batch of national reports for mine.

More than half of the UN membership of 191 states responded in 2003. According to these reports, positive developments were on track especially with regard to reviews of laws and administrative procedures on small arms, weapons collection and destruction and public awareness programs. A recent NGO assessment is more critical and concludes that a large number of countries have not implemented many of the most basic measures outlined in the program of action. The obstacles to implementation include a lack of awareness, political engagement and institutional will. In general, governments tend to entertain rosier views of their records of implementation of any commitments than non-governmental organizations. Small arms are no exception.

What is exceptional in my experience is the close cooperation that has been achieved between many governments and NGOs, and not only in the developed world, on the issue of small arms. IANSA, the international action network on small arms, brings together more than 500 NGOs ranging in their interests from disarmament and development to human rights and humanitarian law. Many NGOs have a lot of knowledge and field experience, which is very relevant to implementing the program of action. Canada, by the way, has been a strong proponent of more NGO involvement in the UN process.

In the short term, expectations for progress on implementation hinge largely on the outcome of the UN negotiations for an international instrument on marking and tracing illicit small arms, going on right now in New York. The purpose of this instrument (a wonderful diplomatic term, by the way, because it can be understood to refer to either a legally binding treaty or a political commitment - a matter of great dispute as I speak) is to enable states to identify and trace, in a timely and reliable manner, illicit small arms and light weapons in both conflict and crime situations. Agreed markings on exported and imported small arms, better record-keeping and better cooperation in tracing suspect weapons to their origins would represent a significant step forward. The outlook is still uncertain but I have full confidence in my Swiss neighbor in Rockcliffe, Ambassador Toni Thalmann, who is chairing the UN negotiations. Looking a bit further ahead, beyond the 2006 review conference, there is a strong wish, certainly on the part of the European Union and Canada, to begin negotiations for another international instrument, this time to regulate arms brokering. In the EU view, this instrument, too, should be legally binding.

Brokers, middlemen, carry out a wide range of activities that are instrumental in diverting weapons from legal to illegal markets, such as arranging contact between a shady customer and an unscrupulous supplier, providing finance and transport etc. As of now, brokers can act almost entirely without oversight in much of the world. Only around 25 countries, Finland among them but not yet Canada, now explicitly regulate brokering. Controls on legal and illicit brokering are strongly linked; unless states regulate the first, they are unable to effectively prevent the second. The transnational nature of brokering activities makes treaty-based international cooperation indispensable in this area. In the EU view, the 2006 review conference should set the negotiating process in motion.

Whatever the fate of particular initiatives or even the UN program of action itself, I believe that real and sustainable progress requires an approach that integrates, mainstreams, the various efforts to deal with small arms proliferation and misuse into broader efforts to promote conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building, thereby reducing violence and improving human security.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope that by now I have managed to convince you that the next time you hear the words "small arms" you will be thinking big. You won´t just be thinking of some tragic domestic dispute or crime involving a handgun and a few individuals. You´ll also be thinking of ferocious internal conflicts in many parts of the world, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals every year because of the all too ready availability of powerful small arms. And you´ll know that the UN is trying to do something about it.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Small Arms and Light Weapons


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