Trading Guns for Peace

Date: Wed, 4 Jul 2001 16:15:09 -0400 (EDT)

Dear All,

"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war any more"

On July 9, a United Nations conference on the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons will begin. The conference will produce a Program of Action seeking to stem the illegal flow of these weapons, the "weapons of choice" in today's mostly internal wars. See
A strong document, with political support and an aggressive timetable to implement it, could be a meaningful step towards a more peaceful world. For even as the sale of missiles and other large weapons grabs headlines and political attention, it is small weapons that shatter the peace of our own neighborhoods, and make peace so elusive in other parts of the world.
The world is awash in guns. There are over 500 million small arms and light weapons in our world, and they kill about 500,000 people every year. See International Herald Tribune, July 3, 2001. Rifles and grenades played a central role in the Rwandan genocide, and small arms have been central to horrific civil wars in such countries as Liberia and Sierra Leone, the killings in East Timor. Indeed, they were the main weapons used in 46 of the 49 major conflicts in the world in the 1990s. See; (this article also has information on the arms trade).
Guns do not cause these conflicts, but they enable poverty and inequality, political repression, ethnic tensions, and other factors to explode into violence that can shatter and consume societies. And it is societies, not only opposing armies, that are the victims of these weapons: 90 percent of direct victims of war in the 1990s were civilians. Small arms are easy enough for children to use, hence contributing to the tragedy of child soliders. Small arms threaten humanitarian relief workers, making it difficult for them to deliver assistance, and putting some populations beyond their reach. See
About a dozen countries supply most of the world's small arms. The most common types of small arms and light weapons are produced in the United States, Belgium, Germany, Russia, and Israel. Other major suppliers are Brazil, Bulgaria, China, France, Italy, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. See
The upcoming United Nations conference can lead to new efforts to control the flow of small arms and give important support to ongoing efforts. A draft Program of Action from early this year pledges governments to important steps, including: to create mechanisms to mark and trace small arms; to destroy unmarked and surplus arms; to create mechanisms to help ensure that the weapons reach their intended destination; to create records of arms transfers and regulating arms brokers, and; to sell small arms only to governments. Governments also pledge to consider a treaty to restrict arms production and trade to registered manufacturers and brokers. See
There are areas in which the document could be strengthened, such as by committing governments to create criteria for which states may receive arms, based on their respect for human rights, humanitarian law, and international peace; to require all gun owners to be licensed and to record all firearm sales; to create an international register of information on the manufacture and transfer of small arms, and; to challenge and reverse "gun cultures" where they exist. See
You can sign and e-mail a letter at urging Secretary of State Powell to attend the Conference and commit the United States to a strong Program of Action. A version of a letter is already written, though you may want to urge the Secretary to push for the inclusion of an aggressive timetable, including a timetable to negotiate treaties setting forth normative criteria that states must meet in order to receive arms; controlling the activities of arms brokers (the US has progressive domestic legislation in this regard); creating a system of marking and tracing arms, and; creating a global register for small arms and light weapons transfers and acquisitions.
You might also e-mail the President ( urging his administration not to sell weapons to regions of conflict or countries that do not respect the human rights of their citizens. You might also urge him to support an extension of background checks to gun shows and other areas not covered by the Brady Act. Despite the President's politics, this might be achievable; the Attorney General has praised the effectiveness of the Brady Act, even as he has proposed weakening it by quickly deleting information from the background check from a national database (NY Times, 7/3/01, temporarily available at
Background checks, export controls, tracing mechanisms, controls on arms brokers -- these will still leave us far from the time when nation will not lift sword against nation, rebel faction against government, person against person. But these steps could lead to fewer swords and more ploughshares, and a little more peace in our world.
Thank you for your time and efforts,



"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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