One of the great challenges facing the world today is the widespread availability of small arms. Deaths related to Small Arms account for large proportion of the average of 52,000 battle deaths per year, along with the average of 500,000 non combat violent deaths per year (Krause 2010 p.4).
The destruction of Small Arms often occurs during a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process at the end of conflict, a process that aims to ensure that combatants return to civilian life and do not return to armed conflict. Whilst human combatants can have alternate occupations, weapons do not, as they are designed and built to kill people. Destruction of weapons guarantees they will not kill again.
Whilst the production of Small Arms is unlikely to cease, the destruction of exisiting surplus firearms should remain a priority for the international community, for the simple reason that it is a way to reduce violence: it is more difficult to raise and arm a violent group if there are no guns available.
Vast stockpiles of weapons exist in the world today, often insecurely stored and vulnerable to theft. A large majority of these weapons are still potentially lethal, but are outmoded in terms of design or calibre, and are thus unlikely to be carried by frontline troops in modern armies. Many of these weapons are Soviet designs from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and are of extremely robust construction, meaning that once they find their way into a conflict zone, they are liable to remain in circulation for at least half a century. These weapons, typically assault rifles and sometimes smaller calibre sub-machine guns, have a high rate of fire and a very high destructive capability, but are relatively cheap, owing to their obselescence and large numbers (Collier 2009).
Many armed groups today consist of ill-trained recruits under the age of eighteen who cannot expect to be paid a wage, but instead rely on rentseeking activities from populations that live in areas that have seen a breakdown in state authority (Kaldor 2012). Africa, and the Great Lakes Region in particular, have suffered from the curse of a surplus of small arms in widespread circulation, exacerbating conflict and adding to civilian deaths. Ownership or use of an automatic weapon itself often holds appeal, as it can be used endow the owner with a sense of power and threat (Munkler 2006).
Central to any policy in reducing Small arms needs to be the tracing of the movements of small arms and tighter regulation of all small arms transfers internationally. Progress has been made at the international level in reaching agreements for the creation of linked databases to aid in the tracing of weapons, along with innovations in the marking of weapons to assist in tracing (McDonald 2015). Some progress has also been made in reducing government stockpiles in Eastern Europe, a positive development as surpluses such as these can end up being sold to third world governments.
However, the pysical destruction of weapons must remain a central focus, and it is worth considering whether this process could be streamlined and be made more efficient. On the ground, methods of disposal of weapons often remain very basic, with ritualised burnings of weapons in ceremonies, crushing of weapons with heavy vehicles and the manual destruction of weapons on lathes. This destruction process is lengthy and difficult and time consuming, as is the procedure of collecting weapons and storing them until actual destruction occurs.
One proposed solution to this could be the creation of mobile crushing units, consisting of a crushing machine that can shred steel, set on the back of a middle-weight truck, with the shredded material being conveyed on a slide to a neighbouring dump-truck type vehicle. Systems such as this could speed up one aspect of the DDR process and thus contribute to a peacebuilding process, for example meaning that once the details of a weapon are recorded, it can be destroyed immediately, without the need to collect, store and guard weapons until such time as the destruction process is begun. This does not mean that a ceremony cannot be held with select weapons at a given time, only that immediate disposal options are available. Although there are no easy ways to dispose of ammunition other than traditional demolition methods, the instantaneous destruction of small arms could already be a first step in speeding up a disarmament process.
The case for an accelerated pace in the collection and destruction of Small Arms has notably been made by events in Libya in recent years, where rebels captured huge stockpiles of weapons amassed by the Qaddafi regime and these weapons have begun to be disperesed accross Africa. These weapons have already been shown to have helped fuel the ongoing conflict in Mali (Anders 2015), and will no doubt continue to be found in Africa and beyond for years to come.
The UN has made slow but steady progress in helping to coordinate international policies regarding Small Arms and the latest Biennial Meeting of States produced a document in the form of BMS5, which features important recommendations on stockpile management, weapons marking, record keeping as well as tracing, with the progress in the latter category being a useful step forward (McDonald 2015).
However, little discussion was devoted to weapons disposal, and possible ways forward here needs to be discussed more widely, to see what can be done to raise awareness and thus funding for projects that involve DDR. The physical destruction of weapons component of the DDR is perhaps the easiest to address and is easy to enact, and makes a simple platform to appeal from during fundraising activities, either at the regional or international level. Until this time, it seems that insufficient press has been given to DDR activities, and weapons disposal in particular, a situation which should be remedied as soon as possible since raising awareness of DDR can also raise awareness of conflict and the political choices wich can affect conflict.
Anders, H. (2015) ‘Expanding Arsenal: Insurgent Arms in Northern Mali’ in Small Arms Survey 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Collier, P. (2009) Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. Vintage:London
Kaldor, M.(2012) New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era (3rd Ed.). Polity Press: Stanford
Krause,K.(ed.)(2010) Armed Groups and Contemporary Conflict: Challenging the Weberian State. Oxford: Routledge
McDonald, G. (2015) ‘One Meeting After Another: UN process Update’ in Small Arms Survey 2015, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Munkler, H.(2005) The New Wars. Polity Press:Cambridge.