-- How are we to read the ongoing small arms fighting in postwar Iraq? The common perception is that it is a "mopping up" exercise for coalition forces. This is a narrow view that ignores the fact that Iraq's destabilization fits a pattern in post-conflict zones around the world. Their common element is the widespread proliferation of small arms.
"When the war ends, the guns remain," is a common refrain from civilians from West Africa to Central America. In the end, the weapons will most likely be recycled into new conflicts at home, or sold to other countries to contribute to new conflicts, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind.
Small arms, especially firearms, are the primary tools used to kill, threaten and intimidate civilian populations around the world. Even small numbers of weapons confer great power on their wielders. They are so easy to obtain, and so readily available, that almost any group, regardless of its mandate or legitimacy, can easily obtain them.
Like illicit drugs, guns seem to know no borders, and there is always a demand. Yet their presence often contributes to civilian deaths, human rights abuses, and can turn small scale disputes in to national and regional conflagrations. Like illicit drugs, too, international efforts to stop their proliferation are spotty and uncoordinated.
Two years ago, the United Nations convened a "Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects." It was a time of tense negotiations and lengthy discussions on the complex issues raised by the small arms proliferation. In the end, the member states agreed to a Program of Action that takes some important initial steps to curb small arms proliferation, but that disappointed many governments and nongovernmental organizations who felt it did not go far enough in setting a bold agenda for future action.
This week, governments return to the United Nations to assess their progress in implementing the Program of Action to stem the proliferation of small arms. While some states have been particularly active in their small arms policies and initiatives, most have not stepped up. Two years later, there is a real need to take further action on small arms.
The timing of the review meeting could not be more pressing. In June, 2,000 U.S. Marines arrived in Liberia to protect Americans from the gun battles there, while French troops have recently engaged armed tribal factions in Congo. Meanwhile, in Iraq and Afghanistan small arms are contributing to widespread destabilization.
In 2001, states missed the chance for real progress on small arms. They could not agree on crucial firearm export criteria, on international standards controlling arms brokers, or on baseline measures to prosecute traffickers who violate these laws.
At the very least, states must now work hard to meet their obligations under the Program of Action. They must also show the willingness to develop new initiatives to halt small arms flows, by enhancing their domestic arms transfer laws and by cooperating regionally and internationally to share expertise and information.
Moreover, states must enhance their coordination with nongovernmental organizations, which are often better situated to pick up the pieces of small arms-ravaged communities. Finally, states must address the root causes for the demand of these weapons, and work to eliminate poverty, inequality, and injustice.
Despite the lack of a binding international instrument on small arms, there are strong steps states have agreed to take - and now they must take them.
The writer is senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
© 2003 the International Herald Tribune