Disarmament in Colombia: The Meltdown Begins

UNITED NATIONS - It was gesture to pave the way. A meltdown took place last week, but it wasn't the collapse of a government or institution -- rather the destruction of nearly 14,000 small arms and light weapons in Colombia on International Gun Destruction Day.

Organised by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Colombian Ministry of Defence, the national armed forces and the "Vida Sagrada" programme, this special ceremony in the city of Sogamoso highlighted the dangers of illegal arms proliferation.The molten metal will go towards the manufacture of school chairs and the construction of a monument in memory of the victims of violence and kidnapping in Colombia.

Stefen Liller from UNODC in Bogota told IPS that his agency supports a number of activities relating to small arms and light weapons, including supporting non-violence initiatives and training the armed forces in basic investigative techniques to combat the illegal trafficking in firearms.

Colombian Ambassador Claudia Blum clarified that the weapons destroyed in the ceremony did not come from the armed forces.

"There were 13,778 weapons destroyed, which included machine guns, handguns, rifles and mortars," she told IPS. "Out of these, the vast majority -- 77 percent -- were confiscated from criminal organisations and illegally armed groups throughout the national territory. The rest were legally owned weapons turned in by private citizens committed to security and non-violent coexistence."

A recent report by UNODC also challenged the perception that Colombia is plagued by indiscriminate violence. Rather, the use of firearms is closely controlled and regulated by criminal gangs, rebel groups and the government.

Although Colombia has gone through a mass demobilisation of paramilitary groups in recent years, groups like Human Rights Watch say that the Alvaro Uribe government has since "lost track of several thousand of these supposedly demobilised troops, and does not currently know where they are or what they are doing."

HRW notes that "both the Organisation of American States and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia have reported that mid-level paramilitary commanders continue to engage in criminal activity and recruitment of new troops." The New York-based group continues to regularly receive reports about threats and killings of human rights defenders by paramilitary groups.

Colombia has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. One startling figure from UNODC shows that 70 percent of over 17,000 murders in 2005 were committed with firearms. By contrast, the average global rate of firearm deaths, excluding situations of armed conflict, for that same year was about 15 percent.

Most homicides in Colombia are connected with illegal ownership, manufacture and trade of firearms. Interestingly, cities that had the highest numbers of legal firearms also had the lowest homicide rates, while cities with the highest murder rates were those with the lowest number of legal arms.

Bogota's "vouchers for arms" campaign, instituted by the mayor's office, gave participants a voucher worth about 100 dollars that could be exchanged for food, clothing and other goods. It also included awareness programmes at schools and other sites.

Colombia is hardly the only country with a gun problem. According to the Control Arms Campaign, there are 639 million small arms and light weapons in the world today. Eight million more are produced every year.

Rights groups argue that without strict control, such weapons will continue to fuel violent conflict, state repression, crime and domestic abuse.

Alun Howard of the International Action Network for Small Arms, a member of the Control Arms Campaign, told IPS that momentum was steadily building to pass a global arms trade treaty (ATT).

The proposed treaty, which was backed by 153 of the 192 member states in a resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 2006, does not envisage a total ban. But it is expected to call for far greater regulation of the production and sale of small arms, including handguns.

"The process will develop a legally-binding global ATT that would apply to international trade of all conventional arms, from battleships to guns," he said. "The ATT will therefore apply to small arms, and also tanks, planes etc."

"There is no text for an ATT at the moment," Howard added.

Despite broad support among most countries, one hindrance is that the world's leading arms manufacturers are also the most powerful in the United Nations, namely the five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.

The United States was the only U.N. member state to vote against the December 2006 resolution, while 24 governments abstained.

Regarding the recent gun destruction in Colombia, Howard said that while it was not directly related to the campaign for an ATT, members of his group were also "campaigning for stronger regulations on the weapons that are proliferating within their own societies."

Several other countries also celebrated International Gun Destruction Day.

In Ukraine, a symbolic "millionth weapon destruction" event was held in Kiev on Jul. 11. Ukraine is one of the countries where the U.S. is funding a weapons destruction programme.

SasaNet Sri Lanka organised three events to commemorate International Gun Destruction Day. An art exhibition with the theme "Say No to Guns" displayed 120 pastel drawings chosen from nearly 540 entries submitted by Sri Lankan schoolchildren. The second event was a meeting between civil society representatives and officials responsible for gun licensing. The final event was a live, hour-long radio programme on the importance and relevance of International Gun Destruction Day to Sri Lanka.

"If you look at what UNODC is doing and the other U.N. offices, they're all reaching the same goals and all roads lead to the same thing," Jayantha Dhanapala, former under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, told IPS.

Earlier in his career Dhanapala was involved in orchestrating a similar programme in Albania. In a 1999 public ceremony, a number of weapons were symbolically destroyed by mechanical cutting in what was known as the Gramsh Pilot Project.

Formally launched in November 1998, its objective was to assist the government of Albania in collecting weapons and creating incentives for civilians to surrender their weapons.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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