Addressing the Demand Dimensions of Small Arms Abuse: Problems and Opportunities

FPIF Discussion Paper #7 September 2001 Addressing the Demand Dimensions of Small Arms Abuse: Problems and Opportunities By Alejandro Bendaña, Centro de Estudios Internacionales (CEI), Nicaragua Alejandro Bendaña < [email protected] > is the Director of the Centro de Estudios Internacionales http://www.ceinicaragua.org.ni/ , in Managua, Nicaragua. Contents The Causes of Violent Conflict: Beyond Blaming the Victim Economics, Small Arms, and Violence Opportunities for a Way Forward Final Reflections: Which Discussion Framework? DParms.pdf (We offer this analysis as a FPIF discussion paper and part of FPIF’s effort to promote South-North Dialog. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the FPIF staff or the boards of either sponsoring organization. Comments are welcome. Please send to John Gershman < [email protected] >.) The conclusion of the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in July 2001 provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the state of the small arms campaign and the challenges facing this citizens agenda. International humanitarian attention has underscored the importance of confronting the proliferation, accumulation, and misuse of small arms. The conventional approach to controlling small arms abuses—one embedded in the recent Plan of Action approved at the UN meeting and included in many nongovernmental (NGO) campaigns—is the following: The violence associated with small arms abuse is linked to criminality and can be best addressed by controlling the trade in illicit arms; This requires reducing the demand for such arms and making the illicit trade in small arms more difficult (the legal trade is of less concern); The best approach to reducing demand is a security/law and order approach that focuses on strengthening the security apparatus of Southern governments. This conventional approach, driven by a laudable humanitarian imperative, often tends to sideline, intentionally or not, more contentious political issues. These issues have become even more important in the aftermath of the conference, particularly given the Bush administration’s unwillingness to engage seriously with the process of addressing small arms abuse. Three questions have to be placed squarely on the table in our discussion: Have we decided not to address the underlying and systemic causes of violence? Are we diverting attention away from the important consideration of the supply and production dimension by focusing primarily on the demand for small arms? In addressing the demand side, do we use a security or a development/peacebuilding perspective? The Causes of Violent Conflict: Beyond Blaming the Victim In focusing on the demand-side of small arms, the conventional framework for controlling small arms abuses has ignored two key elements that are necessary to a comprehensive and effective approach to addressing the violence associated with small arms abuse. First, it ignores the systemic causes of violence, especially the economic and political sources of violence. Second, reducing demand is approached in a narrow law and order style that ignores the developmental and empowerment agendas that must be at the center of any sustainable and effective approach to ending the violence associated with small arms abuse. Such an approach also lets the Northern countries and their arms manufacturers off the hook. These governments support repressive regimes, subsidize weapons exports, and promote development policies that aggravate poverty and inequality through the international financial institutions, all of which contribute to the violence associated with small arms. Failing to address these causes of violence will insure failure in addressing small arms abuse. Does the availability of weapons in and of itself help trigger violent behavior? The question is academic in regions such as Central America or Central Asia where it seems weapons, like the poor, shall always be with us. Thanks to the cold war—and thanks to the technology that makes them cheap, maintainable, and easy to transport—the use of small arms and light weapons will remain instruments not simply of the military, but of militarized crime and economic survival or rebellion. The “culture” of these countries has little to do with this, and arguments about the ostensible “permissiveness” of some societies verge on the patronizing. Governments, along with the political “right,” will never tire of exonerating the economy and blaming crime on the criminals. This is nonsense because small arms are not merely symptoms of the loss of “values.” The impact of demand factors such as crime, corruption, and violence can not be denied. However the law-and-order or the security approach to the problem of the trade in small arms has its own limits and pitfalls. It tends to reduce policy to police actions pitting “good guys” against “bad guys.” Experience shows that law-and-order crusades usually do not win the “war on crime.” On both the national and international level, the security-first approach lends itself to abuse. In the face of history, one is naturally suspicious of the militarized prescriptions of how to deal with arms flows in an “internal” conflict: tougher laws, more police, bigger prisons, fewer civil liberties, and tougher punishment. How convenient to criminalize the protesters, and for some repressive governments, to count on yet another tool in their counterinsurgency arsenal. The “narcoguerilla” epithet employed by the U.S. and the Colombian military to justify massive military spending, increased repression, and counterinsurgency operations comes to mind, while civilian populations end up suffering more from the cure than from the disease. The national security “guns and thugs” approach can be as narrow as it is opportunistic. Proliferation and abuse are linked of course but, as the examples of Switzerland or Texas would show, the first does not necessarily lead to the second. Governments in this context often prefer not to address another discernible component of the small arms problem: namely, the relationship between small arms proliferation and the character of economic, social, and political development. As Bobi Perseyedi argues, in The Small Arms Problem in Central Asia: Features and Implications, “…it could also be argued that the growing international interest in small arms is due, to a large extent, to the lack of political will on the part of the international community to address the underlying causes of internal conflicts.” Widespread gun ownership and use raises important questions about fundamental relationships between state and society. It is more than a question of “governance”—a blanket term often used to blame national governments for conflict. The character of the state itself helps shape social behaviors. Where repression is the official norm, and where people are seeking to build more democratic societies and movements, and wish to gain access to power, the implications regarding gun supply and demand are obvious: People’s guns against government thugs. Simply blaming “proliferation” does not explain why so many small arms are in the hands of so many Palestinians, for example. It may just have something to do with foreign occupation, widespread Israeli military presence and repression, or the fact that about 90% of Palestinian families have experienced relatives being detained, tortured, wounded, killed, or otherwise abused by Israeli authorities. Similarly for Tamil families at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. While that, of course, cannot constitute a justification for resorting to the same politics of terror and vengeance, the issue of oppression does factor in heavily on the “demand” side. In the same way, massive amounts of weapons supplied to the governments of Israel, Sri Lanka, or Colombia constitutes a “supply” consideration that, while legal, is immoral and sparks an “illegal” counterflow of armaments. Economics, Small Arms, and Violence Some recent research has focused upon the relationship between economic issues and violence, analyzing the economic agendas of competing factions in violent conflicts. The resulting policy prescriptions emphasize changing the behavior of national (Southern) elites and their regional networks. (See for example, Mats Berdal and David M. Potter, Greed and Grievance, Economic Agendas in Civil Wars , (Reinner/IDRC, 2000)) While this is a welcome development, the analysis and therefore the prescriptions, are still partial and limited. Such analyses need to expand their scope to examine how globalized privatization creates new opportunities for particular groups to multiply their capital, by engaging in multifaceted national and international trade that includes weapons. In certain countries, these are private sector firms that under the rules of liberalized banking systems and diminished capital controls can freely move the money that moves the weapons (or drugs, diamonds, etc.). Conflict entrepreneurs are more a by-product than a cause of war, although they may feature prominently in its perpetuation. People do learn to survive in militarized economies and sometimes it is difficult to unlearn how to live without weapons as instruments of economic subsistence, or protection thereof. In any case, one must warn against new versions of “blaming the victim”—such as the faddish portrayal of local corruption as the explanation for economic stagnation—in which outsiders, including former colonial patrons and neocolonial international bureacracies, comfortably pretend they have nothing to do with the problem. The conventional policy prescriptions of development aid conditionality or international police repression are not the answers. In fact, there are no quick fix answers. Effectively contesting the pain produced by war and weapons will be the product of a long term and incremental process of organizing social energy (what some misleadingly term “social capital” or “civil society”). The fact is that segments of civil society do benefit from the militarization and privatization of economies, weakening of the state, and that an “anti-social capital,” can also develop. In the neoliberal scheme of affairs, the opportunities for free market rewards outweigh risks of juridical penalization. “Blame the local and the national, forget the international” Citizen insecurity (and with it gun proliferation) may be as much the product of a repressive and corrupt authority as of a nonexistant or ineffective one. The problem here may be less one of political will than of political capacity. Here we must examine the contentious connection between a so-called failing or failed state and the need for a community to assume responsibility for its own security. Failure here may not be as much the product of internally sparked war and destruction, as of globalization economics and impoverishment. The steady contraction of state capacity, however, also calls forth the examination of the relationship between the international economic setting and governments in developing countries. Where police and courts are ineffectual and where impunity is the norm, citizens will assume responsibility for their own security. Security becomes privatized and security agencies proliferate, along with the demand and supply of weaponry. There are now abundant reports of criminal elements being better armed in quality and quantity than the legitimate forces of the state. While such a situation is, in part, the result of excessive availability, it is also the result of diminished capacity on the part of local security authorities. Capacity, in turn, cannot be divorced from neoliberal privatization, fiscal austerity, and state-debilitating consequences of global rules set down by the rich countries and enforced by the Bretton Woods twins. In other words, the failure of the state to meet its most basic obligation—to provide security (let alone other human rights and equity)—is also the failure and responsibility of the global rulemakers. Donors call for demand-side action with one voice, yet with another, demand structural adjustment programs and external debt repayment, suspiciously oblivious to the connection between the two. And they ask the small arms campaigns to focus their attention on analyzing the pieces of the problem to death, thereby diverting attention from the larger global picture. Opportunities for a Way Forward Assume a Development and Justice perspective Conceptual and policy horizons regarding gun abuse can and must be expanded so as to arrive at a positive engagement of the external possibilities of impacting the demand dimension. Examples and research now abound showing how humanitarian assistance may have profoundly negative impacts on the dynamics of conflict and small arms demand. But the refrain “do no harm” is not enough. The question is how to do some good from the outside. Campaigns, particularly in the North, working from a development and justice perspective can and should raise fundamental questions about development assistance and humanitarian aid, as an often indispensable complement for efforts on the legal and normative realm. On a research and practical level, we need to understand and tap indigenous, bottom-up efforts to end the abuse of small arms and to prevent violence. This means enhancement of local capacities for community-building, for the tapping of social energies, for communication and coalition networking, and for peacebuilding in general. It just may be that the most effective means of contributing to efforts to control the abuse of guns will take the form of strengthened norms and networks of national civic engagement on the one hand, and the democratic expansion of national spaces by diminished international power asymmetries on the other. Peace and Weapons Abuse Control: The Indispensable Linkage In countries like Sri Lanka, Colombia, or Sierra Leone, the problem of small arms cannot be addressed without an understanding of the phenomena of “militarized violence.” Past or ongoing conventional military engagements between organized forces spill over, in time or geography, into abuses and paramilitarism. Perpetrators, not always men in uniform, or potential victims are both sources of “demand,” as institutions and society itself make all social, political, and economic problems a security problem at the same time. Review Policies on Foreign Aid We need to respond to small arms abuse in a more coherent and coordinated manner with a view to long term sustainability and capacity building. Demand-side discussions and recommendations could benefit from ongoing reviews of the application of development assistance to violence prevention. (See, for example, the UK Overseas Development Administration 1996 briefing paper Conflict Reduction Through The Aid Programme: A Briefing For Agencies Seeking Support For Conflict Reduction Activities .) For example, can donors support activities that prepare for, prevent, and mitigate the effects of violent conflict and small arms abuse? In certain national and regional contexts, aid projects could, it has been argued, be designed to contribute to conflict prevention, resolution, or reduction by building either the will or the capacity of the state and civil society to create an environment in which differences could be resolved without recourse to violence. Diminishing available stockpiles and restricting supply avenues is insufficient, at least from a humanitarian perspective. What the South does not need is new conditionalities on rapidly diminishing aid flows. Whatever the pretext, it is there on account of the fact that a select few governments brand others as “rogue” states (a term returned to favor under the Bush administration). Many in the South, and not only its governments, feel that linking development assistance or debt relief to political behaviour is in general a bad idea. Over and above the implications for domestic democratic processes, and whether “aid” is a matter of charity, self-interest, or justice, there is the question of whether the donors or the international financial institutions have the competency to impose or justify imposing governance or security-related conditionalities. Donors must come to grips with the gap—or indeed perhaps incompatibility—that exists between addressing the small arms problem (or peacebuilding in general) in a comprehensive fashion and managing the workings of current structures, processes, and operating procedures regarding development and security policy. It just may be that many of the assumptions of market-driven corporate globalization are part of the roblem. Gun abuse or violence prevention may therefore be less a question of methodologies or “tools” than a matter of approaches and genuine commitment to empowerment. We perhaps would do well to lend as much support to building local and national containment and prevention capacities, as we do to international conferences and international conventions. Final Reflections: Which Discussion Framework? Central to these reflections is the idea that we must recognize that it is not only the content of the policy debate that is important, and work to influence the issues discussed within that debate, but also recognize that the framework itself of that debate is critically important. We will run into problems if the framework is only partial, and not comprehensive in character. By this I refer to the very decision to organize single-issue campaigns that, in and of themselves, may deflect political attention and organizational resources away from the broader understanding of (and action upon) direct and economic violence. Many civil society campaigns argue that a well-defined focus and specialization is critical to effective advocacy and policy reform. But is this policy at the expense of politics (let alone power and paradigms)? Governments have their own reasons for compartmentalizing the issue. In the case of the small arms trade, the more “independent” the demand problem, the smaller the embarrassment over the lack of political will to address the production dimension and the causal factors of violence and crime. In addition, they can more easily manage their public relations and provide a “sexier” image to the public. So, one day we witness a Permanent Member of the Security Council shedding crocodile tears over small arms abuse. And the next day, that same government bombs Baghdad. Of course the silence of arms producers is explainable. However, by extension, corporate investors in certain industries may not wish to be reminded of how their decisions exacerbate the social problems that create crime—for example poverty and joblessness—and transform the institutions of the global economy to make it easier for arms pushers to move their money. Expanding the parameters of our analysis (and action) may well reveal that many of the rich countries do not stand above the problem but indeed are a part of it. The point, therefore, is not to expand, but to contract those parameters. Civil society organizations and concerned citizens working on small arms issues must ask themselves whether they choose to operate within such “political constraints,” constraints that are so clearly expressed in the agenda and workings of the UN process. This process emphasizes the concentration on the tools of violence, not on the toolmakers or on the causes of violence. Is this political realism? Analytic dishonesty? Ethical incoherence? Or donor dependence? Most of us would agree that the presence of an issue on the agenda, albeit in a compartmentalized and partial a way, is better than the absence of the issue altogether. But it is problematic (or at least should be) to extend this argument further by arguing that we should work within the prevailing power relationships—sometimes camouflaged in the term “political viability”—to contain at least some of the negative effects caused by small arms abuse. By dealing with problems at the level of symptoms rather than essence, we may be simply legitimizing, and thereby reinforcing, the macro power structures—the very structures that lay at the root of the violence being condemned. 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