Reducing Armed Violence: It Is More Than the Guns

By Ed Laurance 

Despite nearly twenty years of growing attention to the problem of armed violence in the world, the latest statistics and news headlines tell us it remains a critical impediment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  The prestigious research institution Small Arms Survey in Geneva estimated in 2011 that “more than 526,000 people are killed each year as a result of lethal violence. One in every ten of all reported violent deaths around the world occurs in so-called conflict settings or during terrorist activities, while 396,000 intentional homicides occur every year. Fifty-eight countries exhibit violent death rates above 10.0 per 100,000.”  While we now are witnessing the use of major weapons such as tanks and artillery in Syria, producing massive violations of international humanitarian rights and humanitarian law, this remains an anomaly.  Most of the violence is perpetrated using small arms and light weapons (SALW) – handguns, assault rifles, grenades, etc.  The recent revolt in Libya revealed that massive numbers of these lethal weapons disappeared from government stockpiles. Most are unaccounted for. The tools of violence remain a critical problem for conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and development.

For that segment of the international community who has worked for years to reduce armed violence by focusing on the weapons being used, this is not the picture that we had in mind. The end of the Cold War led to a significant increase in intrastate, armed violence. And the international community, first the United Nations then governments and eventually civil society, developed and implemented a host of global efforts and agreements designed to control the proliferation, availability, and misuse of SALW. What has been accomplished? What did we learn? What do we have to show for these efforts? What is the way forward?

Jonah Leff, UN Weapons Inspector
It is more than the guns, so what is the way forward?

In 1994, Mali was racked with armed violence because a minority ethnic group, the Tauregs, had taken up arms and was destabilizing the country due to the treatment they had received. Most development projects stopped and donors insisted on a peaceful context before resuming such development aid.  The United Nations, and a new president of Mali, negotiated with the insurgents and reached an agreement whereby they would turn in their weapons in exchange for their integration into the society. Some joined the police force, others were given land and the tools to make a living.

This success story sparked a hopeful global effort to produce similar results elsewhere. At the Monterey Institute, for example, research was conducted on hundreds of voluntary weapons collection programs throughout the world. The result was a handbook in five languages on how to most effectively conduct such programs. In 1995 the Secretary General of the UN gave a major speech calling on the world to deal with the real weapons of mass destruction: small arms and light weapons.  Throughout the remainder of the 1990s regional agreements also focused on reducing armed violence by focusing on the tools of violence. All of this work resulted in a consensus agreement in June 2001, the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA). This consensus agreement established norms for governments that if complied with would reduce the likelihood of SALW leaking or diffusing into the wrong hands – terrorists, criminals, insurgents, etc. For example, the UNPoA calls on governments to control the manufacture and export of SALW and safeguard their stockpiles of weapons and ammunition.

It was in the post-UNPoA period that many began to question the effort to focus exclusively on the tools of violence. Not much was changing on the ground. The availability of weapons both within and outside of conflict areas had not changed. In the late 1990s, pro-gun groups went global and began to emphasize the right of citizens to defend themselves in the face of a corrupt and ill-trained security sector. In Kosovo, where almost everyone had a gun of some kind, the United Nations Development Program’s efforts to lower violence through disarmament met stiff resistance. Human rights groups had in effect dismissed the UNPoA as folly, given that it made no mention of these weapons being used to perpetrate massive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Most importantly the UNPoA called on states to periodically report on how they have implemented the UNPoA. An international treaty or agreement has no effect until it is internalized by national governments. The landmine treaty of 1997, which bans antipersonnel landmines, has been internalized in most states. Governments have ceased manufacturing, using, and exporting this inhumane weapon, and have destroyed their stockpiles.  Much the same was expected with the UNPoA regarding SALW.

After eleven years, have governments complied with this “politically binding” document? The UNPoA had no agreed reporting format, with the result that reports are all over the place and cannot be used to assess implementation. Over forty states have never submitted a report. But the real answer is that we do not know much about implementation because the nature of the UN does not allow it to independently assess compliance with such accords. At a recent UN conference assessing the UNPoA, governments continued to call for an independent assessment of compliance with the norms of the UNPoA. This is hypocrisy. Governments know full well that none of them would accept an outside assessment of a matter directly related to national security. Once again proponents of arms control to reduce armed violence had to be satisfied with “raising awareness.” The changes on the ground envisioned by the UNPoA have yet to be realized.

After twenty years of work at the global level, has it all been for naught? After all, the gains in Mali in 1994 have been reversed as the Taureg minority now controls the north of that country, using weapons that leaked out of a disintegrating Libya.  But I do think that the global environment is different than it was twenty years ago. The attention given to the role that small arms proliferation and misuse plays in armed violence is now accepted. It is not just about the root causes of conflict. In Syria, for example, analysts track the weapons being used in that conflict in terms of how certain weapons may “turn the tide” in favor of one side or the other. The violations of international humanitarian law related to weapons uses and effects are made clear. But it is also clear that what weapons a sovereign state exports and to whom remains under the control of governments, as does the desire of states to acquire weapons for its security. The recent failure of the UN member states to agree on an Arms Trade Treaty, after four very expensive years of UN meetings and NGO campaigning, sent a powerful message that when it comes to the exporting or importing of arms, sovereignty reigns supreme.

The good news is that after twenty years of research and practice on the ground, we now have a better idea of what it will take to reduce armed violence. We know that the weapons alone are not the only factors we must work on at the local level.  The 2005 OECD document Reducing Armed Violence: Enabling Development, co-authored by development, security, and peacebuilding experts, established four lenses that those working to reduce armed violence should use to design programming to reduce armed violence. One of the lenses is tools of violence. Another is looking at conflict through the eyes of the perpetrators. Why is there a demand for these weapons? A third lens is that of institutions. Even with well-developed programs designed to gain better control of SALW, do the institutions have the capacity to implement them? And the final lens is people. For example, is there a gun culture that has to be taken into account?

The task of those who choose to work with those organizations on the ground attempting to lower the demand for and control the proliferation and misuse of SALW has been made easier because of the global work on norms and standards of the past twenty years. Many governments are now developing and implementing laws and regulations as to who should possess SALW, how they should use them, and what types of weapons should remain safeguarded in government hands. In the end the hard work remains to be done at the local and national level, convincing governments that complying with standards that will reduce armed violence is in their national interest. States have begun to request technical assistance to build the capacity to comply. The work continues.


Dr. Edward J. Laurance graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1960 and served ten years, including a combat tour in Vietnam. He has earned an MA from Temple University in Political Science in 1970, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in International Relations in 1973. Since September 1991 he has been Professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where he teaches courses in global governance, armed violence, security and development, public policy analysis and program evaluation. Since 1994 Dr. Laurance has focused his work on the full range of issues related to the proliferation, availability and misuse of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Since 1992 he has served as a consultant to the United Nations on six occasions. including his current assignment developing international small arms control standards.

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