Sunday, March 5th, marks the first International Day for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

The Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons and Its Broad and Lasting Impact Must Be Recognised As a Global Priority

At a time when the fear of nuclear weapons casts its darkest shadow since the Cold War, and the debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems seeks to regulate the development of new weapons systems, the severe and ongoing impact of conventional weapons must not be overlooked. MAG is a leading expert, operator, advocate, and partner to many states, regional bodies and civil society organisations in the sphere of armed violence reduction (AVR). Our focus is on combating the use or threatened use of small arms and light weapons (SALW) that inflict civilian harm, fuel insecurity and instil fear. The wide-ranging effects of these weapons on millions of people must be addressed to create the conditions for peaceful and inclusive societies and sustainable development. On the first International Day for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, 5th March 2023, our call is for the international community to take sustained global action on the broad and lasting impact of SALW and ammunition proliferation.

Broad and Lasting Impact

These weapons kill - at least 211,000 people  in 2020, according to the Small Arms Survey - but their impact is even more far-reaching, as they sustain and exacerbate disparities in power and wealth, and perpetuate the conditions for poverty and abuse. Without being fired, the threated use of a firearm, can restrict freedoms – an issue which particularly affects of women and girls. On 8th March, International Women’s Day, it is important to remember the critical role that SALW disarmament and non-proliferation can have in promoting gender equity.

Perceived and actual insecurity can lead ordinary people to arm themselves; in the Caribbean and Central America, demand for weapons ownership by civilians and private security companies is increasing, amid a wave of violent crime sweeping the region, including alarming rates of armed violence in small island states. In countries affected by ongoing conflict, such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, civilian weapons ownership is widespread.

Weapons acquired for self-protection, whether legitimately or illegitimately, present a new risk in terms of weak storage practices, mishandling and accidental discharge, and increased likelihood of armed escalation in confrontations. This also puts an additional burden on national actors dealing with conflict, violence, and criminality. Furthermore, the ability of security and defence forces to manage their own weapons and ammunition in line with international standards is a critical part of establishing accountable and transparent institutions.

Armed violence reduction – a lens for understanding intersection and impact

MAG provides support to more than 20 states across Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, aiming to reduce armed violence. Each weapon marked and secured, each ton of ammunition and destroyed, and every person trained is a step towards reducing circulation of illicit SALW and reducing the harm they cause. MAG also works to develop sustainable capacity at the institutional level, aiming to create long term change – including through engagement on gender and partnership with other thematic stakeholders, such as actors in Women, Peace and Security. Finally, a comprehensive AVR approach engages with local civil society and communities, as well as security forces, as part of the range of agents in situations of armed violence. This is essential to understand human impact and ensure it is not subverted by security priorities.

Policy relevance

Linking engagement to the policy level, including the UN Programme of Action on SALW, the Arms Trade Treaty, and the ongoing Open Ended Working Group on Conventional Ammunition, is critical to reducing armed violence, and MAG works closely with states and partners with the aim of promoting sustainability and needs-driven, inclusively designed programming. International frameworks must be responsive to a wide range of needs and perspectives, including from stakeholders whose voices are sometimes less able to be heard but who often face some of the biggest challenges.

International cooperation and assistance

Long term change in strengthening weapons and ammunition management practices and broader AVR is in some cases dependent on donor support that complements commitment of national resources. This week, MAG will host a visit to operations in Benin by Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. The substantial funding and political support provided by the United States, alongside other key donors including Germany, Canada, Sweden, and the EU, makes a critical difference. But it must be sustained.

New pressures on budgets in the midst of economic downturn and redirection of resources to the crisis in Ukraine mean that resources for arms control are impacting essential activities. Activities in MAG’s programmes in the Sahel and West Africa may need to be scaled down. Urgent needs in Latin America and in the Caribbean, identified during assessments by CARICOM IMPACS and MAG, are unaddressed due to lack of funds. Instability and conflict in Asia has generated new demand and resources for illicit weapons, while the Middle East presents a complex range of needs and challenges.

A global priority

The economic picture and reverberating impacts of Ukraine, alongside crises such as climate change, food insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic require responses that recognise the interconnected nature of threat. Similarly states, civil society, the UN, and all stakeholders, must recognise SALW proliferation and its broad and lasting impact as a global priority. This is the commitment we must look for on the first International Day for Disarmament and Non Proliferation - a day to celebrate achievements and set ambitious goals.

By Josephine Dresner, International Policy and Partnerships Director & Riccardo Labianco, International Policy Coordinator.