‘Denying the Means’: Small Arms Proliferation and Mass Atrocities

In a previous post, Alexandra Hiniker of ICRtoP member, PAX, wrote a guest blog exploring the links between humanitarian disarmament and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), with a particular focus on cluster munitions.  She highlighted relevant assistance strategies that affect the ability of a state to uphold its primary obligation to protect populations. The piece was an entry that helped to illuminate the critical connection between RtoP implementation and another area within the peace and security agenda.

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A Libyan weapons cache that was looted after the fall of Qadaffi. Sean Smith/The Guardian.

Equally important are efforts to stem the flow and illicit transfer of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW).  A holistic approach to preventing the proliferation of this weaponry can also contribute to the overall goal of atrocities prevention.

Nowhere has this been made clearer than in Libya, where the collapse of the Qadaffi government and the security vacuum that has ensued has led to a state awash in legacy weapons that have spread throughout the Sahel-Sahara region and beyond. Many of these destinations also happen to be areas where the commission of atrocities have been well-documented.

 

Libya’s Insecure Stockpile

As a previous ICRtoP blog explains, post-revolution Libya verges on civil war, with the widespread proliferation of militias and a central government too weak and divided to restore order. In a state that has been described as one of the “largest arms purchasing countries in the world,” containing a stockpile consisting of tens of thousands of weapons, looting and diversion of arms by both militias and corrupt government officials has been rampant.

Indeed, the magnitude of the problem after the 2011 fall of Qaddafi led Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch to comment that he has “never seen weapons proliferation like Libya,” which has occurred on a scale  “…many times greater than other conflicts.”

The hemorrhaging of weapons is in direct violation of the arms embargo that the United Nations Security Council instituted after passing Resolution 1970 in 2011. A recent report submitted to the Security Council by a panel of experts on Libya released in March of 2014 details the extent of the violations.  It is striking for the fact that experts traced the flow of weapons leaving Libya to 14 other countries in the Sahel-Sahara region and the Levant.

Notable for this blog, is the ominous conclusion that “In terms of end users, while various types of individuals and armed entities are benefitting from the dissemination of Libyan arsenals…the materiel is likely to enhance the capacity of terrorist groups…”  This appears to have played out in tragic fashion most prominently in Mali and Syria.

 

 Libyan Arms Fuel Regional Conflicts

Mali is perhaps the most well known example of intra-regional transfer of weapons in the Sahel, where Tuareg rebels that participated in the Libyan revolution are believed to have brought back an abundance of conventional weaponry that fuelled the country’s instability in 2012.

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Ansar Dine fighters in northern Mali. VOA

The panel of experts report explains that weapons from Libya reached Mali by land via neighbouring Niger, but also through Algeria and Tunisia.  The main traffickers include armed groups in northern Mali such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine.

These extreme elements have been linked to numerous atrocities, including “rape, use of child soldiers, and pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings…” in addition to “abductions and wilful killings of civilians as well as hostage taking.”

The nightmare in Syria that has been raging for three years and claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 also seems to have been inflamed by weapons from Libya. The report indicates that Syrian and Libyan nationals who are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition have utilized a network of arms dealers to finance and transfer weapons, allegedly cutting through Turkey, Qatar, and Lebanon by way of sea, land, and air.

It is conceivable that these weapons may have been used in, or made the commission of a number of atrocities possible. This is particularly so for extreme segments of the opposition who, largely due to the influx of weapons, are becoming “better equipped than other armed groups.”  This is a worrisome development underscored by the recent expansion of The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also referred to as ISIS or IS) from Syria into Iraq, and the resulting trail of atrocities that have been committed.

The Mali and Syria examples show that  when left unchecked, illicit transfers of SALW can and likely will find their way into other active crises, where according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, old insecurities lead to “…increased demand for and proliferation of small arms and light weapons,”  that tend to exacerbate the situation further.

 

SALW Linked to the Commission of Atrocities

As the deadly effects of SALW proliferation become acutely clear in places like Mali and Syria, the international community has begun to identify it as a major challenge to atrocities prevention. While it must be noted that the flow of arms from Libya is by no means the sole, or even the greatest cause of violence in these crises, they are what have been called atrocity ‘enablers.’

In 2012, Robert Zuber of the Global Action to Prevent War spoke to the relationship between arms flows and the commission of atrocities, noting that, “Illicit arms inflame conflicts that might otherwise be resolvable, including conflicts that have the potential to incite major violations of human rights, and even rise to the level of mass atrocities.”  He also stressed how the circulation of arms makes it more difficult for a government to dispense its primary responsibility to protect civilians.

Security Council Meeting on Small arms

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop convenes a high-level meeting on the issue of Small Arms and Light Weapons. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

SALW proliferation is well within the purview of the groundbreaking Arms Trade Treaty, which recently surpassed the number of ratifications required for legal implementation. The treaty contains a key provision that forbids any transfer of weapons by a state party if there is reason to believe they could be used in the commission of atrocities.

In addition, Resolution 2117 was adopted in 2013 by the Security Council on the thematic issue of Small Arms and Light Weapons with the aim of encouraging practical steps to prevent their illicit transfer and misuse. The resolution was largely informed by a 2013 report by the Secretary-General on small arms that stressed the destabilizing impact of arms from Libya in the Sahel-Sahara region and the Levant, pinpointing both Mali and Syria as being particularly impacted.

The resolution further established the connection between SALW and RtoP, recognizing that, “…the misuse of small arms and light weapons has resulted in grave crimes,” and reaffirmed the importance of the Responsibility to Protect in preventing these violations.

 

International Efforts to Prevent Proliferation

Given the correlation between SALW proliferation and the commission of atrocities, it is critical that the international community take steps to stem the flow of arms from one conflict zone to another.

Implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty, which is scheduled to go into effect in December 2014, will be crucial in this regard.  It can ensure states achieve more effective stockpile management, including by improving physical security, record keeping, reporting, and other national and international measures to prevent diversion of arms through illicit channels.

Similarly, Resolution 2117 highlights the role of UN peacekeeping in providing national authorities with assistance in stockpile management and the implementation of civilian disarmament programs. It also encourages states to fully abide by UN-sanctioned arms embargos in an effort to curb violations such as those seen in Libya.

Further action was highlighted by participants at the recent Biennial Meeting of States on Illicit Trade in Small Arms in June 2014, which stressed implementation of existing mechanisms such as the 2001 Programme of Action on Small Arms and utilization of the International Tracing Instrument. Participants encouraged states to:

“…continue strengthening stockpile management, including physical security measures, particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations…” They also called for international assistance and capacity-building to harness new tracing and tracking technologies.

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Destruction of Small Arms during Disarmament ceremony in Cote d’Ivoire. UN Photo/Basile Zoma

The recent launch of a pilot programme called the Small Arms Project being implemented in six communities in the Sahel-Sahara region by the European Union and ECOWAS demonstrates what potential action can look like. The programme is aimed at:

“…raising community awareness on the dangers associated with the illicit proliferation of small arms and armed violence; strengthening the capacity of security institutions and communities to enhance safety and above all encouraging voluntary weapons surrender/collection in return for community based development projects.”

 

Understanding Key Relationships for Improved Implementation

The importance of this type of assistance is clearly illustrated by the Libya case. Efforts to disarm militias and account for the legacy weapons of the Qadaffi government have been half-hearted and inefficient, leading to proliferation that has fueled highly volatile crises in places like Mali and Syria. The 2014 Secretary-General’s Report on second pillar international assistance recognizes the importance of effective action to deny would-be perpetrators the means to commit crimes, and further demonstrates the link between disarmament and atrocities prevention.

If the Responsibility to Protect is to be effectively implemented, its relationship between other peace and security dimensions will need to be explored further. Both Alexandra Hiniker’s and this piece on RtoP and disarmament identify overlapping goals and concerns. Continued research and exploration of how this area, as well as others within the peace and security field, can be leveraged to complement one another will be a key consideration as RtoP moves into its second decade of existence, and towards more concrete discussions on implementation.

 

For more information on individual atrocity situations, read our crisis pages. For more on the relationship between The Arms Trade Treaty and the Responsibility to Protect, read our Blog ‘When Arms get in the Wrong Hands. The Arms Trade Treaty and Implications for Upholding the Responsibility to Protect.’

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1 Comment

Filed under Arms Trade Treaty, Libya, Post-Conflict, Syria

One response to “‘Denying the Means’: Small Arms Proliferation and Mass Atrocities

  1. Isn’t the graver danger – if only measured by the uncomfortable metric of the body count – the proliferation of heavy weapons used by regimes in the indiscriminate use against civilians. Do not civilians require small arms in these circumstances?

    What do you suppose they use instead? Harsh language?

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