Realising the magnitude of the menace of small arms in illegal hands, the delegates to a conference that preceded the anniversary ceremonies unanimously agreed to develop a regional peace and security framework in which the East African Community would collectively undertake peace support operations when required. The delegates came from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.
But how did the situation reach crisis levels? When the Cold War ideological contest was at its peak and civil wars raged in Africa, small arms and light weapons were considered an ingenious introduction to modern military warfare.
Many states, particularly Eastern Europe countries, subsequently went into mass production of these small weapons with varied improvisations: all to fuel the civil wars. But as the civil wars waned at the turn of the century, it was realised that some weapons kept killing innocent people even long after particular conflicts had ended. Internal and regional conflicts are often triggered or prolonged by ready access to small arms and light weapons (SALW).
These weapons also fuel crime and violence, displace civilians and undermine their rights. In the East African region, small arms and light weapons constitute a serious threat to peace, reconciliation, safety, security and sustainable development. So, can the EAC curb the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the volatile Great Lakes Region? Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, the Secretary General of the East African Community, conceded that it is not that easy.
“It is difficult to control arms proliferation in a region with a bad neighbourhood. We are in a region where there is instability, where there is money laundering and cattle rustling,” Mwapachu lamented.
However, Mwapachu’s sense of helplessness is misplaced because it is evident that the way forward lies in the establishment of economic production areas not susceptible to civil conflict. When people still live in poverty, under a sense of social injustice and inequitable distribution of resources, efforts to reduce small arms and light weapons are likely to have little or no impact.
The 2000 Nairobi Declaration reflects a willingness on the part of the signatory states to address the illicit proliferation of SALW in the East African region. Signatories to the protocol pledged to “join efforts to address the problem, recognising the need for information sharing and co-operation in all matters relating to illicit SALW, including the promotion of research and data collection in the region and encouraging co-operation among governments and civil society.”
However, all the signatory countries are struggling to actively implement the Declaration with few resources and cumbersome national bureaucracies.
Since 1995, several resolutions focusing on small arms have been passed by the UN General Assembly. These have been directed primarily on collecting and destroying small arms and on harmonising export policies. Most notable was a resolution that called for the creation of a UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms.
The panel issued a report in August, 1997, that described the causes of the proliferation of small arms; provided a definition of small arms; documented, using regional experiences, the effects of small arms; and made policy recommendations for the United Nations and the international community. This report has become the standard for discussing small arms and light weapons in the international community.
But in a region of porous or sometimes disputed territorial borders and social conditions that generate the demand for SALW, no single state will make any perceptible impact on the problem by itself. An effective response requires extensive regional co-operation and an increased commitment by the international community to provide technical assistance to strengthen such a structure.
This requires collaborative approaches involving civil society organisations, partnerships with donors and the international civil society, and a commitment from national governments of the region to uphold and implement existing declarations and protocols.
There is therefore need for a legal instrument that would ban the manufacture, transfer, accumulation, and use of small arms and light weapons. It is high time we made small arms and light weapons history.
The writer works with Uganda Media Centre