Geneva summit to fight armed violence

Mexican police stand guard over an impressive arsenal of weapons seized from suspected kidnappers in Villa Nicolas Romero state on September 2 Reuters

Over 740,000 people die each year as a result of armed violence, with the vast majority of deaths occurring outside war zones, a report has shown.

This content was published on September 12, 2008 - 13:06

The "Global Burden of Armed Violence" report was presented in Geneva on Friday as a conference reviewed a Swiss initiative aimed at reducing armed violence and its negative impact on socio-economic and human development.

Representatives of 70 countries, including members of civil society, are attending the "Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development" ministerial review summit, opened by Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

"We cannot remain silent in the face of the terrible damage to development efforts caused by armed violence. On top of the deaths and destruction, armed violence imposes huge human, social and economic costs for certain states and societies," Calmy-Rey told the conference.

The meeting is organised by Switzerland and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to examine progress on the Geneva Declaration, which was adopted in June 2006 and has now been signed by 94 countries.

"Violence is one of the most important brakes on development," senior Swiss foreign ministry official Thomas Greminger told journalists earlier this week.

According to the report's authors, around 52,000 people are killed every year in armed conflicts, whereas at least 200,000 people die in war zones from non-violent causes such as dysentery, measles, malnutrition or other easily preventable diseases.

A war can reduce a country's annual gross domestic product (GDP) by more than two per cent, with effects lingering many years after the fighting ends.

"But violence is not confined to war zones," explained Keith Krause, director of the Small Arms Survey programme at Geneva's Graduate Institute. "It affects many countries around the world, sometimes with levels of violence as high or higher than in contemporary war zones."

Some 490,000 deaths, or two-thirds of the annual total, occur in non-war situations as a result of small or large-scale criminally- or politically-motivated armed violence.

Globally, non-conflict armed violence was costing the planet up to $163 billion (SFr184.6 billion) a year in lost productivity, the report declared.

More advocacy needed

The Geneva Declaration is not a new idea, Greminger admitted.

"But if you look at the resources invested in preventing armed violence and compare it with the costs, there is a huge gap and a lot more advocacy needs to be done so that politicians invest in programmes that actually address armed violence," he told swissinfo.

One of the declaration's declared aims is to restrict small arms. According to the Small Arms Survey, every year hundreds of thousands of small arms go missing and many wind up in the hands of insurgents in countries including Iraq, Colombia and Afghanistan.

"We found that most weapons involved in crime and conflicts are sourced locally so there are serious problems with managing stockpiles and eliminating surpluses. Current programmes to destroy millions of surplus guns in eastern Europe, for example, are making a difference but are very slow," said Krause.

"What is clear is that better respect for agreed upon and harmonised principles for exports would go a long way to stem the flow of illicit arms."

The Geneva Declaration calls for internationally legally binding instruments to address the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons, "but arms control is just one element of a more comprehensive strategy", said Peter Batchelor from UNDP.

"The manifestations of armed violence are complex and therefore require a multidimensional response. Only focusing on the weapons is not sufficient, as the causes of the violence may run into other areas, such as livelihoods, access to resources, political exclusion or human rights abuses.

"It's not simply the availability of weapons," he said.

Just the start

Friday's conference is intended to closely examine progress of the implementation of the Geneva Declaration two years since it was adopted.

"It's the beginning of the process," said Greminger.

But concrete progress has been made so far in convincing governments and non-governmental stakeholders of the importance of the process and in launching conflict-prevention activities in East Timor, Burundi, Guatemala, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea and Kenya, he added.

"We now have to reinvigorate the process and try to get civil society actors much more on board. We also want to seriously develop global objectives on armed violence and development which are complementary to the UN Millennium Development Goals," he told swissinfo.

The signatories plan to launch a resolution at the UN General Assembly in October urging the global body to regularly submit a report on armed violence and UN activities designed to combat the global scourge.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Key facts

According to the UN, there are 640 million guns in the world.
Out of 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, 47 were waged with small arms and light weapons.
The gun trade is worth $4 billion (SFr5 billion) a year, of which a quarter may be unauthorised or illicit.
There are at least 1.3 million guns in private hands in Switzerland.

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Switzerland and arms control

Switzerland has played an active role in efforts to clamp down on the proliferation of light weapons for a number of years.

Switzerland and France submitted a joint proposal to the UN in 2001 for marking weapons so that they could be traced.

The idea was taken up by the UN's Open-Ended Working Group on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons. Switzerland's ambassador to Canada, Anton Thalmann, chaired the group.

The Swiss are also members of the UN's Group of Governmental Experts on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons.

In September 2007 Swiss parliament banned the long-standing tradition of allowing all enlisted men to keep their ammunition at home. Ammunition held by militia soldiers must now be handed back to the army.

Also in September the centre-left Social Democratic Party and pacifist organisations launched a people's initiative calling for army weapons to remain in army barracks and a national gun register.

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