World Council of Churches Office of Communication
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24 July 2001

Disappointed at small arms agreement, WCC also sees hope for a stronger platform for common action

cf. WCC Press Update (Up-01-23) of 16 July 2001
cf. WCC Press Release (PR-01-20) of 6 July 2001

"A not unexpected, but still very disappointing end," said Ernie Regehr, head of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) delegation to the United Nations (UN) conference on small arms, of the conference's failure to commit to stricter local and international controls on the manufacture, sale, possession and transfer of small arms. "In the end, the interests of the international gun lobby prevailed," he said, adding, "but we should not let that keep us from recognizing the important advances that were made." Regehr is director of Project Ploughshares in Canada and a member of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA).

After two weeks of extremely difficult negotiations that ended Saturday, 21 July, governments at the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects reached a consensus on the world's first programme of action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms.

Delegates dropped the two most controversial paragraphs, one that referred to domestic regulations and another that would have committed governments to sell small arms only to other governments. In both cases, Regehr, said, the United States was the primary obstacle. "The US refused to allow any reference in the final document that could be interpreted as encouraging stricter domestic gun laws. It's a startling omission." In noting the US argument that preventing sales to non-state actors would limit the options available to the president in certain circumstances, he stated "It is especially disturbing that states vulnerable to insurgent groups and the destabilization tactics of foreign powers were rebuffed as they tried to advance an international principle against foreign governments arming rebel groups."

The WCC delegation was also disappointed that the final document failed to commit states to effective international controls over arms brokers and introduce a universal system of mandatory marking of weapons to permit tracing. The text includes general encouragement for both measures, but the churches and international non-governmental organizations expected a clearer commitment, Regehr said.

Despite these disappointments, Regehr expressed satisfaction that the humanitarian consequences of small arms were recognized, and that the conference forged a new level of political commitment to addressing the problem. "The final document acknowledges that the problem cannot be solved by more intense law enforcement measures. It recognizes that basic social, political and economic conditions that breed insecurity must change to reduce the demand for guns." Noting that the churches have a major role and responsibility in pursuing fundamental societal change, Regehr concluded, "this gives churches, NGOs and sympathetic states a stronger international basis for common action".

The WCC delegation also welcomed improvements in the areas of arms transfers, demobilization and reduction of stockpiles, and the governments' agreement to meet every other year and to hold a follow-up conference in 2006 to review progress and make necessary adjustments.

The adopted programme of action links underdevelopment, terrorism and crime with illicit trade in arms, and contains more than 40 provisions on preventing, combating and eradicating illicit trade in guns at the national, regional and global level. Provisions for implementation, international cooperation and assistance and follow-up strategies have also been included.

The WCC sent a nine-member delegation to the UN conference. In its oral statement to the plenary the WCC proposed that states reduce the demand for weapons through measures to strengthen democracy and respect human rights, the rule of law and good governance, and to promote economic recovery and equitable growth. The statement also called for increased international support for initiatives that advance human security and promote conditions conducive to long-term peace, stability and development.

At parallel NGO forums during the UN Conference, WCC delegates gave accounts of the terrible impact of small arms and shared models of cooperation among governments, churches and civil society for the collection and destruction of small arms in Africa and Latin America.

The UN estimates that more than 500 million small arms and light weapons are available globally, and between 40 and 60 percent of those arms are illicit. Small arms were the weapons of choice in 46 out of the 49 major conflicts fought during the 1990s. Of the four million war-related deaths during that decade, 90 percent were civilians and 80 percent of those were women and children. Tens of millions more people have lost livelihoods, homes and family because of the indiscriminate and widespread use of these weapons.

"Regardless of the gaps in the UN programme of action, the WCC continues to be committed to the organization and strengthening of the Ecumenical Network on Small Arms," said Salpy Eskidjian, WCC programme executive in International Relations. "Churches all over the world have been, and will continue to be, on the front-line of concern and action on this issue because they minister to the victims of gun-related violence and their families." The WCC promotes education and awareness-raising amongst its member churches and assists them in developing their own effective programmes and activities to control and mitigate the effects of small arms. The WCC is a founding member of the International Action Network on Small Arms and facilitates the Ecumenical Network on Small Arms. Eskidjian said, "The WCC is committed to supporting the actions of churches and continuing to press for effective national and international controls so that the tragic violence caused by such weapons can be overcome."

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.