Weapons for Development: Bonfire of the Armouries

It is not an easy task to rid former conflict zones of small arms and light weapons. They can’t be bought because that encourages a market, so why not offer development programmes as incentives? If schools and water supplies follow weapons bonfires, who can deny that peace is on the agenda?

The World Today
4 minute READ

The Cold War created stockpiles of small arms which fuel wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Surplus stocks from the former Soviet Union are flooding the illegal arms market. The issue dominates the European Union internal security agenda, as heavily armed mafia groups from Serbia, Croatia and Albania move into northern Europe.

But the illegal trade also supports traffic in drugs and gems, women, children, human organs, and political corruption. These activities spawn transfers of real and counterfeit money in such vast quantities, that they threaten to undermine democracy and the world’s financial systems. The lowest money laundering estimate for 1996 – of $590 billion – is equivalent to the total output of an economy the size of Spain.

Small arms and light weapons are loosely defined as ‘firearms and explosives which can be carried by one or two people (or on a mule) and which require little maintenance’. They are cheap to buy, simple to transport, easy to conceal. Since World War Two, seventy million Kalashnikov rifles have been manufactured in fourteen different countries. They will be with us forever: there are only sixteen moving parts in a ‘Kalash’. They say you can replace the firing pin with a two-inch nail, although a nail will not allow the AK-74 – the 1974 version of the original AK-47 – to fire at the advertised 650 rounds a minute!

The destructive power of the Kalash – or the American M16, the Belgian FN FAL, the Israeli Uzi and their terrible cousins – explains the colossal casualties reported by organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross. 3.2 million people are estimated to have been victims of such weapons between 1990 and 1995; up to eighty-five percent were civilians, compared to fifteen percent of World War One casualties. Very many of them were women or children. The majority of armed conflicts in the 1990s took place not between nations states, but between armed groups fighting within – or across – national frontiers.

The awesome firepower of modern military weapons, and their easy availability, turns a handful of hoodlums into a terrorist threat. It is this, as much as political changes since the end of the Cold War, which has transformed the nature of armed conflicts and made the task of peacekeeping so much harder.

No peace to keep

UN peacekeeping operations were designed to keep enemies apart and those enemies were usually nations. Often there was great success, with tension reduced between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Israelis and Syrians in South Lebanon, Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. But recently the UN has been summoned to intervene where there are no dividing lines, and no peace.

Fighters in Sierra Leone, for example, move haphazardly around the bush and cross the Liberian and Guinean forest frontiers where their cousins live and farm. Opposing factions embrace gunmen from the same villages. There is no clear dividing line. Peacebuilders in such circumstances must address the causes of conflict, among which there is always illegal arms brokers and easy access to firearms and ammunition. Such was the situation during the armed conflict in northern Mali in the first half of the 1990s. which few remember because the country avoided civil war, and it disappeared from the western press.

An armed rebellion was launched by Tuareg exiles, against a western-supported corrupt military regime. The dictator fell and democratic elections brought a more competent and less corrupt government to power. The peace agreement was negotiated by leaders of civil society. It led to political and economic decentralisation, and a regional moratorium on the trade in small arms.

Flame of peace

Mali’s ex-rebels were disarmed, demobilised, and reintegrated into society thanks to an enlightened civilian President and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which provided small investment grants so that they could trade their weapons for a gainful activity in civilian life.

And – very important – the surrendered weapons were destroyed in a Flame of Peace in Timbuktu in March 1996. The symbolic cleansing through fire and the public and visible destruction of three thousand weapons convinced the people of Mali that fighting had ended. They began to believe in peace and reconciliation.

Political rebels are not the only ones with guns. Once conflict becomes violent others start to abuse the new fire-power. Criminal elements joined the Mali rebellion, just as in Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. Some of Mali’s rebels had been members of Libya’s Arab Legion – professional soldiers used to surviving by their wits and taking what they needed. Herders on the savannah bought Kalashnikov rifles to protect their cattle, and farmers along the Niger River felt they needed arms to defend their villages from raiding. Civilian firearms destabilise a fragile peace. Conflict turns to violence when a disagreement about a cow leads to a shoot-out instead of a punch-up; jealousy over a girl can end in murder. Single shootings can re-ignite war.


People pay good money for their weapons, and are reluctant to turn them in for nothing. On the other hand, any attempt by the authorities to ‘buy-back’ firearms will be self-defeating: a buy-back programme creates a market, increasing demand and supply for the very weapons that should be eliminated.

The solution may be to mobilise community leaders through a voluntary weapons collection programme in exchange for local development projects. With support from the Dutch, Belgian and German governments and UNDP, Mali’s National Commission against the Proliferation of Small Arms has launched a campaign to recover illegal civilian arms and munitions on the Niger border and around Timbuktu where many are known to be hidden. The Weapons-for-Development campaign seeks to mobilise the well-known African sense of community, by offering communal wells or irrigation pumps in exchange for guns.

The idea was developed in Albania, where UNDP and the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs (UN-DDA) confronted a huge problem of civilian arms. Communist Albania’s Maoist people’s army, kept armouries in every village, often beside the school. These were looted nationwide, during the riots of March 1997: an estimated six hundred thousand assault rifles and twelve million rounds of ammunition disappearing into private homes. The European Union in particular saw this as a major threat on its eastern frontier, indeed some of these weapons have reached criminal gangs, while others fuelled the Kosovo conflict.

In January 1999 a UNDP project began in the district of Gramsch, which was thought to have the largest single concentration of weapons in civilian hands. Funded by the European Union, Belgium, Norway, Japan and Andorra, it was rather successful in collecting weapons and ammunition; but the donors stopped work when the Albanian government decided not to destroy the collected firearms. Donors are not keen – to put it mildly – on using tax-payers’ money to collect weapons which could be diverted for criminal or political use. Their public destruction, on the other hand, encourages communities to surrender illegal arms because they can see peace coming.

At the end of last year, Norwegian, German and American diplomats reached an agreement with the Albanian Government to destroy 130,000 light weapons immediately, and to do the same with arms collected from the civilian population in future.

Arms reservoir

Just as arms capable of destabilising areas of Europe are present in Albania and former Yugoslavia, other regions of the world have reserves of weapons left over from the Cold War. Thirty years of Cambodian civil war created one of south-east Asia’s largest stockpiles. Precise numbers are unlnown, especially since the country is used for covert arms exports from China. But observers believe there may have been as many as a million small arms and light weapons in Cambodia, half of them in the hands of the armed forces. Asian armies are major players in their national economies.

Generals control land, mines, forests and transport networks as well as factories – some of which make arms and ammunition. Lines are blurred between official and illicit activities.

Since the fighting stopped in 1998, the Government has made private firearms illegal and has had considerable success in rounding up weapons. Up to 150,000 small arms have been collected in cities and from militias; about one third of these have been destroyed. But finding arms caches in the forests, and collecting those concealed in the countryside, is more difficult.

The European Union has taken the lead in helping Cambodia to create a weapons-free society. A new comprehensive arms law has been drafted; better public information has been distributed using civil society organisations; a civil-military code of conduct has been devised, to improve discipline and morale in the uniformed forces; better storage and record-keeping are being introduced for official arms stocks.

A pilot Weapons for Development programme started this January with a local arms amnesty. Already villagers living along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail have indicated several arms caches and stocks of land mines. The Kalashnikov is so robust – even after twenty years under the soil – that a blacksmith can recreate a lethal weapon for criminal use, by making a new wooden stock and adding some oil. Every hidden weapon is a threat. A bonfire of old guns becomes a symbol of peace. And when the village receives a new school building, or clean wells for drinking water in exchange for old arms, they can see that a peace-building process has started in their community.