Churches have an important role to play in the lead-up to negotiations of a global treaty in 2012 to regulate the conventional arms trade, a World Council of Churches (WCC) panel in New York has concluded. 

Key human rights obligations must be embedded in the treaty and churches should lobby together, on the basis of faith, said the WCC general secretary, Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, host of the 21st October event at which the panel reported.

PICTURE: Timothy Allison (www.sxc.hu)

“Brazil has 13 per cent of the world’s homicides but only three per cent of the world’s population. The rate of killings is close to a genocide, with about 100 people dying each day."

- Antonio Bandeira, project coordinator for Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO.

“Whether we represent a UN member state, a church or civil society, we are all here to connect the needs of ordinary people in our communities with an agenda for the robust control of weapons that threaten their daily life and peace,” said Rev Dr Tveit.

“From the Christian tradition, it is the least among us – the marginalised, the impoverished, those seen not to have power – they are the voice of what justice and mercy require of us all,” he added.

The panel signalled the start of an ecumenical initiative led by the WCC to help secure a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2012. Representatives of churches, related agencies and networks in 27 countries have signed up to take part in the process. Planning began at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in May of this year.

“Where I live, about half the population has been displaced by armed violence,” a Colombian priest on the panel said. “There are guns everywhere in the province of Choco – in the hands of guerrillas, drug dealers, the police, the army and regular citizens. Thousands have been killed.”

The priest keeps a tally of the killings in his province and does research to determine which killings involve illegal arms. “Those most heavily affected are indigenous people and Afro-Colombians,” he said.

“An Arms Trade Treaty that does not address the human impact of the unregulated trade is not a responsible treaty,” said panellist Jeff Abramson of Control Arms, a global civil society alliance campaigning for a strong ATT. 

“An ATT will have to account for the human costs of the illicit trade in conventional arms to be a responsible treaty.”

“The people who benefit from not having an ATT include terrorists, narcotics traffickers and criminals,” Abramson said.

“Churches are our biggest ally in getting illegal weapons out of communities,” said Antonio Bandeira, a panellist who is project coordinator for Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO.

“Brazil has 13 per cent of the world’s homicides but only three per cent of the world’s population. The rate of killings is close to a genocide, with about 100 people dying each day,” he said. “So many young males are killed which has altered population statistics. Two out of three victims are Afro-Brazilians.”

In one response to the violence a civil society campaign including churches collected half a million illegal weapons, Bandeira noted. “When the police tried to do the same thing on their own, they only collected 30,000 guns. The level of trust was so much lower.”

Brazil’s slaughter is fuelled mostly by guns that are manufactured in Brazil, a domestic problem that will not be addressed by an ATT. However, when Viva Rio did a survey of 300,000 guns that were turned in by their owners, ten percent were foreign-made. This ten percent included the most deadly weapons, bigger calibre and more powerful than guns available in Brazil.

“Brazil is both a victim of illegal arms trade and a perpetrator of the problem because we are the world’s fifth largest exporter of small arms,” Bandeira said. As examples of the kind of illegal arms sales the ATT should stop, Bandeira cited research that found Florida gun shops have sold 3,000 surplus US rifles from the first Gulf War to Brazilian drug dealers; that 400 Austrian pistols were sold “legally” to the US, Venezuela and Paraguay and then imported illegally to Brazil. At the same time Brazilian and other arms sold to the militaries in neighbouring countries have “leaked” from poorly managed arsenals there and were brought into the country illegally.

“We should pay attention to the involvements our own countries have in the arms trade,” said Tveit. “A lot of states considered to be in good standing are also involved in the arms trade.”

Although a large majority of governments are in favour of a strong ATT, a handful of countries that produce most of the world’s armaments prefer a treaty that is limited in scope.

Jonathan Frerichs is the World Council of Churches programme executive for peace building and disarmament, is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.