On 8-9 June 2022, the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific (UNRCPD) conducted a two-day introductory webinar series to support the establishment and maintenance of gun-free zones in Asia-Pacific.
Based on frameworks outlined in the 2014 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs publication “Guidelines – How to establish and maintain gun-free zones,” the webinar marked the first phase of UNRCPD’s project aiming to build the capacity of stakeholders at all levels to promote the development and implementation of gun-free zones for the purposes of preventing and reducing armed violence in Member States of the region. The project Supporting the Establishment and Maintenance of Gun-Free Zones in Asia-Pacific is funded by the Government of Sweden.
The webinar, which provided the participants with a thematic overview of gun-free zones, drawing 70 registrants from a variety of states representing South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Participants were welcomed to the webinar with opening remarks delivered by Ms. Soo Hyun Kim, Acting Director of UNRCPD, and Ms. Ann-Sofie Nilsson, Head of Department for the Department for Disarmament, Non-proliferation and Export Control within the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. Ms. Kim emphasized the value in exploring gun-free zones as a mechanism for combatting armed violence in the region, including in situations outside direct armed conflict. Ms. Nilsson expanded upon the cross-cutting nature of gun violence, including its effects on sexual- and gender-based violence and broader issues of peace and development, as a catalyst driving the global and regional need for gun-free zones.
Ms. Elli Kytömäki, Associate Research Officer at UNRCPD, began the first thematic session of day one with a presentation outlining gun-free zones as a concept, their intermediate and long-term effects and the incremental steps necessary for their establishment and maintenance. As a mechanism for changing societal norms around guns, violence and community relations, Ms. Kytömäki emphasized the need for gun-free zones to be established with a participatory approach, engaging all relevant stakeholders at local, municipal, national and regional levels. Additionally, Ms. Kytömäki provided an overview of existing gun-free zone initiatives and the contextual factors driving their establishment, such as national elections, pervasive violent crime or post-conflict recovery. Ms. Kytömäki concluded with an example framework for the planning, programming, implementing and evaluating a gun-free zone.
Next, Mr. Steven Humphries, Project Manager at UNRCPD, gave an overview of the project’s objectives, activities and expected outcomes. The project, which directly addresses SDG targets 16.1, 16.4 and 16.7, aims to improve awareness and build capacity for beneficiary states to engage in the establishment of gun-free zones through the development of training materials and sub-regional seminars of planning and programming. Mr. Humphries gave special attention to the necessity of a gender-responsive and mainstreamed approach in all stages of project implementation, taking into account the different impacts felt by women, men, girls and boys as a result of the possession, use and misuse of firearms.
The final session of day one was presented by Ms. Alexandra Kiss, Research and Project Coordinator at UNODA Vienna Office, who introduced participants to the UNODA Disarmament Education Dashboard and the recently released online training course on gun-free zones. The Disarmament Education Dashboard is a free and open-to-the-public online learning platform hosting educational materials and currently offering 21 certificate-granting online training courses on issues related to peace, security and disarmament in particular. The self-paced course on gun-free zones, developed in collaboration with UNRCPD, aims to educate participants on best practices in establishing them, linkages with wider issues of conventional arms control and relevant normative frameworks and how to identify building blocks for developing a gun-free zone plan for one’s own environment.
Day two of the webinar series took an interactive approach, blending presentations on the lessons learnt from previously established gun-free zone projects with substantial dialogue between national stakeholders and experts. Mr. Christian Mark Cardenas, Senior Trade and Industry Development Specialist at the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs’ Strategic Trade Management Office, provided a comprehensive overview of the Philippine national approach to the implementation of gun-free zones. Mr. Cardenas conferred relevant national and international legal frameworks, the country’s four main categories of gun-free zones and their permanent or temporary nature, firearms export and licensing controls and a preview into the upcoming Philippine National Action Plan on Small Arms and Light Weapons.
Ms. Elli Kytömäki followed with a case study from the Solomon Islands and their transformation from conflict to gun-free. Following the enactment of legislation prohibiting the possession, use and carrying of firearms in 1999, the state experienced a change in cultural norms that ultimately led to the population eradicating firearms from their daily lives. Much of the success of gun-free zone initiatives in the Solomon Islands can be attributed to the empowered role of local stakeholders, particularly church and women groups, in leading the grassroots organization and movement behind the implementation of these zones in villages across the country. Intermediate outcomes from the initiative resulted in the collection of 3,700 weapons and a reinforced trust between actors at the local and national levels. Long-term, the gun-free zones prompted a social stigma around the possession of weapons, reconciliation between former combating groups and ultimate reconstruction of community relations.
The final case study of the training was delivered by Ms. Adele Kirsten, Director of Gun Free South Africa, who captivated participants with her detailed insight into the grassroots establishment of gun-free zones through advocacy, intervention and action. Ms. Kirsten went in-depth describing the challenges faced by the organization in their fight against armed violence, including examples of successful and unsuccessful entry-points when beginning the conversation around going gun-free. A key takeaway from Ms. Kirsten’s presentation was the necessity of finding local stakeholders who are eager and willing to partner with one’s organization, including school administrations, municipal health systems, small businesses, police agencies and community leaders. Ms. Kirsten has found that the process demonstrates to local stakeholders that their voices can and will be heard, acting as a platform empowering them to take further action towards improving the safety of their own communities.
Following the presentations and Q&A, the participants engaged in a lively group discussion segment that facilitated an exchange of ideas, best practices and challenges that may arise with establishing a gun-free zone. In a post-event survey conducted by the organizers, 80% of participants indicated that they were either exceptionally knowledgeable or completely knowledgeable on the topic of gun-free zones as a result of the webinar series.