11 July 2001


Press Briefing


                An important study focusing on the impact of small arms on the security, development and well-being of children entitled Putting Children First:  Building a Framework of International Action to Address the Impact of Small Arms on Children, will be launched this evening at United Nations Headquarters at a reception hosted by Canada's Permanent Mission in partnership with Biting the Bullet (an NGO initiative), the United Nations Department of Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The Gun Sculpture –- an "iHuman 2000 peace initiative", constructed with more than 7000 decommissioned weapons donated by countries previously affected by war will also be unveiled at the reception.  The exhibit is the work of Canadian artists Sandra Bromley and Wallace Kendall, and was sponsored in part by the Government of Canada and the United Nations Department of Disarmament Affairs.

The report is sponsored by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and coordinated by the Biting the Bullet Project -- an initiative of the non-governmental organizations Basic, International Alert and Safeworld –- which focuses on promoting optimal outcomes from the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.

Written by Rachel Stohl, an Analyst at the Center for Defense Information, and drawing on case studies by researchers in Cambodia, Colombia and Mozambique, Putting Children First highlights how the presence, proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons blights the daily lives of millions of children around the world

Briefing correspondents about the forthcoming report at a Headquarters press conference this morning were Rey Pagtakhan, Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific and Head of the Delegation of Canada to the Conference; Rachel Stohl; Sarah Meek, International Alert and Biting the Bullet; and Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, Special Advisor on war-affected Children to the Canadian Minister for International Development and Cooperation and former Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).  Ambassador Paul Heinbecker of Canada introduced the presenters.

Mr. Pagtakhan said last September at an international Conference on War-Affected Children held in Winnipeg, Canada, the impact of small arms on children was identified as an immediate priority for international action.  In response, Canada commissioned the report and also promoted the issue in the preparatory processes for the current United Nations Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the forthcoming General Assembly special session on children scheduled for 18-21 September. 

According to Mr. Pagtakhan, the production of the study and the recommendations outlined in it demonstrated that the full participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society was vital to both the current Conference and the implementation of the action plan.  "It is our hope that the recommendations in this report will contribute to comprehensive global efforts to

mitigate the negative impact of small arms on children", he said.  "This initiative is also part of a broader effort to ensure that the human dimensions of the proliferation and misuse of these weapons are addressed in the current Conference".

Mr. Pagtakhan went on to say that a human dimension perspective suggested that none of the small arms and light weapons issues could be realistically viewed in isolation.  Those issues were inextricably linked with the broader structural problems of poverty, environmental degradation, drugs, transnational crime and other societal maladies.

Both the gun sculpture and the study, continued Mr. Pagtakhan, demonstrated undeniably that to be effective, any attempt to address the issues of small arms and light weapons must include an understanding of the ways in which civilians including children were affected by such weapons.

Ms. Stohl said that at this Conference many Governments seemed to have forgotten their reason for being here -- to alleviate the human suffering caused by the scourge of small arms.  Nowhere were the devastating impacts more profound than in the case of children, and they were measured in lives lived, extinguished and forever altered.  Small arms killed approximately 500,000 people and injured thousands more every year.  Women and children were estimated to make up 80 per cent of those victims.

Colombia for example, continued Ms. Stohl had the highest firearm homicide rate in the world -- approximately 58 per cent of the global total, with small arms used in more than 90 per cent of the killing.  Youth in that country were especially vulnerable to firearm violence either as victims or as perpetrators of criminal activities undertaken with small arms.  Vulnerable Colombian youths were involved in youth gangs, while others were used as bodyguards or assassins. 

Small arms, said Ms. Stohl, were also used to commit human rights abuses with a specific targetting of women and girls who were often forced to endure rape, abductions, slavery, and enforced prostitution.  Many children also experienced psychosocial trauma from their exposure to and use of small arms.

Ms. Stohl went on to say that pictures drawn by child victims of war in northern Uganda graphically portrayed the variety of small arms used by other children, Lords Resistance Fighters and Ugandan Government forces.  Images of soldiers with machine guns massacring families in refugee camps, destroying schools and attacking villages permeate the children's memories and drawings.

Small arms did enormous damage to children beyond death, injury and causing forced displacement, she said.  They diminished the support structures and opportunities that were afforded to children.  The presence of such weapons might also impede education.  In Angola, for example, schools were unable to open due to insecurity while parents were afraid to send their children to school for fear of abduction.  Teachers were unable to do their jobs.  At the end of last year, only 45 per cent of school age children were receiving a formal education.

Ms. Stohl said that small arms resulted in tremendous cost to children and their surroundings.  In Latin America, for example, the cost incurred by small arms and light weapons was estimated at 14 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of health and damage to person and property.  The continued presence of such weapons undermined a country's ability to sustain peace and blocked sustainable development.  Children suffered the most from a lack of sustainable investment and growth, as their basic needs were not met.

The excessive proliferation of small arms contributed to a culture of violence where such weapons were used as symbols of power, dominance and worth, leading to an endless cycle of aggression and crime, while undermining development and re-igniting conflict.  As one Cambodian newspaper commented, "We can't see past the atrocities and the killing.  The fighting has imposed an ideology of violence on everybody".

Although the use of child soldiers was not a new phenomenon, the reliance on children to wage war had become a symptom of the massive proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons, said Ms. Stohl.  There were an estimated

300,000 children fighting in conflicts around the world subjected to life-threatening risks even beyond the normal dangers of war.  But while small arms might make the use of children more feasible or desirable, the relationship was not causal.  Children were also used as soldiers in areas where arms were in short supply. 

Ms. Stohl said today, children were used in great numbers in many conflicts. After the war in Mozambique, demobilization programmes found that more than a quarter of all soldiers were under the age of 18.  The majority of those children were excluded from formal disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes and the country was still struggling today with the legacy of the proliferation of small arms.  As one former child combatant said, "What is there for people like me to do -- a gun gives me a job".

With coordinated commitment, action and follow-up, the impact of small arms on children could be minimized said Ms. Stohl.  Comprehensive progress would only be seen in the long-term, but in the short-term, steps could be taken to eliminate the devastating effects of small arms on children's lives, and "this Conference is a perfect place to start".

Ms. Stohl stated that a child in Guinea recently told UNICEF staff and staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who were doing research for this study, "At the beginning we were told that if you have arms you have respect; I realize today that this is wrong".  The United Nations Conference could show other children that truth.  "It is all of our responsibility to ensure that it does so", she said.

Ms. Meek said the motivation for the Biting the Bullet Project in preparing the Study was very much to keep the impact of small arms and light weapons on individuals and the lives of children in the minds of the Conference delegations as they negotiate the programme of action.  The motivation was to present a series of recommendations for an international action framework to address the impact of small arms on children at both the current Conference and the upcoming Assembly special session on children.

Ms. Meek said the Biting the Bullet Project was really designed to put forward policy recommendations to Governments on issues of concern.  Regarding small arms, she said, "We are proposing a framework that really addresses seven areas, which are neither children's rights-specific nor small arms-specific.  What we are trying to do is find a way to integrate the two areas into a holistic approach that will actually alleviate the suffering faced by children because of small arms".

The seven-area framework began with controlling the trade in small arms specifically through concrete action by Governments to minimize the impacts on children.  Secondly, there were recommendations on the issue of child soldiers and particularly on stopping countries from transferring arms to countries actively using child soldiers.  The issue of DDR programmes was also specifically tuned to children.  Often child combatants were integrated into programmes that were adult focused.  Children had special long-term needs for social, economic, political and educational development if they were to be reintegrated back into their societies.

Ms. Meek said an area that was often commonly overlooked was the issue of girls and the gender dimension and children as victims, and not combatants.  A series of recommendations on those issues had also been made in the study.  The last three areas of the seven were standards for the protection of children.  Many of those issues touched on standards for the protection of children in armed conflict as well.  Also included in the study were recommendations on education and awareness raising.

Ms. Meek said the Small Arms Conference and the special session would be important in setting an international agenda for action on both small arms and children and "We need to find ways to integrate these two initiatives and take concerted action forward".  What was also needed was more information –- one of the real outcomes of the study was that that there was no real understanding of the impact of small arms and light weapons on children.  Sophisticated data collection did not take place.  In many countries there were only estimates of the number of children killed in conflict and "We don't actually know how they were killed".

General Dallaire said children killed because they had the instruments to kill.  They either killed under duress because they were afraid of others who would kill them or they had developed a near desire to retain the power of small arms and light weapons and to use them beyond any semblance of discipline, logic or humanism.

Small arms were localized instruments of mass destruction, said General Dallaire.  In the 100 days of the Rwandan genocide over 300,000 children were slaughtered.  The bulk of those children were slaughtered by other children not using sophisticated laser beam weapons, but the basic instrument that had been around for a couple of centuries; the rifle -– a cheap available weapon but nevertheless one that gives a sense of power.

"And so, in many of these countries where there are so many disenfranchised youth, if someone promises them dollars, booze, an easy objective such as ethnicity and gives them a weapon, then you have created the cycle of continuous destruction for generations to come", said General Dallaire.  "You have not only eliminated the innocence of those children or the opportunity to prevent them from engaging in slaughter, but you have put the seed of those who are the victims and those who will follow them into a continuum of destruction throughout their lives and the lives of generations to come".

General Dallaire said it seemed nearly illogical that discussions on the illegal proliferation of small arms could not be linked to the use and abuse of children.  By taking that course "we are guaranteeing the future of nations", he said.  "We are guaranteeing by the abuse of those child rights –- subjugation through sex, rape, theft, and murder –- linked to the availability of small arms and light weapons that war-affected children will ensure that conflicts continue in a more horrific way than we have seen in the last decade". 

There was no indication that current practices would stop, General Dallaire stated.  On the contrary there was more recognition by belligerents that the most effective troops in the field were the children.  "You can abuse them, you can use them, they will spend a long time with you, and if they are lost they are a very

small loss to the aims of those who lead certain organizations.  Future conflict was guaranteed by the proliferation of small arms particularly among the youth.  The ability of youth to be so capable in the field stemmed from the fact that small arms were readily available.

The current session on small arms, continued General Dallaire, had to get back to the fundamental point that we are guaranteeing the future of conflict by letting children use weapons and having those arms readily available.  "If you try to solve small arms without thinking of children then you are nowhere near, ultimately, of technically bringing anything to closure", he said. 

When asked why it was felt that the Conference was not fully embracing humanitarian concerns, Mr. Pagtakhan said there had to be a focus on the ultimate objective -- international peace and human security.  The Conference had to be made to realize that there was a link between small arms and the culture of violence and transform it into a culture of peace.  That would require political will and courage, which was what a United Nations Conference was about in a sense.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.