Today there are over 1 billion guns in global circulation, most of which are in civilian hands . The oversupply and misuse of firearms is a worldwide problem with wide-reaching implications on development in all societies.
Armed violence fuels crime and conflict, undermines institutions, disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations, and worsen existing socio-economic inequalities. The economic costs of armed violence include its impact on health infrastructure, the loss of economic activity, and daily military expenditures, which could be used to invest in the well being of humans and the environment. These consequences are linked to the illicit arms trade, which poses a particular risk to peace and stability in post-conflict societies where governance and national borders may be weak.
Even after conflict ends, firearms within communities can still be used for crime and violence. This is because firearms remain lethal long after their manufacture and sale given the supply of ammunition. To reduce these threats, United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, and recognizes the vital importance of reducing illicit flows of firearms.
Gun Destruction Programs
It is commonly the case that legally held firearms are either stolen or lost, and end up being used in situations of crime or conflict. Government-owned weapons are the largest category of weapons stored in stockpiles . These stockpiles can be easily exploited by armed groups if they are improperly managed and left vulnerable to diversions. The worst cases of stolen weapons have been seen in 2013, when Iraqi and Syrian state security services lost massive supplies of arms during the rise of the Islamic State, as well as losses by Yemen to Houthi rebels in 2014. Similarly, after the collapse of Libya’s government in 2011, government stockpiles fell into the hands of terrorist groups . Even when all precautions are taken there are still many risks associated with maintaining stockpiles of arms, such as unplanned explosions .
Permanently destroying guns is the only way to 100% guarantee they will not be misused again. Given the dangers of stockpiling firearms, weapons collection and destruction is a priority to ensure greater safety and stability. This measure also greatly strengthens SDG 16.4, to reduce illicit arms flows and combat all forms of organized crime. Progress on this goal can be made by recording data on the number of illicit arms identified by competent authorities in the context of gun destruction programs. The safe disposal of illicit and surplus arms and ammunition is central to monitoring progress towards, and achieving the 2030 Agenda . In this light, multilateral efforts and international agreements, such as the 2001 UN Programme of Action (PoA), the UN Firearms Protocol, and the Arms Trade Treaty, were created to regulate international flows of arms and ammunition. Of these, the PoA is the only international framework calling on states to destroy illicit arms . Initiated by the UN in 2001, International Gun Destruction Day on July 9 was created to remind governments of their obligation under the PoA to destroy surplus arms. All states are compelled by existing international agreements to take concrete steps to eliminate surplus weapons and ammunition stocks.
Gun Destruction in Practice: the case of Latin America
Not surprisingly, the regions with the greatest burden of armed violence are also those that dedicate the greatest importance to its solutions. Latin America is a region highly affected by armed violence and feels the impact of illicit arms entering the region from its northern neighbour, the United States (US). Honduras, Venezuela, Guatemala, and El Salvador have some of the highest firearm-related deaths rates per year, with flows of illicit arms smuggled into the region typically from large arms exporting nations like the US. The Center for American Progress found that from 2014 to 2016, US-sourced guns were used to commit crimes in nearby countries approximately once every 31 minutes . The Latin American Region has made progress in reducing gun violence through cooperation between governments, NGOs, and individuals on gun destruction programs.
In 2016, the Colombian peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended hostilities and put an end to a half-century-old civil war. The Colombian peace process established an agreement that rebel munitions be turned over to UN inspectors, and melted down to create three monuments; one at UN headquarters in New York, one in Havana, Cuba where the treaty was negotiated, and one in Bogata, Colombia’s capital . Gun destruction is an important component of Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs, which help societies transition away from conflict, and ensure that conflict does not break out again. Monetary incentives are often given to encourage ex-combatants to return their weapons and facilitate their reintegration into society. Similarly, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo is using melted guns from gun destruction programs to build a monument commemorating the end of Colombia’s civil war .
In 2017, the El Salvadorian authorities initiated a weapons destruction, melting 1825 illegal firearms for Humanium Metal . Humanium Metal, created by IM Swedish Development Partner, is a metal made out of melted guns and repurposed with the aim to increase socioeconomic and political security for people living in areas affected by high levels of violence. The metal is repurposed for commercial to inspire consumers, businesses, and authorities to focus on the issue of armed violence. The funds are used to support victims of armed violence and projects rebuilding conflict-torn societies. The initiative generates local income and contributes to long-term positive effects on the economic realities in affected societies. In addition to the economic benefits of Humanium, it also raises awareness of and draws media attention to the devastating impact of illegal firearms and armed violence. Humanium has been used by designers and artists worldwide, and Humanium Metal-made watches were given to influential people at the UN to raise awareness of the cause . It is an innovative approach to promoting development through reducing armed violence in El Salvador, and projects like Humanium can be implemented elsewhere.
Development programs done right present many possibilities to rebuild societies with memories of conflict. Repurposing destroyed guns is one of many innovative ways to transforms weapons used to cause harm, into sources of prosperity.
1. Firearms Holdings, Small Arms Survey. Retrieved under http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/highlights/2018/highlight-bp-firearms-holdings.html
2. State Stockpiles, Small Arms Survey. Retrieved under http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/stockpiles/state-stockpiles.html
3. Unplanned Explosions at Munitions Sites, Small Arms Survey. Retrieved under http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/stockpiles/unplanned-explosions-at-munitions-sites.html
4. SDG Indicators, United Nations. Retrieved under https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/metadata/
5. Danssaert and Wood, 2017. “Surplus and Illegal Small Arms, Light Weapons and their Ammunition: the consequences of failing to dispose and safely destroy them.” IANSA, IPIS Research. Retrieved under http://ipisresearch.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Gun-Destruction-Report-IANSA-2017.pdf
6. Parsons and Vargas. February 2, 2018. “Beyond our Borders.” Center for American Progress. Retrieved under https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2018/02/02/445659/beyond-our-borders/
7. Otis, John. November 6, 2018. “In Colombia, Artist Renders tons of Rebel Guns into Floor Tiles,” NPR. Retrieved under https://www.npr.org/2018/11/06/663473304/in-colombia-artist-renders-tons-of-rebel-guns-into-floor-tiles?t=1541691100268
8. Humanium Metal. Retrieved under http://humanium-metal.com
9. MacBride, Elizabeth. July 16, 2018. “Swedish Entrepreneurs Are Melting 10,000 Crime Guns From El Salvador to Make Watches.” Forbes. Retrieved under https://www.forbes.com/sites/elizabethmacbride/2018/07/16/from-sweden-with-style-entrepreneurs-produce-humanium-watches-from-illegal-guns/#5e35b61d920e