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ICRC report calls on States to strengthen controls on arms availability

01-07-1999 News Release 99/41

Geneva (ICRC) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling on States to limit the uncontrolled proliferation of arms and ammunition, which it blames for increasing tension in the world's trouble spots, prolonging conflicts and undermining the laws that protect civilians in time of war.

In a report entitled " Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict " , issued today, 1 July, the ICRC warns of the disastrous effects on civilian populations of the uncontrolled transfer and misuse of weapons.

Launching the report, ICRC President Cornelio Sommaruga declared: " The current pattern of transfers of small arms, light weapons and related ammunition, because it is largely outside international control, should be a matter of urgent humanitarian concern. We call on States to review their policies concerning the production, availability and transfer of arms and ammunition in light of their responsibility to'respect and ensure respect'for international humanitarian law " .

Despite important breakthroughs in prohibiting or limiting the transfer of chemical, biological, nuclear and major conventional weapons, relatively little attention has been paid to those that cause most death and injury among civilians - small arms and light weapons.

The report notes that the number of manufacturers of small arms is estimated to have increased by 25% between 1985 and 1995. Furthermore, large quantities of weapons were sold or given away as the world's big military powers reduced their stocks after the end of the Cold War. In Uganda in 1996, the report notes, an assault rifle cost abou t the same as a chicken.

The international restrictions on arms transfers that do exist apply primarily to major weapons systems and weapons of mass destruction. The few restrictions relating to small arms and light weapons are often weak and subject to varying interpretations. " The international community has so far proven disturbingly unable or unwilling to enforce United Nations embargoes that seek to prevent arms flows into areas of conflict " , the report points out. This is the case even when such embargoes are prompted by brutal violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

The ICRC is urging States to recognize that the extent to which recipients comply with international humanitarian law - the rules which seek to limit the effects of war on civilians - should be a major consideration before they are supplied with weapons.

ICRC research shows a strong link between high levels of arms availability and high levels of civilian casualties, both during and after periods of conflict. In Afghanistan, figures from ICRC hospitals show that the number of injuries caused by weapons did not fall significantly after fighting ceased in a given region. In an area of Cambodia served by an ICRC hospital, the incidence of weapon injuries increased after the departure of United Nations forces to a level slightly higher than before their arrival, in the absence of successful disarmament of the various factions.

" There is no doubt that the primary responsibility lies with weapons users " , emphasized Peter Herby, the main author of the report, " but States and companies selling weapons should be asking themselves some important questions. Have the people who are going to use these weapons made a commitment to respect international humanitarian law? Have they trained their forces in the rules of warfare? Have peo ple who have violated those rules been punished? Will the end user really be the end user? "  

Addressing representatives of diplomatic missions in Geneva, President Sommaruga said: " We plead with you not to allow the transfer of arms and ammunition to be treated simply as another form of commerce " .