New UN Arms Trade Treaty Boosts Central American Gun Control Efforts
By Dialogo April 22, 2013
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Central American security officials hope that an international arms treaty which has just been approved by the United Nations will aid their struggle against a drug war that has exponentially increased the influx of guns into the region.
On April 2, the UN General Assembly approved the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by a vote of 154-3, with only Iran, Syria and North Korea blocking it. Another 23 countries abstained, including China, Russia, Bahrain, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The historic ATT — which took seven years to negotiate — aims to regulate the global weapons market, estimated at $60 billion to $70 billion a year.
The treaty’s goal is to ban the transfer of weapons when there are substantial reasons to believe their use would violate human rights or impair social and economic development, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo explained. Costa Rica is among the seven countries that first proposed such a treaty at the UN in 2006.
The ATT would also block the transfer of guns if there is a risk of gender-based violence, or if the weapons might fall into the hands of organized criminals.
It does not, however, "interfere with domestic arms commerce or the right to bear arms in Member States; ban the export of any type of weapon; harm States’ legitimate right to self-defense, or undermine national arms regulation standards already in place,” according to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.
Gun-control advocates praise ATT’s passage
“This agreement could prove particularly helpful to Central American nations, where one of the biggest problems is the illegal traffic of guns. So we would hope that this could contribute to putting an end to the consequences of this trade,” said Hefer Morataya, director of the Nicaragua-based UN Coordinating Action on Small Arms in Central America program (known by its Spanish acronym CASAC).
“Of course, the fact that the treaty has been approved doesn’t mean that it will start working immediately,” he added. “It’s going to take time and ratification by individual governments.”
In fact, ATT needs at least 50 countries in order to be put into action, with all the challenges and setbacks that could entail.
But Central America has no time to waste, said Marcela Chacón, the vice-minister for security in Costa Rica, where a heated public debate on arms regulation is now underway. President Laura Chinchilla is pushing lawmakers to pass a new arms law that would tighten gun-holding permits as well as rules on the importation and sale of ammunition.
“A gun with no ammunition is simply a useless metal bludgeon,” Chacón said.
Illegal weapons flooding Central America, says UN
Of the 2.9 million firearms that have poured into Central America, only one million are legal, according to the 2010 UN Human Development Index. But officials say that for every registered firearm, as many as four more unregistered — and therefore illegal — guns are in circulation.
And that number, they say, is rising as drug traffickers expand their business south of Mexico and depend on weapons to operate.
Costa Rica’s proposed law would prohibit arms dealers from selling bullets without gun permits, while limiting the sale of bullets only to people who fit those permits’ profiles. It also would forbid the importation of ammunition that is not individually registered by the manufacturer.
“In a crime scene, all that’s left are shells, so we want the investigation police to be able to track each shell back to the manufacturing batch and back to the person who bought them,” Chacón explained.
This means that if passed, both the UN treaty and Costa Rica’s proposed law would require the participation of gun manufacturers around the world. The United States, Japan, China, Russia and Brazil remain the world’s largest gun-producing countries and compliance with new requirements would be necessary for these initiatives to have a broad impact.
“It may be difficult for them to agree,” said Castillo. “But it would have to start with the manufacturers themselves, reporting their production and sales in detail such as number, type, buyer’s identity and inventory.”
New gun-control laws spring up throughout the region
Costa Rica is not the only country in Central America striving for better gun-control mechanisms. In 2012, Guatemala passed a reform that extended the registration period of guns by two more years, while Panama changed its penal code to double the penalty for illegal arms purchasing and sales, as well as for possession of drugs.
El Salvador is now working on new gun-control legislation, with help from the UN Development Program. And in Honduras, that nation’s congress is discussing changes to its arms law, after a recent study showed that 81 percent of guns there are illegal.
Nicaragua’s particular social system, in which communities organize themselves to keep the organized crime out of their neighborhoods, has also worked as a shield from violent gangs, protecting Costa Rica and Panama to the south.
“As a region, in this way, we are divided: the countries in the north are caught in a bloody fight where they must attack the criminals that have already permeated society, while the rest of us in the south have to strengthen our prevention programs,” Chacón said.
In 2011, the Central American Integration System (SICA) approved a single security strategy that offers countries a guide on how to tackle escalating homicide rates. But so far, only the countries in the south have lowered their homicide rates, while Central America’s so-called “northern tier” remains the most violent region on the planet outside a war zone.
Treaty is a wake-up call for the world, say advocates
The isthmus’s geographic location is both a blessing and a curse, said Morataya of CASAC.
“It’s attractive for its rich natural resources and for facilitating trade,” he said. “But among other merchandise, drugs are traded from the south to the north and guns are traded down from the north to the south.”
Organized crime is not just in the business of drug trafficking, says Costa Rica’s Chacón. Illegal arms dealing, money laundering and human trafficking also help diversify criminals’ income. She said “forced labor and human trafficking now constitute the second-highest source of income for organized criminals in this region.”
Despite the increased presence of criminals in Central America, Chacón remains optimistic now that the highly visible UN resolution is shining a light on the global gun-control debate.
“Regardless of what happens from here on, what matters is that this vote is the first in history to back up a global consensus that says that the weapons market should be regulated in some form, and it establishes criteria to do it,” she said. “This tells us that 154 countries agree something must be done so that guns are not taken to countries where they would be used in crimes against humanity — and that really matters.”