Small Arms and Human Rights: The Need for Global Action

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper for the U.N. Biennial Meeting on Small Arms

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Key Sections

The U.N. Biennial Meeting
The U.N. Program of Action
Small Arms Misuse
Small Arms Transfers
The Way Forward

Small Arms Misuse

Small arms facilitate countless human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law around the globe. International human rights and humanitarian law establish the responsibility of governments (and also rebel groups) to uphold basic standards in their own behavior. In addition, governments are responsible for protecting the rights of those living under their authority or control, and as such have a legal duty to take steps to prevent abuses by private actors and hold them accountable for violations.

In violation of such obligations, government agents-such as military forces, police, and government-sponsored militia-all too often use small arms to carry out atrocities and are rarely held accountable. In many other cases, governments fail to exercise control over private actors, allowing armed individuals and groups to commit small arms-aided abuses with impunity.5

Small arms-aided abuses by either governments or private actors occur in many different settings. Following are examples of abuses in wartime, post-conflict settings, and in countries not at war.

Small Arms Misuse during Armed Conflict
International humanitarian law imposes constraints on all warring parties. It prohibits, for example, the deliberate targeting of civilians or other noncombatants, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks likely to disproportionately harm civilians. In addition, governments are required to uphold core human rights principles at all times, including the prohibition on torture. The same applies to rebel groups. The obligations of governments and rebel groups under international human rights and humanitarian law also extend to those acting on their behalf, such as paramilitaries or mercenaries.

Small arms are both readily available and widely misused in many areas of violent conflict. They are the weapon of choice in many conflicts and often have been used to illegally target civilians. Moreover, small arms are often supplied to untrained, undisciplined, and unaccountable actors, who are apt to misuse them against civilians.

A few recent examples illustrate the extent of the problem and the role of both government forces and rebel groups (as well as their proxies) in misusing small arms in armed conflicts that are often marked by abuses on all sides:

  • Small arms facilitated grave abuses by government forces during the internal armed conflict that erupted in mid-2001 between Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, who themselves also committed abuses. Government police forces conducting an all-day offensive in the village of Ljuboten carried out summary killings of civilians, widespread arson and looting, and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Police forces using machine guns shot dead six Albanian civilians, several of them execution-style or as they tried to flee. Police also police fired indiscriminately into the homes of civilians, at times throwing hand grenades and even firing rocket-propelled grenades into homes. One such rocket-propelled grenade was fired directly into a room filled with four men, their wives, and eight children. There is no credible evidence that there was a rebel presence during the attack, nor that any of the villagers put up an armed resistance against the Macedonian police forces. In separate incidents, the rebels used small arms to perpetrate serious human rights abuses. For example, as part of a pattern of illegal detentions and kidnappings, they abducted five ethnic Macedonian road workers in August 2001. Two rebels armed with machine guns stood guard as the abducted men were brutally tortured, sexually abused, and mutilated. Before releasing the men, a rebel put his cocked pistol into the mouth of one of the victims and threatened to kill him if he ever told of the abuse.
  • In a conflict marked by abuses on both sides, Maoist rebels in Nepal using scorched earth tactics and armed with small arms have targeted civilians and law enforcement authorities. The looting of small arms from government stocks has permitted them to escalate the level of violence. By February 2002 they had reportedly killed over five hundred policemen, many of whom were either wounded or had surrendered. By March 2003, they were estimated to have killed over 800 civilians. The rebels also have used child soldiers in their "People's War" against the government. Government forces in Nepal also committed serious abuses involving the misuse of small arms, with such abuses escalating after the late 2001 declaration of a state of emergency. Military forces were deployed and by a year later, government security forces had reportedly killed over 4000 "suspected Maoists." Many of those killed were civilians targeted for their alleged sympathy for the Maoists. All suspected Maoists, rebels and civilians alike, were at risk of detention, abduction, torture and even summary execution at the hands of government forces.
  • Both Israeli government forces and armed Palestinian groups have used small arms to carry out violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. As the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has the obligation under the Geneva Conventions to protect Palestinian civilians; Palestinian armed groups are also bound by international humanitarian law. For example, Israeli security forces, often relying on small arms, have resorted to excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force, such as when they have fired on rock-throwing demonstrators, employed deadly force against Palestinian civilians to enforce curfews, or returned fire indiscriminately in response to Palestinian fire. In addition, Israeli soldiers have recklessly exposed civilians to danger by coercing them, sometimes at gunpoint, to perform life-endangering acts that assisted Israeli military operations. Armed Palestinian groups, for their part, have used small arms to mount a deadly series of attacks against civilians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. For example, Palestinian gunmen have used automatic weapons to shoot indiscriminately at settlements. They also have used firearms and roadside bombings against Israeli settlers traveling in the Occupied Territories. The explosives used in Palestinian suicide bombings are also considered small arms.
  • The recruitment and use of foreign fighters by both rebel and government forces in West Africa contributes to the spiral of armed violence. For example, both the Ivoirian government and rebel forces used hundreds of Liberian mercenaries armed with assault rifles and other small arms. Some of these fighters were implicated in serious human rights abuses in previous wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Victims from western Côte d'Ivoire interviewed by Human Rights Watch in February and March 2003 consistently stated that foreign forces were responsible for systematic looting of civilian property, accompanied by assault and, in some cases, executions of civilians and the rape of women and girls.
  • Colombian rebels have a horrendous record of abuses, most facilitated by the use of small arms. In recent years, they have carried out killings, subjected captured combatants to inhumane treatment, used weapons indiscriminately (notably gas cylinder bombs), engaged in a pattern of hostage-taking, carried out attacks on medical workers and health facilities, made extensive use of children as combatants, and forcibly displaced civilians. With respect to kidnapping alone, according to one estimate the rebels were responsible for at least 422 kidnappings from January to April 2003. Most victims of guerrilla abuses are civilians. Civilians also have suffered greatly at the hand of Colombian government forces and paramilitaries. Paramilitary groups operating with the tolerance and often support of units within Colombia's military were linked to massacres, selective killings, and death threats. Throughout Colombia, paramilitaries have continued to move uniformed and heavily armed troops unhindered past military installations. At the end of 2002 paramilitaries claimed to have over eleven thousand armed and trained members, most equipped with small arms.
  • Small arms, which are easy to carry and operate, facilitate the use of children as fighters. Burma is believed to have the largest number of child soldiers in the world, with as many as 70,000 boys serving in the national army. Soldiers wielding small arms coerce or forcibly recruit boys as young as eleven. These children often never see their families again. During training, they learn to use assault rifles and machine guns. Many are forced to fight against armed ethnic opposition groups and carry out human rights abuses, including rounding up villagers for forced labor and even massacring civilians. Armed opposition groups in Burma also recruit children, though in far smaller numbers.

    Small Arms Misuse in Post-War Settings: Failure to Provide Security
    Guns rarely go silent after wars end. To the contrary, the widespread availability of small arms in many post-conflict countries has greatly added to the death toll. Particularly where security is weak, former combatants have not been disarmed, and abusive actors have not been held accountable for past behavior, a situation of lawlessness can emerge where civilians are at grave risk.

    Recent examples highlight this dangerous trend:

  • Most of post-war Afghanistan is in the hands of warlords and gunmen-fighters in Afghanistan's past wars whom the U.S. armed, assisted, and enabled in the fight against Soviet occupation and in the civil war with the Taliban, and who continued to be relied upon for local security. These warlords use their military power, largely derived from vast quantities of small arms, to terrorize local populations under their authority, robbing houses at night, stealing valuables, killing people, raping young women and children, seizing land from farmers, extorting money, and kidnapping young men and holding them until their families can pay a ransom. The continuing instability has threatened human rights, hampered reconstruction efforts, prevented the return and reintegration of refugees, and presented obstacles to the recovery of Afghan civil society.
  • In post-war Iraq, the prevalence of unsecured and easily accessible weapons and ammunition, including vast quantities of small arms, have put civilians at grave risk. For example, doctors at a hospital in Kirkuk said that for several days after the city fell, they were treating around seventy patients a day, most of them civilians who had sustained bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds, and injuries caused by landmines and other explosives. Many victims have been children who have played with ammunition and explosives stored by Iraqi authorities in homes, schools, and other sites in residential areas. Continued lawlessness and armed crime have also contributed greatly to the human toll. In May 2003, six weeks after the conflict ended, hospitals in and near Basra reported up to five gunshot homicides daily, and another five or seven gunshot injuries. Carjackings and organized looting have continued to plague neighborhoods. Women and girls were reluctant to return to jobs and schools while criminals, some of them armed, roam the streets.

    Small Arms Misuse in Countries not at War
    Even in countries nominally at peace, the misuse of small arms accounts for many serious human rights abuses. At times, the perpetrators of small arms-aided abuses are government agents who contravene international standards. In other cases, private armed groups or individuals operate with free rein.

    Abuses by Government Agents
    Government agents exercising law enforcement functions-which in addition to police forces can include military and paramilitary units, militia, and peacekeepers-are subject to international standards. In particular, the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials establish that law enforcement personnel must use the minimum force necessary and may use lethal force only where there is an imminent threat to life. Often, appropriate training and accountability measures are not in place to prevent and punish the inappropriate or excessive use of force. Small arms also confer power, even without being fired. The coercive potential of these weapons, when exploited by abusive government agents, can enable human rights abuses such as torture, rape, intimidation, and looting. In addition, governments can be implicated indirectly in small arms-aided abuses, such as when officials incite armed violence by ethnic militias or enlist armed thugs to carry out attacks for political ends.

    Again, there are many examples, of which the following provide only a selection:

  • The period before Cambodia's February 2002 local elections was marred by political killings and intimidation by armed men, such as in Tbong Khmum district in Kompong Cham province. There, the November 2001 deliberate killing of two opposition party members, who were shot at point-blank range by men wearing military uniforms, was followed by a campaign of armed intimidation by assailants armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The prime suspects are law enforcement and military officers who are closely associated with local authorities. In a situation where some candidates feared that victory would bring violent retribution, it is clear that democratic processes are unable to function.
  • On March 17, 2002, police in Kyrgyzstan employed excessive force in response to a political protest, when they opened fire on the crowd. A government commission found that five civilians died from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police, and that out of twenty-nine civilians injured, sixteen suffered bullet wounds. The number of injured has since been assessed to be higher than originally reported.

    Abuses where the Government Fails to Exercise Adequate Control
    The duty of governments to ensure respect for human rights includes a responsibility to adopt measures to prevent abuses by private actors and to prosecute those responsible for violations. With respect to small arms abuses, this means governments must put in place adequate laws and act to implement and enforce those laws. In addition, they are required to provide basic security and to act against private actors who threaten rights, for example, the right to life and security of person. When governments fail to do so, whether out of complicity or negligence, this can lead to a breakdown in the rule of law which itself contributes to the emergence of private armed individuals and groups and an upward spiral of armed violence, even chaos.

    For example:

  • Private armed groups have emerged in Guatemala. Over the past year, Guatemalan human rights defenders have been subject to repeated and serious armed attacks and threats. On April 29, 2002, a member of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, Guillermo Ovalle de Leon, was shot to death in a restaurant next to the foundation's office in Guatemala City. In June 2003 an agent of the Human Rights Ombudsman's office was gunned down in Guatemala City. While the circumstances of his death were unclear, it occurred amidst a wave of threats against members of that office. There is a widespread consensus that such actions are being carried out by clandestine groups with possible links to security forces and organized crime.
  • In March 2003, the prime minister of Serbia was gunned down by sniper fire. Until a crackdown began following that assassination, organized criminal networks using various small arms had been allowed to thrive in Serbia for years. These networks stand accused of many armed crimes, including kidnappings and murders, and of involvement in the trafficking of human beings, drugs, and weapons. Dozens of people, including police, have been the victims of armed attacks linked to organized crime. The well-armed criminals relied on corruption and intimidation to escaped justice for their crimes.

    5 The following analysis of legal responsibility for small arms abuses draws in part on the work of Barbara Frey, the newly-named U.N. expert on small arms and human rights. A framework she developed is contained in her working paper, "The question of the trade, carrying and use of small arms and light weapons in the context of human rights and humanitarian norms," working paper submitted by in accordance with Sub-Commission decisions 2001/120 ECOSOC - Other Human Rights Issues, (United Nations: 2002), available at:

    The U.N. Program of Action   Small Arms Transfers