Armed and dangerous

  • Alongside control and reduction measures, underlying causes of the demand for small arms must be investigated
- Subindra Bogati
Armed and dangerous

Sep 24, 2014-

Like many post-conflict societies, Nepal is struggling to re-establish political stability and cope with post-conflict violence. Small arms, both legal and illegal, are deemed to pose a serious threat to peace and security in the post Comprehensive Peace Agreement period. However, it is not clear what kind of firearms are in Nepal or where they are concentrated.

It is often argued that the legacy of the conflict, poor coordination between the security agencies of Nepal and India along the open border, low cost of firearms, mushrooming of armed groups, and perennial political instability are the reasons behind the proliferation of the use of small arms.

These weapons have mostly been used for economically motivated crimes like abduction, victimisation, threats, and extortion. It is not only criminals or armed groups, but even student leaders affiliated to political parties who seem to be arming themselves with firearms. There could be many reasons for this. Poverty, the need for protection, anger, and sentiments of revenge might lead people to feel the need to arm themselves. Or in some cases, they take up small arms for a sense of respect and power.

How many guns?

Globally, some 300,000 to half a million people are killed by small arms each year. This means that every minute, someone is killed by a gun. The growing availability of small arms has been deemed a major factor in hindering rebuilding and development. Studies worldwide have shown that illicit small arms not only fuel insecurity but also undermine peace initiatives and hamper development activities. They are also a significant factor in fostering a culture of violence.

The magnitude of threats posed by illegal small arms possession in Nepal has not received a thorough accounting. Neither the Nepal Police nor the Ministry of Home Affairs has exact data on the number of illegal small arms brought into the country or those manufactured in makeshift factories on a daily basis. As government institutions are poorly equipped, they do not have mechanisms for the accurate tracking of legally-owned weapons, let alone illegal ones.

Existing data from the Ministry of Home Affairs suggests that 34,314 people hold licenced firearms in Nepal--mostly in the Kathmandu Valley and the Tarai districts. Civil society organisations estimate that there are about 55,000 small arms in circulation. However, an issue brief by the Nepal Armed Violence Assessment and Small Arms Survey in May 2013 stated that there were around 440,000 private firearms in Nepal, of which 330,000 were unregistered craft weapons. Only one-eighth of the total firearms, or 55,000, are believed to be legally registered.

As the overall level of weapons possession is low by global standards, it is often argued that Nepal’s post-conflict violence involving small arms is less serious and relatively easier to resolve than those of many countries in Africa and Central America. However, small arms are neither rare nor expensive in Nepal. Research by this scribe in the Tarai showed that one could easily obtain pistols/homemade Katuwas for around Rs 20,000.

Government measures

We know that it is not arms that kill people, but people who kill people. Small arms become a problem when they get into the wrong hands through weak controls on ownership, weapons management, and misuse by authorised users. Such a realisation has led the government and its security agencies to try different approaches to curtail the use of weapons in Nepal.

In 2013, the government issued a notice calling for people with illegal arms to return them voluntarily, but only 6,745 firearms were submitted. The government also came up with a small arms management work plan in 2011, with a view to ban the production, transportation, sale, and distribution of small arms in the country. However, little is known about the impact of this work plan.

Likewise, the government implemented the Arms and Ammunition Act 1962, delegating more power to the Chief District Officer (CDO) in 2007 and also amended the Special Security Plan in 2009. The Nepal Police and Armed Police Force continued joint operations in the Tarai to limit the transmission of small arms.

Control and cooperate

Against a backdrop of political instability, weak institutions and poorly enforced legislation and arms control norms, the Home Ministry must come up with more creative ways to effectively reduce the danger posed by small arms. Providing continuity to weapons collection and voluntary registration would be a start. Destroying seized and obsolete weapons is another simple and cost-effective strategy to reduce illicit small arms. This will also help raise public awareness, improve public confidence, and symbolise an end to conflict.

Security agencies in Nepal and India along the border districts must also cooperate closely and share information so that both the flow of small arms and criminals are monitored. The open Nepal-India border has remained a security challenge for Nepal and is deemed to be one of the primary reasons for the proliferation of small arms in the country. In the past, the open border not only helped the then insurgent Maoists acquire small arms at relatively low prices, but also allowed armed groups in the Tarai to use the area as a safe haven.

A credible small arms policy will play an important role in shaping the country’s future. However, due implementation of laws and security provisions is vital. Licenced guns and ammunition should be better monitored and tracked in order to ensure that they are not misused. Accordingly, institutional and administrative capacities of government bodies should be better developed and strengthened.

Most importantly, understanding the underlying causes of the demand for small arms is needed before one can start addressing the issue. This is because the presence of arms is an indicator, not only of uncontrolled proliferation, but also of perceived need.

- Bogati is the Chief Executive of the Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative

Published: 25-09-2014 09:31

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