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Reconsidering the tools of war: small arms and humanitarian action

Working papers

Civilians and humanitarian workers are regularly killed, maimed and threatened with small arms. Although the presence of small arms does not, in itself, cause conflict, their ready accessibility and misuse are closely associated with physical and psychological disability, forced displacement and civilians’ declining access to basic services in the context of conflict and social violence.  

This paper provides a preliminary roadmap for humanitarian agencies to engage more proactively with the issue of small arms and light weapons. It reviews the dimensions of the problem, from both the disarmament and the humanitarian perspective, and presents a conceptual framework for understanding and measuring the humanitarian impacts of small arms misuse. Its principal argument is that evidence of the magnitude and scale of the humanitarian impact of small arms is urgently required. Solid evidence is the bedrock of sound policy and intervention – and humanitarian agencies must lead the way.

Promising humanitarian responses to the threat of small arms are gradually emerging. These focus on curtailing the supply of weapons to regimes that regularly violate human rights, the enforcement of humanitarian law in violence-affected societies and operational reform to improve security in the field. A better understanding of the humanitarian impact of small arms will contribute to generating awareness among stakeholders, and can serve to inform interventions designed to reduce armed violence.

Robert Muggah with Martin Griffiths