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SEA must take shot at better gun control

After seven years of negotiations, the United Nations finally approved the first Arms Trade Treaty by an overwhelming majority. The treaty covers a range of conventional arms, from battle tanks to combat aircraft and small arms and light weapons (SALWs).

After seven years of negotiations, the United Nations finally approved the first Arms Trade Treaty by an overwhelming majority. The treaty covers a range of conventional arms, from battle tanks to combat aircraft and small arms and light weapons (SALWs).

The regulation of SALWs in particular could have major implications for Southeast Asia, a region awash with both legal and illegal arms. Private gun possession ranges from 0.5 arms per 100 people in Indonesia and Singapore; to more than 4.0 in Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines; and 15.6 in Thailand.

Significantly, SALWs – pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, and portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems – are widely used in armed conflicts. Although SALWs do not by themselves cause the conflicts in which they are used, they exacerbate their lethality. SALWs are also implicated in deaths occurring in non-conflict situations such as gang fights, homicides, suicides and random shootings. In all, SALWs cause the death of an estimated 500,000 people worldwide each year.

What is worrying for Southeast Asia is that the region is a source, transit and destination for trafficked arms.

Ongoing low-intensity armed conflicts in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar continue to fuel demand for sophisticated arms. Large stocks of surplus weapons in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, a legacy of the Vietnam War, have resulted in the region becoming an important source of illicit weapons for non-state armed groups such as those operating in India.

As such, the Arms Trade Treaty is vital for the region – for establishing standards for weapons sales, and also for ensuring greater oversight over a country’s stock of weapons so as to prevent illegal diversions.

Proliferation of arms to non-state armed groups is just one part of the problem. While states have the legitimate right to buy weapons for national security reasons, their unfettered purchase could result in indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, further inflaming armed conflicts. It is not surprising, then, that there is increasing support in Southeast Asia for norms and standards for the arms trade, and that a majority of countries in the region voted for the treaty.

However, the treaty, which attempts to regulate arms transfers to both states and non-state armed groups at the global level, would have limited effectiveness without there also being complementary gun control measures at the national level.

Currently, the extent of gun control in Southeast Asia ranges from total control (Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam) to restrictive control (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor-Leste) to highly permissive (Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand). This variation in level of control could stymie regional efforts to regulate SALWs.

As proliferation of SALWs is a transnational issue, regional standards based on complementary national laws are necessary. The Arms Trade Treaty offers an opportunity for countries in Southeast Asia to take collective action through developing regional standards and norms.

Such efforts could in turn help reduce gun violence and improve prospects for negotiated settlements to longstanding internal armed conflicts in the region.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pau Khan Khup Hangzo is Associate Research Fellow with the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.

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