Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Breathing New Life Into an Old Federation (January 13, 2004)
"A little more than three years ago, a few prominent Americans thought it was time to reinvigorate the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a body created in 1946."

IAEA Chief Out Front on Arms Control (January 5, 2004)
"Since the departure of Hans Blix, Mohamed ElBaradei has been the U.N. system's most visible arms controller. Some Bush administration officials have begun trying to undermine his authority."

Refugees in Limbo Where the U.N. Isn't Welcome (December 29, 2003)
"For about a dozen years, tens of thousands of people, claiming to be Bhutanese citizens have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. Few officials believe they are all Bhutanese. Then who are these people, now numbering more than 100,000?"

Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons (December 16, 2003)
"Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress."

Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq (December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."

Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N. (December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."

Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time (November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | January 28, 2004
from U. N. Wire Much of World's Conflict Fueled by Small Arms

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—In the 1990s, a decade of horrendous little wars, 47 of the 49 biggest conflicts were fought not with high-tech weaponry but with small arms, yet the casualties were measured in the millions. The United Nations reckons that small arms still kill about 300,000 people a year in conflict, most of them civilians. Add to that the 200,000 more gun deaths from homicides and suicides, and small arms begin to look like weapons of mass destruction.

Around the world, almost any region has a grim story to tell about the destructiveness of small arms and light weapons, such as shoulder-fired grenades or small mortars, which can be handled by a few gunmen and transported by carts or on the backs of donkeys. From Colombia to Liberia to Indonesia, such guns and light weapons have been rebels' armaments of choice. The wars they cause rarely get the attention of the Security Council.

Last week, however, the council held a daylong debate on small arms, culminating in a statement encouraging arms-exporting countries "to exercise the highest degree of responsibility in small arms and light weapons transactions," encouraging regional and international cooperation, particularly concerning al-Qaeda, and reiterating its call to U.N. member states to effectively implement arms embargoes.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a report earlier this month—the topic of the council session—noting progress on implementation of his recommendations to the council on how to curb the problem. But nevertheless, the United Nations calculates that there are probably 600 million small arms in circulation worldwide, about half of them acquired illegally. In the heightened climate of fear over more spectacular strikes by international terrorists, it is difficult to convince nations that the threat of ordinary guns should not be overlooked amid preoccupations with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Sri Lanka is a case in point, both for the neglect it was subjected to for decades and for the opportunity the outside world now has to demonstrate a will to end this kind of conflict prolonged by the international trade in illegal small arms and explosives.

Sri Lanka suffered for more than two decades from an ethnic civil war—in fact, two parallel wars for part of that period. There is now an uneasy cease-fire in the longer-running conflict, between a Tamil guerrilla army claiming the island's northeast and an ethnic Sinhalese-dominated central government. But 65,000 people have already died and there is widespread concern that the ruthless group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, has been using the truce to re-arm and eliminate any remaining moderate Tamils willing to work with the government in return for peace and development.

"The LTTE has proved extremely adept at trawling the international black market for illegal small arms and light weapons and even more proficient at moving equipment from distant locales into the northeast of the island," a study by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, concluded in October. The study, In the Shadow of a Cease-fire: The Impacts of Small Arms Availability and Misuse in Sri Lanka, reinforces the fears of many that despite the naming of the LTTE to terrorism lists in important countries including the United States and United Kingdom, the Tamils now have such a sophisticated weapons-procurement network and the money to pay for it that they cannot easily be disarmed.

Moreover, the LTTE, whose suicide bombers murdered nearly a generation of national political leaders as well as democratic Tamil opponents, has moved beyond small arms. Astonishingly, Thailand recently uncovered and shut down a submarine project along its southwestern coast that Thai authorities said was building a small craft for the LTTE. The Small Arms Survey study, written by Chris Smith, director of the Center for South Asia Studies at King's College, London, says that countries pledging to help Sri Lanka rebuild if peace holds should insist on the control of small arms. "Without such controls, Sri Lanka will be unable to unlock the considerable economic potential that exists and make up the many lost years of development," the report concluded.

Jayantha Dhanapala
Jayantha Dhanapala
(Stan Honda/AFP Photo)
Jayantha Dhanapala, who was U.N. undersecretary general for disarmament until last year, knows well how a prolonged civil war does more than kill people. He is a Sri Lankan and has seen his own nation, South Asia's most developed country, dehumanized by the Tamil rebellion, which was initially trained by Indian intelligence agencies, and by the violence of the Sinhalese leftist-nationalist People's Liberation Front in the country's south, fueled at one stage by a wave of anti-Indian anger. Meanwhile, a gun culture entered politics, and renegade soldiers were deserting with military weapons.

"The proliferation of small arms in Sri Lanka is a cumulative result of the terrorism of the Tamil Tigers and the two insurgencies of the People's Liberation Front," Dhanapala wrote in an exchange of e-mails from his home in Sri Lanka. "This armed violence has not only brutalized a country which was once a model of parliamentary democracy, with impressive social and economic indicators, but has also insidiously crept into the political life of the country, linking criminal gangs with politicians," he said.

"The lesson of Sri Lanka is that security cannot be bought by having more arms distributed to your armed forces and to civilians and that there is no substitute for political measures required to remedy grievances," Dhanapala added. "Army deserters have left the battleground with their arms to engage in crime or become contract killers for the underworld in gang wars and in political assassinations. Arms supplied to politicians, ostensibly for their own protection, are being used for political thuggery. As a result, despite the obvious solution of recovering guns through amnesties and stringent regulations, there has been little political will on the part of the major parties, who see short-term benefits in the status quo until durable political solutions are worked out."

As undersecretary general for disarmament, Dhanapala had begun to work on innovative projects to reduce small arms stocks. In the absence of an overarching arms control treaty for these weapons—a global gun-control law—most efforts to deal with the proliferation of small arms have been narrowly focused, case by case. But they can serve as models.

More than six years ago, for example, Albania turned to the United Nations for help in rounding up huge stocks of weapons that had been looted from government armories in the chaos that followed the fall of communism in eastern Europe. Led by Dhanapala, the United Nations and Albania devised a program that offered Albanian communities development aid in exchange for arms turned in for destruction.

Zef Mazi, an Albanian diplomat, told a conference on small arms last March in Slovenia that within little more than a year, about 6,000 guns and 140 tons of ammunition were collected. The program has not ended armed crime in Albania or recovered the untold numbers of looted arms trafficked out of the country. But it did, Mazi said, "develop among the people a sense of returning to normalcy and regaining of confidence in their communities and in their future."

Sri Lanka is not there yet. Dhanapala says that "the Sri Lankan political leadership has to realize the long-term damage of weaponizing society and take determined and united action to rid the country of this scourge."

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.