Taking stock of action on the illicit small arms trade: Covid-19 and ’Silencing the Guns’

Small Arms Survey Online Forum Inventory 12

By: Lionel Kosirnik and Bryan Mutiso

As the devastating health and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt around the world, the impact of the crisis on peace and security in Africa and more specifically on the African Union’s (AU) Silencing the guns initiative, is beginning to emerge. The 12th panel of the Small Arms Survey’s 2020 online forum ‘Taking stock of action on the illicit small arms trade’ looked at the challenges posed to peace and security in Africa by the pandemic, explored ways of moving forward with the Silencing the guns initiative despite the health crisis, and highlighted how illicit flows of weapons continue to be a major destabilising factor on the continent. This blog post provides a short overview of some of the topics covered.

Impacts of Covid-19 on the Silencing the guns initiative and broader peace and security in Africa

The AU developed the ‘Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns by Year 2020’ in 2016 to tackle an extensive array of political, economic, social, environmental, and legal factors identified as contributors to conflict across the continent. A key element in the analysis was the negative role of illicit small arms in conflict dynamics and the destabilization of communities emerging from conflict. While illicit small arms continue to represent a major challenge to peace and security in Africa, just as the AU and its member states were poised to start discussing next steps for the Silencing the guns initiative, the Covid-19 crisis struck, impacting on this critical work .

The impact of Covid-19 on peace and security work in Africa has not yet revealed its full extent, but panellists shared their observations of some notable effects for the goals of the Silencing the guns initiative:

  • The fight against the pandemic has forced many governments and regional organizations to cut budgets and divert resources — some of which were originally intended to support small arms control activities — towards the pandemic response.
  • As work in the security sector in most countries is changing — including activities to fight illicit arms circulation — new trafficking routes and actors are being observed. This phenomenon is exacerbated by Africa’s often porous borders and border control that are stretched due to the pandemic.
  • With people having to stay at home, early data suggests a rise in domestic violence and gender-based violence (GBV) more broadly — both of which are challenges to be addressed by the Silencing the guns Master Roadmap.
  • Some governments have adopted authoritarian attitudes towards the strict enforcement of measures and limitations that restrict human rights on the grounds that these actions are required to fight the pandemic. For example, several countries have witnessed rising incidents of police brutality and over-policing (i.e. overstepping usual policing tasks). Unfortunately, holding people and institutions accountable has become more difficult because courts are suspending their activities during this period (e.g. African Court of Human Rights, ECOWAS Court of Justice). This lack of access to oversight and justice has contributed to a sense of state impunity in some countries.
  • Youth across the continent has been hit hard by the pandemic, as already high rates of under-employment and unemployment have risen even more. Layoffs have affected sectors such as the informal economy, tourism, and sports which disproportionately employ young workers. The interruption of formal education and the difficulties to find adequate alternatives are also a concern. Furthermore, some of the necessary measures to combat Covid-19, such as lockdowns and social distancing, have unfortunately hampered many youth groups’ active community engagement efforts to silence the guns. Thus, the pandemic may negatively affect conflict dynamics and insecurities in Africa.

It will take many more months of monitoring and research to fully grasp the effect of Covid-19 on peace and security in Africa in general, and on small arms control issues in particular.

Thoughts on the future

Small arms control remains a major challenge to African peace and security and the pandemic seems to have made things worse. It is therefore important that governments, regional organizations, and their partners find ways to continue work to address the illicit circulation of small arms and their negative impacts on society. Furthermore, given the decrease in available resources for small arms control, which is likely to continue its downwards trajectory, efforts should be made to identify synergies between actions designed to fight the pandemic in the short- and medium-terms, and ongoing small arms control programmes designed to tackle the continuing challenges posed by illicit small arms circulation.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has also created some opportunities. For example, there is potential for increased collaboration between development and security sector actors given the overlap between activities in these spheres. The current crisis could provide an additional incentive for both sectors to work more closely together, building on nascent partnerships in some corners of Africa. This crisis could provide a much-needed impetus for developing better and more integrated approaches to development and security.

Finally, a concerted effort is needed, including from donors, to maintain and even increase the focus on the AU’s Silencing the guns initiative whilst also still dealing with the current health emergency. And in that regard, the need for effective arms control measures is as crucial as ever.

The speakers for this panel were:

  • Chair: Adrian Foster, Small Arms Survey
  • Mohamed Coulibaly, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)
  • Veronica Nzioki, Researcher and Analyst
  • Peter Otim, African Union Commission (AUC)
  • Hester Adriana Paneras, United Nations Office to the African Union (UNOAU)
  • John Reyels, German Federal Foreign Office (GFFO)
  • Rachel Scott, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

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