19 March 2003

Unless Adequately Addressed, Proliferation of Small Arms, Mercenaries Will Continue to Pose Severe Threat to West Africa, Secretary-General Says

NEW YORK, 18 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks, as delivered, by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to today's Security Council meeting on "Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Phenomenon of Mercenaries: Threats to Peace and Security in West Africa" in New York:

I would like to thank the Security Council for focusing its attention -- even at this critical moment when all our minds are on Iraq -- on a subject which is of great importance to the welfare and well-being of millions of people in another region of the world, namely West Africa.

The uncontrolled proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the use of mercenaries sustains conflict, exacerbates violence, fuels crime and terrorism, promotes cultures of violence, violates international humanitarian law and impedes political, economic and social development.

The easy availability of small arms and light weapons is strongly linked with the dramatic rise in the victimization of women and children and with the phenomenon of child soldiers. Light automatic weapons can be carried and fired by children as young as nine or 10. This link is particularly evident in West Africa, where the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now in Côte d'Ivoire, have been fuelled in no small part by unregulated trade in small arms -- often paid for with the proceeds from the illicit exploitation of natural resources.

The flood of arms in the region has been accompanied by -- and, indeed, has facilitated -- a rise in activities of mercenaries.

Armed men from within the subregion and beyond, have moved across borders -- a large force of fighters, unemployed but armed and willing to fight for whoever will pay them most. This supply side of the mercenary problem is closely linked, in turn, to the failure of adequately funded and implemented disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes, and the failure to provide enough assistance to countries such as Liberia and Guinea-Bissau in restructuring their armed forces as part of post-conflict peace-building arrangements.

The result in Liberia, for example, is that tens of thousands of former combatants face little or no prospect of gainful employment, leaving them more susceptible to recruitment as combatants once again.

The actions of unscrupulous and predatory arms merchants also bear special mention. Their lack of restraint in the sale and transfer of their products to zones of tension in West Africa and beyond translates directly into more unnecessary suffering and instability.

The problem is easy to diagnose. The more complex challenge is to mount an effective response. Fortunately, the international community and the countries concerned are not without tools with which to fight back.

Legal instruments and other international agreements offer one such avenue.

The programme of action on small arms adopted by the international community in 2001 offers a blueprint for action at all levels, including such steps as increased cooperation with Interpol and the World Customs Organization.

The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries came into force in October 2001; I urge all West African countries to join Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and Togo in ratifying this vital instrument.

This Council has demanded that countries in the Mano River Union cease military support for armed groups in neighbouring countries and refrain from any actions that might contribute to destabilization of the situation on their borders. The Council has also imposed arms embargoes, another essential step.

The Economic Community of West African States' Heads of State, for their part, have agreed to work more intensively towards making the region a child-soldier-free zone, and have put in place a moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of small arms in the region. To support the moratorium, the United Nations Development Programme has been helping the countries involved to strengthen controls at border posts, establish arms registers, build up the capacity of national monitoring commissions, and carry out collections and destructions of illicit arms.

This is just one example of the many steps that are being taken by the United Nations system at the operational level, on the ground. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, and the United Nations peace-building office in Liberia, are helping those countries address not only questions of small arms but the full range of post-conflict reconstruction and development tasks. The United Nations is also leading peace-building efforts in Guinea-Bissau. And of course, the economic and social development efforts being carried out by the entire United Nations system -- to improve education and health, to create jobs, to promote good governance and respect for human rights -- will necessarily have a supportive impact on efforts to de-militarize the societies involved.

Unless adequately addressed, the proliferation of small arms and mercenaries will continue to pose a severe threat to the region's hopes of attaining durable peace and security. Spillover effects from one country to the next have been all too common, under-scoring the need for regional cooperation and a comprehensive approach. The Council's own panels of experts on Sierra Leone and Liberia have reported as much, and offered a range of valuable recommendations.

I urge all of you to do your utmost to help the countries of the region to build up the capacity to address this issue. I urge the countries involved, and in particular the leaders, to focus more intently on this very real and very present threat to peace.

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