Amnesty month: A call to surrender illegal guns
By Zipporah Musau
| September 7th 2020
September is the African Union-designated month when civilians in possession of illegally-owned weapons are urged to hand them in to authorities without facing arrest or prosecution.
Ivor Richard Fung, Deputy Chief of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), Conventional Arms Branch, spoke with Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau on the significance of Amnesty Month and the activities planned.
Here are excerpts:
The Africa Amnesty Month is a complementary initiative of the African Union’s (AU’s) ‘Silencing the Guns’ flagship programme to end conflict in Africa by 2020 and aims to involve citizens in helping governments to reduce the illicit flow of weapons on the continent.
In 2017, through Decision 645 (XXIX) the AU Assembly declared the month of September of each year until 2020 the “Africa Amnesty Month” for the surrender and collection of illicit small arms and light weapons in line with African and international best practices, in a coherent and sustainable manner.
Most current small arms control activities focus on military and police-owned weapons. But worldwide, some 85 per cent of small arms and light weapons (SALW) are in civilian hands. In Africa, citizens own more than 40 million small arms, and only a few civilian owners are licensed.
“Amnesty Month” is seen as a contribution to the AU Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns by 2020, also known as the “Lusaka Roadmap”, which is an AU Commission priority initiative to “fast track” achievement of the AU’s commitment.
Why is it celebrated in September?
September is symbolic because each year the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21 September. The UN General Assembly declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, through observing 24 hours of non-violence and cease-fire.
What kind of weapons are you targeting to collect?
We are targeting to collect small arms and light weapons; especially the small arms class of weapons. These include handguns (revolvers, pistols, derringers and machine pistols), muskets/rifled muskets, shotguns, rifles (assault rifles, battle rifles, carbines, designated marksman rifles, short-barreled rifles, sniper rifles, etc.) and their ammunition. It should also be noted that some of these weapons have been imitated in many African countries where weapon craft production has substantially evolved technologically.
What is the role of the UN in this programme?
The role the UN is playing with regard to the September Amnesty Month, specifically for the 2020 edition, is to launch a project in seven African countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya.
What was the criteria used in picking the seven countries?
First, the AU Commission has sponsored past editions of the September Amnesty Month and maintains contact with countries interested the programme.
Another criterion was the active participation of these countries in the UN’s Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, as well as in implementation of regional instruments relating to the control of illicit flows of weapons; the control of small arms and light weapons.
Of course, we would have loved to have many more participating countries, but the funding at our disposal could only accommodate the number we have now.
What activities have you lined up for the September Amnesty Month in the seven countries?
We will implement four activities, in line with national laws and regulations and with commitments by States to international, regional and sub-regional agreements on small arms.
In close partnership, UNODA together with the AU, the implementing partners that include the Regional Centre on Small Arms (RECSA), and representatives of the national commissions and national focal points on Small Arms Control (as nationally designated focal points for the project) developed national country-level action and communication plans for the project.
The first is a huge campaign to mobilize and sensitize people on the dangers of illicit trafficking in small arms, and to involve them, especially those who are bearing weapons illegally, to come forward to surrender them.
Governments of these participating countries, just like governments of other countries backing this AU decision, have pledged to not prosecute during the month of September, anyone with weapons illegally who has opted to come forward and surrender them. That is why it is called the ‘Amnesty Month’.
The second activity is the collection of illicit weapons, while the third is the destruction of all the weapons that will be collected.
The fourth activity is community policing training workshops. This is because of the realization that when you decide to carry a weapon it’s usually for security. Since the programme doesn't have material compensation for those who would be surrendering these weapons, the project partners - the AU Commission and the donors - decided that something must be given back to the communities. The means that community policing or security would be increased, and people would also have a role to play.
Are there activities targeting the youth and what role would they play?
Yes, in the context of the first activity domain, which is broad mobilization, sensitization, and media events of all types including musical concerts. There will also be a youth contest to develop national slogans for the programme, and they are also encouraged to write stories about these events.
The youth constitute the majority of Africa’s population, and have a major role to play in implementing this initiative. They will be involved in all the activities including aspects related to, for instance, the destruction of weapons.
Young people should also be involved in the search for solutions. We really want to involve them, especially in the dimension of arms control and disarmament and help create a culture of responsible gun-control and peace.
Enlisting their support in the destruction activities would contribute to the process of demystifying the bargaining power of the gun in the emerging African society. It is a strong cultural message.
How can people interested in participating be involved?
It is very easy. Through the media sensitization, with the slogans which we will be broadcasting, people will get to know the activities taking place in their communities. Even where there will be no physical project activities, the radio, television, written press and social media broadcasts will enable everyone to listen and to take action on illegal gun ownership within their neighbourhood or community.
Activities could be radio programmes, discussion roundtables, concerts, etc. to really motivate people, especially the civil society, grassroots communities, faith-based groups, the churches, the traditional leaders. We are also thinking of working with the traditional chiefs to see how they can mobilize people in local languages. Everyone to play a role in this programme.
We invite all these communities to own these events in accordance with their community/national realities.
What role can women play in this exercise?
Well, women have a big role to play. We are looking at women’s groups in the participating countries to be involved in the legislative and policy work that each country has to undertake.
The second area is women's participation in the institutional and operational activities relating to small arms and light weapons such as weapons collection. Women can be involved through membership in the national coordinating body, like national focal point or national commission, depending on the country. Women have to play formal roles in these institutions.
There are also informal roles that women can play. They can agitate in the rural areas, in the cities, roundtable discussions, even in their local languages to pass the message, and also how they see the issue as women, from their personal experiences.
Men are, by far, the largest casualty when the trigger of the gun is pulled. But woman, especially in our African society, suffer the impact much longer and more severely. It would be good that they come forward to tell their stories. This is also the moment for them to showcase what they do in their various communities.
Africa Amnesty month has been held since 2017. Are there any successes so far?
Yes, there have been successes. For example, in 2017 the programme was held in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Madagascar, Sudan and Zambia. The message has spread far and wide in these countries to mobilize people around the issue of small arms.
Second, weapons have been collected in these countries. People came forward to surrender their weapons, and these weapons were destroyed.
Governments have also moved ahead with improving legislation. However, it's not enough to have good legislation, you have to implement it. And so, it is the implementation phase, and especially the role that law enforcement officers can play, that is very important, and where we are also placing emphasis.
More positive things have been happening on the continent.
For instance, South Africa has since December 2019 launched a six-month amnesty on small arms and light weapons and collected more than 46,000 weapons. This is really an inspiration from the Amnesty Month.
These are the positive things we need to be showcasing and creating the momentum around. They can be replicated by many other countries, including those that have just emerged from conflict, those experiencing conflict, and even those that know relative peace. Because even when and where there is relative peace, we still have crime, we still have transnational organized criminal activities.
What challenges are encountered in collecting these illegal weapons?
First, there is always reluctance on the part of those carrying the weapons to come forward. And that is why we are emphasizing the strength of the messages that need to go out on this amnesty.
We want to send a message that it’s not a matter of blaming or accusing you for carrying a weapon illegally. That is why it's called an amnesty programme: no blaming, no prosecution, no charges, no penalties. Just an opportunity for greater security.
This amnesty programme is really an opportunity for people to come forward, to increase the number of registered weapons. So, if you cannot register it, just surrender it - this is the message.
We had also included the possibility of a ‘grace period’ within which those who have weapons illegally and cannot for one reason or another, legalize the situation, they should simply go to the authorities even after the project period and hand over the guns.
The other challenge is that, even when we encourage citizens to surrender the weapons, usually the best thing is that these weapons are destroyed. But some governments prefer to undertake what we call selective destruction: disposal of the unserviceable weapons and preserving those weapons that are in good shape for the national arsenals.
Nevertheless, we are encouraged by the fact that many countries are increasingly embarking on destruction. You will remember the Karamojong programme in Uganda, which is one of the most cited programmes. There was one in Congo Brazzaville, another one in Mali, Niger and others in the 1990s and 2000s.
Probably the most daunting challenge is the fact that these weapons mostly come from outside the continent, and sometimes they are recycled from one conflict area to another.
What would be your final message?
My message is to the African governments, the youth and the women:
To the governments: They have embarked on a very noble ‘silencing the guns’ programme. Noble because it is an expression of political will to end conflict on the continent. It’s a daunting challenge, but worth the fight, and an inspirational goal: A conflict-free Africa.
This also requires putting in place programmes that focus on the root causes of these conflicts.
Sound governance programmes are the way to minimize conflicts to a very large extent. And this would undermine the use of weapons. This would be the best way to silence the guns in Africa.
My message to the youth of Africa: They have a major part to play in this programme. It is theirs, as they are very often at the vanguard of these fights for their own survival, for their life, for their future, etc. In doing so, sometimes they take the wrong path, the path of conflict. Guns do not solve the problem, there are better alternatives for claiming what is yours. Dialogue, hard work and patience are the solution.
My message to the women I would like to say that we respect the noble and humane role you have been playing when times are tough, and when your loved ones are wounded or killed by guns. This project is an opportunity for you to also play a role to bring an end to the scourge of uncontrolled gun-ownership. Reach out and let your voice be heard.
We, as the UN, are only there to assist the governments to do what is right. And this programme is theirs, they have developed it according to their national realities and capacities. We are just providing the requisite technical support.
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