BEIRUT: Barely a day goes by without news of a “personal dispute” in Lebanon either leading to injuries or death, and the vast majority of such incidents involve small arms. In a country of only 4 million people, there are thought to be between 2 million and 4 million small arms and light weapons (SALW), according to the Permanent Peace Movement (PPM), although exact numbers are impossible to come by, which goes some way toward explaining the gray nature of regulation of the commodity.
At the launch of a regional two-day conference on the dangers of small arms Friday, civil society activists and experts called for a reform of current laws and an amnesty allowing people to give up their weapons without fear of investigation.
Participants discussed the issue of arms trafficking in the context of the Arab uprisings, which the Arab League’s Fadi Achaia labeled “one of the most serious problems the region is currently facing.”
At the same time, serious efforts to “fight the illicit trafficking or weapons are dwindling,” he added.
Experts warned that even after domestic uprisings may have technically ended, stockpiles of weapons remain and can threaten nearby countries.
Abed Emenam al-Hurr, a weapons expert from Libya, referred to the country under former leader Moammar Gadhafi as “warehouse for Russian weapons,” in which over 8 million pieces of SALW exist today, although many have already been transferred to other countries in the region, such as Mali.
SALW are defined by international law as all arms which can be used by one person alone, and include handguns, shotguns, machine guns, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, among other weapons
In Lebanon many thousands of weapons remain from the Civil War and the private possession of handguns is permitted with a license, one so flexible that Fadi Abi Allam, president of the PPM, told The Daily Star “it’s so easy and open that anyone can get it.”
For all other SALW licenses are very difficult to obtain except in very special cases, should the defense minister sign off on it, Abi Allam said.
The PPM estimates that 500,000 unlicensed weapons are in circulation in the country.
As sporadic outbursts of street fighting in the city of Tripoli have shown over the last year, access to SALW appears all too easy, and whereas in countries such as Iraq, where mental health checks are undertaken on those applying for licenses, no such system exists in Lebanon.
Abi Allam, who presides over PPM and organized the conference, slammed the weakness of existing laws in Lebanon, and their implementation, for the continued proliferation of SALW.
The law encourages disarmament, he said, and called for the introduction of an amnesty – lasting up to one month – which would allow people to hand in weapons they no longer wanted, perhaps if they had belonged to a now deceased family member, and which would help reduce the total number of arms in the country.
“It would not oblige people to give up their weapons, but those who did would face no risks,” he said.
He also called for the need for international law governing the possession and trade of SALW, highlighting that while three separate international conventions govern Weapons of Mass Destruction, no such legal framework exists for traditional weapons.
There are thought to be 800 million small and light weapons in the hands of civilians around the globe.
Because of its location, Lebanon is a “hub for trafficking,” he added, saying there were networks connecting Afghanistan with Lebanon that allow this trade to flourish. He added that this has been particularly evident since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria in March 2011.
In response to a question on the flow of arms to and from Syria, Col. Tawfic Slim, chief of arms and ammunition at Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, replied that “No one can fully say that they’re able to stop the trafficking of arms and weapons,” and urged all security forces in the country to work together to combat the problem.
Stressing that gun laws should not infringe on the right of resistance or the right to self defense, Slim also echoed comments made by Abi Allam that a change in mentality was needed.
He also highlighted the link between poverty and violence, and the manipulative tendencies of those who claim to speak on behalf of their communities.
“These are not religious leaders, they are community leaders who have raised us in such a way that we fear each other.”