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The world is awash with small arms. At least 640 million weapons are in circulation, and more than half a million people are killed each year as a result of their use. Millions more are disabled, or die from untreated injuries and secondary illness. Yet the human costs of small arms are so systemic and pervasive that they largely go unseen. Research and policy focus almost exclusively on technical issues to do with production and stockpile management, transparency and oversight of the small arms trade, and legal or normative regimes designed to reduce the flow of arms. Where the question of small arms has arisen in UN fora, the focus has been on supply-side measures designed to harmonize and tighten export criteria, the development of marking and tracing mechanisms, and the reining in of illegal brokering.

Small arms have not yet emerged as an issue of specifically humanitarian concern - much less one for the research community working on forced displacement and resettlement. With few exceptions, humanitarian language is absent from most international and national codes or conventions tied to regulating their trade. Even as a growing number of advocates from the public health and human rights sectors are raising the profile of the issue, relief and development actors have been slower to react, and a comprehensive humanitarian response to small arms availability and use has yet to emerge fully.

Humanitarian agencies have been slow to react because the evidence is limited, and so awareness of the issue has not taken root. At field level, humanitarian actors often subsume small arms under a larger basket of 'security' concerns, without ever defining appropriate measures to reduce risk and vulnerability. Personnel at headquarters often fail to recognize the value of collating and analysing direct evidence, and are understandably preoccupied with the demands of rapidly responding to complex emergencies.

Central to the humanitarian perspective is the recognition that intentional violence perpetrated with small arms has both short- and long-term consequences for human safety and well-being. Some of these impacts can be measured empirically, such as in epidemiological studies of fatal and non-fatal injuries and disability during, or in the aftermath of, armed conflict. As this research guide will show, patterns of forced displacement and the militarization of refugee camps as well as the withdrawal of humanitarian assistance in areas affected by armed violence are all readily quantifiable. Other effects are less easily recorded, such as the long-term economic and psychosocial burden of disability, or the behavioural responses of relief workers exposed to small arms use.

Ultimately, small arms availability and misuse profoundly affect civilians - including refugees and those that are internally displaced - in a number of ways. There are three key periods at which displaced people are most vulnerable when faced with small arms availability:

immediately prior to and during the displacement event ('as catalyst' - often a massacre, a rapid escalation in armed violence, etc.);

during the period of protracted or repeated displacement ('fatal and non-fatal injuries', 'forced recruitment', 'harrassment', 'declining access to entitlements and basic needs', etc.);

and at the place of resettlement or return ('increased criminality', 'reduced indicators of wellbeing', 'reduced mobility', etc.).

The basic rights and entitlements of displaced people are threatened at each stage by, among other things, the insecurity generated out of the barrel of a gun.

This research guide charts the international dimensions of small arms production, stockpiles and trade for researchers interested in better understanding the magnitude and dimensions of the issue. It then describes how the humanitarian and development community, including those partially responsible for ensuring the protection and assistance of forcibly displaced people, has started to respond to the issue. Three approaches have emerged - perspectives that simultaneously address the supply of small arms to states that violate human rights and international humanitarian law; the issue of demand and the need for better enforcement of international humanitarian law among armed actors; and the operational security risks at the field level. The guide concludes with a discussion of the human costs of small arms - and the relationships between small arms availability and forced displacement, refugee camp militarization.

Last updated Aug 17, 2011