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7 August 2000

Efforts to overcome armed violence and control small arms
possession and sales gather momentum

by Miriam Reidy-Prost

By a tragic coincidence, a regional ecumenical consultation on "Tackling armed violence in Latin American societies" opened in Rio de Janeiro exactly when public attention in Brazil was focused on violence and small arms. The 25-28 July ecumenical consultation was organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) with a local NGO, Viva Rio.

On 12 June, an otherwise run-of-the-mill bus robbery was broadcast live on national TV - a media first in Brazil.

The four-hour drama, in which the police mistakenly shot one of the women hostages and then strangled the robber in cold blood on the way to hospital, raised a storm of debate and protest across the country. There were many who argued that such incompetence and brutality could be avoided through better training and control of the police.

Just eight days later, the Ministry of Justice sent a bill banning the commerce and possession of firearms to Brazil's Senate for approval. By another coincidence, a nation-wide campaign against violence and for a ban on small arms was launched on 7 July by Viva Rio. The campaign slogan is "Enough! I want peace!" (Basta! Eu Quero Paz).

Last year Viva Rio collected 1,350,000 signatures from Rio citizens in favour of a ban on the use and sale of small arms. The WCC supported the campaign and called on its member churches and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to do likewise. Through its peace-building efforts among local communities and its work on microdisarmament, Viva Rio became a founding partner of the WCC's "Peace to the City" network; it also works closely with the Council in the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010).

A national campaign
At 7 p.m. on the seventh day of the seventh month of 2000, millions of people across Brazil watched popular actress Fernanda Montenegro on their favourite TV channel asking them to turn off their lights, place lighted candles in their windows, and go to work wearing white clothes to signal their desire to stop violence and crime and ban the use and sale of small arms. Many did as was asked... and a national campaign was born!

On the same day, Viva Rio handed out manifestos against armed violence and for the ban on small arms in 14 state capitals, including cities known for their extreme violence - like Recife, Brazilia, Salvador, Vitoria, São Paulo and Rio.

Those who signed the manifesto staged street demonstrations and committed themselves to explain the campaign objectives - "social investment" for youth in the poorest and most violent city districts, approval of the draft law, police reform, and the democratization of the legal system - to friends and neighbours, and to demand government action. (The bill faces tough opposition from the powerful Brazilian arms industry - the third-biggest small arms exporter in the world.)

Viva Rio built a 150-square-metre mural, divided into a "Mural of pain" on which hundreds of relatives and friends stuck photos and texts about violence victims, including police officers, and a "Mural of hope" where others, including children and graffiti artists, put their ideas on overcoming urban violence. The mural is expected to grow as it tours the country. It will arrive in the capital, Brazilia, and be mounted in the National Congress building on Independence Day (7 September).

As part of the campaign, Viva Rio is proposing an international boycott on arms and munitions exports to Paraguay. It claims that Paraguay re-exports the weapons back to organized crime in Brazil. It is also pressing for a meeting between US and Brazilian lawyers to examine the best way to proceed against US arms manufacturer Taurus & Rossie for the harm done by their products to Rio's population at large.

Regional and international approaches
Attending the WCC-CLAI consultation at Rio's Golden Park hotel were some 35 experts and religious leaders committed to stopping urban violence and controlling the proliferation of small arms.

Among them was the author of the bill currently under examination in Brazil's Senate, Senator José Roberto Arruda. UNESCO representative in Brazil Jorge Werthein, and New York lawyers Elisa Barnes and Juli Dugan, who are successfully suing the US arms industry for damages caused to US citizens, participated as well.

The aims of the consultation were: to develop a regional action plan to tackle armed violence and the unlawful use of small arms, to create a regional ecumenical network (related to both the Ecumenical Network on Small Arms [ENSA] and IANSA), and to prepare churches' participation at the United Nations Conference on "Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects" in 2001.

Salpy Eskidjian, who coordinated the consultation and is responsible for Peacebuilding and Disarmament in the WCC International Relations Team, and CLAI Peace Office coordinator Rafael Goto opened the consultation with information on their respective organization's activities in this area.

Viva Rio director Rubem Cesar Fernandes, a member of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), evoked a Latin American "culture of violence" and the causes and consequences of the proliferation of small arms. Participants from a dozen Central and South American countries described how proliferation affects their local communities, and the role played by civil society and the churches.

An arms survey field researcher from Argentina explained the workings of the flourishing legal and illegal small arms markets in the region, and a development expert from Guatemala outlined some of the legal and other measures and mechanisms available for tackling the small arms problem in Latin America.

The consultation emphasized the links between the demand for and misuse of guns and desperate social and economic conditions. It is in local communities - on the streets of urban slums - where guns are all too often viewed as a personal solution to endemic and systemic social and economic disintegration, it said.

But it stressed that "the pursuit of gun control cannot wait until entrenched social and economic problems are successfully dealt with. Gun control must be pursued immediately and urgently..."

WCC research assistant Denise Garcia traced the emergence of the small arms issue on the international agenda; the director of "Project Ploughshares" at the Canadian Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Ernie Regehr, who is also a CCIA commissioner, reported on how an international norm for small arms control is evolving and on prospects for the 2001 UN Conference.

The consultation welcomed attempts to forge international norms and standards for restricting weapons transfers, possession and use, including an "Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other Related Materials" adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1997, and a draft UN "Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition" supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Ending on 28 July, the consultation issued an urgent appeal to churches in the region to address the problem of armed violence in general, and the diffusion and misuse of small arms in particular. Churches not only have a special responsibility to bring moral and ethical perspectives to bear on the topic; they know people's needs and are well placed to raise awareness, it said.

Acutely aware that the momentum to overcome armed violence and control small arms possession and sales is building in Brazil itself and around the world, "It's time for the churches to say No to guns!", the consultation concluded.

Miriam Reidy-Prost is a member of the WCC's Public Information Team.

Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)

At the Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, Zimbabwe, delegates representing more than 300 WCC member churches brought the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) into being. The Assembly declared that on issues of non-violence and reconciliation, the WCC should "work strategically with the churches... to create a culture of non-violence".

The Decade, which will be launched world-wide in February 2001, will build on already existing initiatives around the world, and will offer a forum for sharing experiences and establishing relationships so as to learn from one another.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.