Divergent Currents: Addressing Armed Violence in the Caribbean and Pacific

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Divergent Currents: Addressing Armed Violence in the Caribbean and Pacific

The two regions’ diverging strategies have lessons for the world.

Divergent Currents: Addressing Armed Violence in the Caribbean and Pacific
Credit: Flickr/ MIKI Yoshihito

“The seas bring us together, they do not separate us.”
–Constitution of the Federated States of Micronesia

The Caribbean and the Pacific each offer a unique and contrasting perspective toward addressing armed violence. Despite sharing similar challenges as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), each region faces very different circumstances on the ground. In light of this, each region has taken a different approach toward addressing armed violence. The Pacific stands apart as a global leader in implementing disarmament initiatives on a regional level. In contrast, the Caribbean has demonstrated the potential of harnessing international frameworks to address regional concerns. Together, both regions provide insight for each other, other island nations, and the international community at large, in addressing armed violence.

When it comes to addressing armed violence and illicit weapons flows, both the Caribbean and the Pacific share a number of common capacity and geographical challenges. Both regions face capacity challenges as the result of having relatively small populations and limited resources. As the minister for foreign affairs and foreign trade of Barbados has noted, the vulnerability of SIDS and the threats to peace and security divert already limited resources away from national development.

Similarly, both regions share common geographical challenges as the result of having to patrol vast oceans and long maritime borders. While the Pacific does not face the same challenges from illicit trade as in the Caribbean, its large maritime environment is still susceptible to unmanaged transit and trans-shipment. Furthermore, capacity and geographical challenges are often interlinked because patrolling large maritime borders requires extensive resources.

Despite these commonalities, the Caribbean and the Pacific face very different circumstances on the ground. Some parts of the Pacific have been plagued by armed violence. Overall, however, firearm homicide rates remain significantly lower in the Pacific than in most other regions of the world. The Pacific has not seen a major conflict since the 1990s and arms trafficking and illicit drug routes generally bypass the region.

By contrast, as a result of its geographical location, the Caribbean has become a node of illicit weapons flows. The Caribbean forms a hub through which illicit drugs are trafficked from their production sites in South American countries. These trafficking routes are fought over by various crime syndicates who routinely seek guns to secure and facilitate the lucrative trade. This means that as narcotics are smuggled out via the Caribbean, illicit weapons are in turn smuggled back in. As a result, Caribbean states experience the world’s highest levels of non-conflict related armed violence. Seventy percent of murders in the region involve small arms.

In light of this, each region has generally taken a different approach to addressing armed violence. Following devastating armed conflict and armed violence, the Pacific successfully implemented a number of disarmament initiatives. In the 1990s, Australia led a successful disarmament program which more than halved the risk of dying by gunshot in Australia.

Beginning in the early 2000s, the Solomon Islands began a program to disarm and remove all illicit weapons from civilians, and to destroy weapons stockpiles. By 2004, 3,700 weapons and over 300,000 rounds of ammunition, comprising up to 95 percent of the total, had been recovered.

Similarly, island communities of the southwest Pacific have legislated to remain unarmed. Currently, Nauru, Palau, and the Solomon Islands all report no civilian arms ownership and prohibit the private possession of firearms. Additionally, 12 out of 16 Pacific Island Forum members protect their citizens with routinely unarmed police, and 10 have no military.

These developments reflect the emergence of a regional consensus toward disarmament. Significantly, the Pacific’s actual record of achieving successful and deliberate disarmament places it as a global leader in addressing armed violence.

In contrast to the Pacific, the Caribbean has been deeply engaged in promoting and negotiating international frameworks that address armed violence. At the recent first Conference of State Parties of the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) delivered two statements on behalf of the region. No statement, however, was delivered on behalf of the Pacific. Additionally, seven Caribbean states delivered their own individual statements, compared to only three Pacific states.

Notably, CARICOM members have managed to wield a significantly greater influence on the ATT than their numbers would suggest. Notwithstanding limited resources and power asymmetries, the Caribbean has successfully managed to optimize limited diplomatic instruments and resources, form alliances with other states and regions, and network effectively with civil society. For example, the Caribbean successfully lobbied for specific provisions in the ATT, such as the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the Treaty’s scope.

Behind the scenes, CARICOM states rallied together to support Trinidad and Tobago in their bid to host the Secretariat of the Arms Trade Treaty. Impressively, Trinidad and Tobago made it through to the second round of voting, only narrowly losing out in a close vote of 35 to 32.

In part, the different approaches of the Pacific and the Caribbean may be attributed to differing priorities. Illicit arms in the Pacific have often been diverted from internal sources such as state armories, whereas illicit arms in the Caribbean originate from external sources such as smuggling routes. This, therefore, may make the need for international cooperation appear far more urgent in the Caribbean.

However, despite its successful disarmament programs, the Pacific, too, could be at risk if it does not implement strong preventative measures to secure its record into the future. Many Pacific states only have limited legislative frameworks to manage public and private weapons supplies. Whereas states in other regions have bridged similar legislative gaps by means of ratification of the ATT, only four Pacific states have ratified the ATT so far, with a further four as signatories.

Should the remaining Pacific states not join the ATT, while other regions do, the Pacific risks creating a gap which could attract criminal activity.

The recent successful lobbying efforts of the Pacific at the COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris demonstrates that the Pacific, too, has a strong capacity for similar regional engagement. Tremendous opportunity therefore exists for the Pacific to follow the example of the Caribbean and engage as a regional force against armed violence.

Moreover, as was also demonstrated at COP21, the emergence of a single united bloc of small island nations including both the Caribbean and the Pacific is possible. This is particularly significant given that both regions have stressed common issues and challenges. Aside from lobbying, the two regions could also work together to tackle similar geographical and capacity challenges.

Ultimately, both the Pacific and the Caribbean offer unique insights for addressing armed violence. The Pacific remains a global leader in implementing disarmament initiatives and the Caribbean demonstrates the potential of concerted action at the international level. The new Sustainable Development Goal 16 acknowledges that establishing peaceful and secure societies is inherently connected with addressing the effects of illicit arms flows. While much work remains to be done, the experience of both the Pacific and the Caribbean demonstrates that, with effort, change in this direction is possible.

Shmuel Levin worked with the Pacific Small Arms Action Group in 2015 analyzing and identifying gaps in Asia-Pacific arms control legislation. Shmuel has previously worked on State and Federal policy matters, and is currently studying Law and International Relations at Monash University.