Small arms and the security debate in south asia
Ajay Darshan Behera ·       

Since the end of the Cold War, the uncontrolled spread of small arms has received considerable attention by states, advocacy groups and security analysts but there also does seem to be some degree of conceptual confusion amongst scholars. Small Arms and the Security Debate in South Asia is a useful addition to the growing literature on the subject and is perhaps the first study that tries to address the theoretical aspects of small arms in the security discourse.

Most scholars studying the small arms issue in the context of South Asia have not been able to place themselves in a theoretical tradition to inform the security discourse. The authors have rightly pointed out that this may have been due to the fact that large numbers of advocacy groups address the issue. But where scholars have lacked is in essentially placing the small arms issue in the larger debate on security. Most scholars and analyst addressing the small arms issue operate on an a priori presumption that "Small Arms are a Security Threat." And therefore, what is the security referent, who defines security and why is it a security threat, are questions most often neglected and rarely placed in a historical context of the debate on Third World security.

The discourse on security in South Asia has mainly been a realist state-centric perspective. The issue of violence in the state-making process has been one of the primary concerns of Third World security analysts. Within the realist perspective, considerable amount of theoretical effort went into justifying the inevitability of this violence (as opposed to justifying the causes of this violence). The argument was that the nation-building process in the West was very violent and occurred over a period of time. Similarly, the Third World would also endure similar levels of violence, probably more due to the shortened time frame for nation state building and the enhanced sophistication in the "technologies of killing."

South Asia's post-colonial independence is replete with experiences of nationalist, ideological and religious inspired violence. Since the 1990s, the intensity of the violent conflicts has been on the increase. This has coincided with the easy and growing access to small arms in the region. The growing availability of small arms in low-intensity conflicts has played an increasingly important role in destabilising states and endangering civil society in large parts of the developing world. The portable nature of these weapons and their tremendous firepower has contributed to the intensity and duration of ethnic and other intra-State conflicts. However, this does not imply that the increased availability of small arms causes these intra-State conflicts in the developing world. The causes lie in complex social and historical distortions, mismanagement, the failure of State-building processes and discriminating distribution of developmental gains, or in some cases, the acute absence of such benefits. Evidence, however, suggests that an abundance of arms in society tends to increase the propensity to violence and accelerate conflict so that political dissent can take a violent turn. Afghanistan is a classic prototype of a case where the increased availability of light weapons prolonged the conflict and made it resistant to resolution.

Scholars like Mohammed Ayoob have argued that the end of the Cold War has not diminished the security predicament of Third World states. The eruption of violent ethno-national movements and the pervasiveness of violence have resulted in an erosion of the sovereignty of the states due to the loss of control over the traditional monopoly over violence. The idea of security has been inextricably intertwined with the struggle to control the institutions and instruments of organised violence, which in turn has been central to the emergence of the modern state. The Third World states have not solved their problems of state legitimacy, political order and capital accumulation. Erosion in the legitimacy of the state results from its failure to provide security to its citizens who may no longer perceive the central government as a manager of conflicts. And as evidence suggests, since the end of the Cold War the growing availability of small arms have been playing an increasingly important role in destabilising States. They have overwhelmingly contributed to the intensity and duration of intra-state conflicts leading to the virtual disintegration of States like Yugoslavia and state collapse as in Somalia and Afghanistan. The creation of private security systems within some states in the form of heavily armed sectarian militias has also undermined the legitimacy of some states.

The nature of the armed conflicts and the violence therein has influenced the security debate. The armed conflicts have generated their hidden economies and created vested interests that have sustained the conflicts and led to increased levels of violence. Quite often innocent individuals have become the victims of counter-state and state violence. There is clearly a disregard for the security of individuals increasingly under the threat of violence and terrorism. The state has been failing in its security-providing role to secure its citizens from the threat of violence and terorism.

Before terrorism took centre-stage in the discourse on security, the problem with the Third World security perspective was that while violence effects people directly, the focus was in fact on the implications of such violence to the state structures or regimes in power. This concern emanated from a very narrow focus on nation-building and state-formation in the early stages of decolonisation. In reality, however, violence in whatever forms it manifests and whomsoever it is directed against, undoubtedly affects the safety and security of people. In the post-Cold War context the debate on the nature and meaning of security is being enlarged to broaden the concept and meaning of security as well as to deepen the agenda of security. The traditional concept of security based on the realist school gave emphasis to the primacy of the state, its sovereignty and its capacity to deter external threats. In a complex and interdependent world and with the transmutations in the nature of conflicts since the end of the Cold War, the state-centric military security framework is being challenged by new conceptions. The current debate on human security seeks to make the individual the primary security referent.

Proponents of human security argue that human security has been undermined directly as a result of ordinary citizens being victims of terrorism, at times uprooting their lives and livelihoods, and indirectly as a result of the impact of violence on state, society and economy. One of the important fundamental values of human security is the freedom from fear - a freedom from the threats to their safety or their lives. The human security conceptions have relevance in making the lives of people more secure - in their struggle for survival and their safety and physical security. The UNDP clearly had a developmental focus largely ignoring the continuing human insecurity resulting from violent conflict. But there is a need, as the Canadian formulation envisages, to centre human security on the human costs of violent conflict. Where violence or the threat of violence makes meaningful progress on the developmental agenda impractical, enhancing safety for people is a prerequisite. Promoting human development has to be an important strategy for furthering human security. Therefore, human security would entail taking preventive measures to reduce vulnerability and minimise risks for human beings and taking remedial action where prevention fails. It would also mean to take such steps that would create an environment, which does not motivate people to violence.

The human security conception in the Canadian approach builds a discourse that delegitimises violence. With the growth and spread of terrorism, violence in the context of Third World states can no longer be justified on the basis of the violent creation of nation-states in Europe five hundred years back. There is a need to move to a new framework of security. While not necessarily shifting the focus from the threats that states pose each other, it should also focus on the threats that organised violence poses to not only states and regimes but also to citizens and society. The human security perspective, though unacceptable to the neo-realists, has posed a dilemma to the Third World perspective and unrecognised in this is the role that the small arms issue has played. The debate has interesting prospects.

The study of the small arms issue in the context of south Asia has mainly been strong in its empirical aspects. This volume also commendably highlights the problem of the uncontrolled spread of small arms in the region and the regional and international initiatives to control them. It also initiates the theoretical debate but falls short in carrying it forward. Hopefully, this volume would spark the security debate by focussing on people's insecurity arising from armed conflict and violence, how to enhance security by reducing people's vulnerability. The objectives of security should be to ameliorate the risks of violence and therefore it is important to understand how violence and terrorism impact on people's insecurity and the role played by small arms therein. Its time for theory to lead the way in the increased focus on small arms as a security issue.