(Text of Editorial appearing in the “Daily FT’ 22 June 2023 under the heading “Take gun violence seriously”)
For a country like Sri Lanka where private ownership of guns is highly restricted, the number of shooting incidents, most resulting in fatalities, is a danger sign that can no longer be ignored.
In the first five months of this year, over 43 persons were gunned down, according to the Police and this number is certainly on the increase given almost daily reports of gun-related violence.
Police often explain away these incidents saying they are drug-related or contract killings given by those seeking to settle personal scores but whatever the circumstances, gun violence cannot be taken lightly.
For a country with two failed insurrections in the south and a prolonged separatist war in the North that ended in 2009, the proliferation of weapons is not a surprise. Both in the north and south, a large number of weapons belonging to the Police and armed forces were seized by the JVP as well as the LTTE while the number of military personnel deserting with their weapons has also been high. Added to that, smuggling of weapons into the country was all too common during the war years and since then, the drug trade has increased the demand for illegal weapons.
The response by the Sri Lanka Police to this problem has been to announce firearms amnesties periodically to encourage those in possession of illegally acquired weapons to hand them in. The last such amnesty in 2020 ended with the surrender of around 200 weapons including shotguns, other double-barrelled guns, rifles, revolvers and pistols.
The Special Task Force (STF) of the Police has been in the forefront of countering organised crime, narcotics and illegal weapons, and has seized a large number of weapons since 2020 including automatic weapons but more needs to be done.
There is no recent survey to show the level of illicit weapons proliferation in the country.
The only attempt to gauge the extent of the proliferation of illegal firearms was in 2006 when the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arm which functioned under the Ministry of Defence undertook a survey. The survey was done by Safer World UK, and it found around 300,000 illegal firearms but there has been no recent survey to find out the current extent of the problem.
The National Commission was established in 2004 to monitor the proliferation of illicit small arms in Sri Lanka and related matters and undertook the survey as part of its mandate to make a comprehensive assessment of the problem in the country, and to establish a national database on the civilian use of small arms and light weapons. The Commission was established under an agreement signed between the Government and the United Nations Department of Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. However, the Commission is now defunct and hence there is no authorised body to assist the law enforcement authorities to understand the extent of the problem it is dealing with.
Firearms and ammunition pose a high level of risk to public safety and security. In several instances, bystanders have become victims of gun violence, and these include women and children.
The Government must take steps to re-establish the National Commission Against the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms with proper representatives including those from civil society to assist the authorities in the efforts to combat violence related to illegal firearms.
The Police must take immediate steps in announcing a fresh amnesty to hand in illicit weapons and up the ante using better intelligence and better trained personnel to seize illegal weapons. The Police need to pursue the search for illicit weapons and those who trade in them with the same vigour with which its personnel have, in recent months carried out ‘sting’ operations to raid brothels and spas and hunt down those involved in the ‘Aragalaya.’
Courtesy: Daily FT