Helen Mirren: governments must agree to tough new controls that will actually save lives (op-ed)

“There are at least 640 million firearms in existence in the world today”
Dame Helen Mirren
Published: 27 June 2006

For twelve years I fought lawlessness as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the television series Prime Suspect. The crimes I solved on television were sometimes horrific, but I have since discovered that they can pale in comparison to the real-life horrors faced by millions of ordinary people when guns are easily available and can fall into the wrong hands.

Over the last five years, I have become deeply involved in the Control Arms Campaign, run by Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms. I have visited South Africa and northern Uganda, and met children who have been raped at gunpoint, seen their parents shot, or been forced to become child soldiers.

In a week's time, the UN world conference on the small arms and light weapons trade begins in New York. This meeting is a chance for world governments to stop the uncontrolled flow of weapons around the world. They must seize this opportunity.

Every year, guns and other small arms kill more people than the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. A survey released by the Control Arms Campaign today [19 June 2006] shows that almost one in three people across six countries have been affected by gun
crime in the last five years. In countries such as South Africa and Brazil, that figure rises to more than half. These polls, commissioned by the Campaign, were conducted in the UK, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala and India.

The devastating effect of armed violence on children was graphically illustrated to me when I visited northern Uganda with Oxfam. There, I went to camps for people who have been forced to flee their homes by a 20-year civil war. Over 25,000 children have been kidnapped at gunpoint in the region and forced to become child soldiers. I met children who had recentlyescaped from rebel captivity and many were too traumatized to speak about their experiences. One girl, Mary, who was 15, had been abducted in 2003, forced to march to Sudan with hundreds of other kidnapped children and held for nine months. When I asked her what had happened to her, she just stared at the ground.

These children are the victims of a dangerously unregulated global trade in arms. There are at least 640 million firearms in existence in the world today. Up to 14 billion bullets are manufactured globally every year, two for every man, woman and child on the planet. And every day, up to 1,000 people are killed by guns and other small arms on average. The vast majority of those people are innocent men, women and children.

The figures almost defy belief. Yet there is currently no global treaty to control governments' arms exports. This means irresponsible arms sales continue to fuel conflicts, undermine development and contribute to countless human rights abuses. 85 per cent of killings reported to Amnesty International involve the use of small arms.

The Control Arms Campaign is trying to stop weapons getting into the wrong hands, and being used to kill or harm innocent people. At the UN world conference on the small arms trade, it is calling on governments to agree global principles to govern the transfer of weapons between countries.

Today's opinion polls, commissioned by the Campaign, show a groundswell of popular support for tougher arms controls. The research showed that 87 percent of all respondents want strict international controls on where weapons can be exported to.

This UN meeting is the second world conference on the small arms and light weapons trade. I was at the first, held five years ago in 2001. In the intervening years, almost two million people have been killed by guns. The challenge this time is for governments to agree tough new controls that will actually save lives. Good intentions and empty rhetoric mean very little to people like Mary.

Dame Helen Mirren has just appeared in the HBO premiere of Elizabeth I. She is an ambassador for Oxfam on conflict and has traveled to Uganda and South Africa and represented Oxfam at the United Nations in New York. The Control Arms Campaign is a joint initiative by Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). It calls on governments to introduce a binding Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the transfer of weapons and ensure they do not end up in the hands of human rights abusers.