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Gun Violence Prevention

The human cost of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons is increasingly evident. In the 1990s, there was significant diplomatic activity to strengthen international laws that curbed the transfer of small arms, culminating in the July 2001 UN Conference on the "Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons." Despite those political and diplomatic activities, little attention had been given to the human rights implications of arms proliferation.

Research Questions

From 2002–2006, Barbara A. Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program, served as UN Special Rapporteur on the Prevention of Human Rights Violations Committed with Small Arms and Light Weapons, under the auspices of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. During her term, Frey conducted research addressing the following questions:

  • How are human rights affected by the availability and misuse of weapons?
  • Does increased availability of weapons constitute a proximate cause of violations of human rights and humanitarian law?
  • Do international human rights obligations impose state responsibility regarding the transfer and use of small arms and light weapons?
  • What further national and international standards are needed to address human rights violations that result from the use of small arms and light weapons?

Findings from States' Responses

Frey’s study analyzed the responses of the member states of the UN to a questionnaire that asked about their policies and laws regarding the availability and use of small arms and light weapons. The questionnaire elaborated by the Special Rapporteur was distributed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to a wide array of Governments, National Human Rights Institutions, and non-governmental contacts in February 2005 with requests for responses by the end of April 2005. Responses to the questionnaire were received from 35 governments.

Based on an analysis of the states’ responses, Frey’s study began with certain assumptions:

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) are used in many human rights violations in addition to killings. They are used to inflict injury, to torture, to coerce, to enforce displacement, and to commit violations such as rape. Vulnerable groups (refugees, children, etc.) are even more vulnerable when they are at the other end of a gun.

Many human rights violations are made worse, or can only be carried out with the additional coercion that a weapon provides.

Guns are more easily accessible now than at any time in history, and anyone anywhere who really wants one can get one, even individuals who clearly should not have one (children, the mentally ill, and others).

The report also addressed a state's obligations regarding civilian possession of guns. Frey found that most states—with the pronounced exception of the United States—have strict laws defining who can possess guns and for what purposes. While Frey recognized that the principle of self-defense has an important place in international human rights law, she concluded that it does not provide an independent supervening right to small arms possession. Nor does self-defense diminish the duty of states to regulate civilian possession. "We concluded that States have a minimum obligation to have common-sense regulation of the private possession of guns," Frey noted. "That obligation is imposed by States' commitments under international human rights law, and self-defense does not provide a countervailing right or a requirement that states allow people to have easy access to guns."

Principles on the Prevention of Human Rights Violations Committed with Small Arms

In August 2006, the Sub-Commission endorsed Frey’s final report including a set of "Principles on the Prevention of Human Rights Violations Committed with Small Arms." The final report was adopted by the Human Rights Council, res. 2006/22, U.N. Doc/HRC/Sub.1/58/L.11/Add.1. The principles established a human rights framework which includes both negative and positive obligations. The structure of the Principles reinforces this dual nature by specifically focusing in Part A on "[o]bligations with regard to State Agents" and in Part B on "[d]ue diligence to prevent human rights abuses by private actors."

The Small Arms Principles, through the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other instruments upon which they are founded, elaborate at least three bases—one negative and two positive—for considering human rights obligations in relation to firearms.  No state actor—including military, police or other security officer—may use a firearm to take the life of another person in violation of the fundamental right to life. In addition, a state has a positive obligation to protect the right to life from violations by non-state actors who are within its control or power. Relatedly, this affirmative obligation obligates a state to prevent transfers of small arms and light weapons from territory or actors within its control that it has knowledge will lead to likely violations of the right to life in receiving states.

Collaborative Research

In a subsequent phase of her work on prevention of gun violence, Frey worked collaboratively with Professor Jennifer Green of the Human Rights Litigation Clinic at the Law School from 2008–15 to supervise students who researched and drafted shadow reports to the UN Human Rights Committee with regard to the obligations of States to prevent small arms-related violations of the right to life. Through this research, we filed 11 alternative reports to the Human Rights Committee, including Angola, Armenia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, United States of America, and Yemen.

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