Opinion, by Robert Muggah and Melina Risso

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil is taking a step backwards when it comes to responsible gun control. Just last week legislators approved an incentive package that includes tax reductions for the domestic arms industry, already the second largest in the western hemisphere. This kind of exception amounts to a subsidy for the manufacture and export of weapons for Brazil´s merchants of death. Such a move is not just a step back for Brazilians, already living in a country with the most gun deaths in the world, but for the rest of Latin America.

Latin American countries have long talked a big game when it comes to dealing with the production, transfer and diversion of illegal firearms. Legislation introduced by Brazil and others is motivated at least in part by their destructive power: Central and South America feature the planet´s highest rates of gun homicide. Yet practical efforts to regulate guns and ammunition have been stifled, at least in part because countries like Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have little desire to enter into agreements that might stifle their growing defense sectors.

Positively, a number of United Nations small arms control agreements have emerged over the past decade, some of which could save more lives if only they were put into action. In spite of high-minded rhetoric, Latin American governments have a mixed record in implementing key provisions of agreements. For example, the 2001 United Nations Firearms Protocol, the only legally binding instrument in existence regulating the illicit manufacture and trade of guns was ratified by just eight countries in Latin America since its inception. Brazil was an active supporter of the Protocol from the beginning.

Latin American countries have also been reluctant to support other major small arms control agreements. For example, the United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons was launched in 2001 to put in place commonsense rules. But just two thirds of Latin American countries have made good on the provisions of the Program, including establishing a basic governmental point of contact. And though Brazil played a leading role in getting the Program launched, its commitment appears to be lagging.

In spite Latin America´s lackluster performance, the news is not all bad. There are some examples of effective regional and sub-regional efforts to tackle the challenges associated with illegal gun flows. One of the most significant achievements is the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Explosives and Other Related Materials or CIFTA, established through the Organization of American States in the late 1990s. CIFTA was remarkable for the time – the first international arms control agreement ever signed in the Americas.

Today, after years of half-hearted efforts to regulate small arms by Latin American countries, there seems to be genuine support for a far-reaching Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Launched in 2006, the Treaty establishes provisions and standards to regulate the import, export, and transfer of all conventional weapons, including small arms and light weapons. Astonishingly, every single country in the Americas signed-on to United Nations General Assembly resolutions in support of the Treaty with just the United States abstaining. Later this month, there is a real chance that the ATT may finally become a reality.

But there is just one problem. It seems that Brazil is not only blocking progress on the ATT, it is also introducing regressive policies at home. In fact, Brazil said that it would only support mandatory reporting if it excluded small arms and light weapons, a move that would effectively gut the Treaty. Also, over the past year, some legislators in Brasília have started pushing to expand private ownership of weapons, a dangerous precedent. Yet Brazil has a real opportunity to take the lead on a progressive global agenda to improve citizen security in the region and at home. The real question is whether the country´s leadership has the courage to take the necessary first steps.


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