The House of Peace and its workCurbing the proliferation of guns [Archives:2004/786/Community]

November 1 2004
Photo from archived article: photos/786/community1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/786/community1_1
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Dar Al-Salaam – The House of Peace – has been working hard to fight against Yemen being awash with weapons since it was established in 1997. According to Abdul Rahman Al-Marwani, Head and Founder of Dar Al-Salaam, the organization aims at reducing the availability and use of weapons.
“We are working on peace and tolerance and how to spread it,” said Al-Marwani. “Our most important activities are to spread peace and tolerance, and it has started with social awareness.”
This year, Dar Al-Salaam began a campaign putting up billboards in most of the major cities calling on the people to not carry guns and using them for revenge. Around 959 signs have been put into place up to now, with another 450 expected to be standing by the end of the year. The anti-weapons organization has had over 20 demonstrations since it started, including one in Dhammar last spring with a turnout of over 50,000 people.
Dar Al-Salaam, which has 400 members and 1,000 volunteers doing field work, has stepped in to mediate in tribal disputes. Up to now the organization has settled 197 cases of revenge using peaceful solutions that helped tribes avoid clashes that would have cost lives.
But Dar Al-Salaam and many Yemenis that want to see the eradication of guns being carried in public and the availability of weapons nationwide may have to wait until important steps are taken.
Many believe that one important step that needs to be carried out by the government is the full development of a judicial system. According to Dar Al-Salaam, the official death toll resulting from revenge between tribes averages around 1,250 a year but is estimated to be much higher. Some say that if the Yemeni court system can handle disputes, tribes reaching for their guns for a solution will diminish.
“It is very difficult to solve the problem of the use of guns and tribal revenge. It will only happen when people feel there is law and order. In other words, when there is a real judicial system,” said Mohammed Al-Muttawakil, Professor of Political Science at Sana'a University and Assistant Secretary General of the Popular Forces Union party. “Sometimes people ask for a judicial system from the government, but without it they will fight.”
Along with a justice system, some think that the central government must strengthen its position and enforce law across the country.
“The government needs to build an image for itself as a national government and not a government controlled by certain tribes,” said Abdullah Al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana'a University. “It also needs to restructure military and security institutions in ways that make them representative of the political landscape in Yemen. People use guns because they have nobody to defend them when they are attacked, nobody to give them justice when they are victimized, and nobody to hold them accountable when they are the victimizers.”
Economic growth and more job opportunities could help reduce the interest in guns. It is estimated that as many as 40% of the Yemenis are out of work. Forty-two percent of the Yemenis live below the poverty line, while 25% are hovering just above being labeled as poor. Economic growth is not keeping up with the rise in population. The population growth rate is estimated to be as high as 4% annually, while the GDP growth rate fell below 3.6% last year and may not exceed 3.3% in 2004.
“Large unemployment and poverty in Yemen gives a boost to people wanting to stick to the tradition of owning and carrying a gun,” said a Yemeni analyst. “It would be easier to convince them to lay down their weapons if they had a chance of getting a good job.”
Recent developments in the Middle East, such as US occupation of Iraq and ongoing conflicts between the Israelis and Palestinians, might make it more difficult to persuade the public that it is not important to bear arms. According to government officials, between 60 and 80 million weapons are owned by around 20 million people, which is at least three weapons to each Yemeni.
Other figures by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, the authoritative voice on what's happening with weaponry worldwide, say that of 639 million firearms on Earth, Yemen, in fact, has 10 million at most, one gun for every two Yemenis.
According to that group, the United States has about 250 million. That's almost one per person. Finland takes third, and South Africa has, by far, the most gun murders.
“There has been an effect from the war in Iraq on Yemen,” said Khaled Al-Akwaa, Professor of Public Policy at Sana'a University. “The Iraqi government was not able to stand up against US forces, but some people have. Therefore, the Yemeni people do not want to be disarmed, so it will be difficult for the Yemeni government to pass and enforce a law on gun control.”
Some hold that those with vested interests in the sale of weapons are reluctant to relinquish their profitable trade.
“It will be difficult to pass a law with big players making money doing business in the sale of arms,” said Majid Al-Fahed, Executive Director of the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation. “This is true in any country where people have the right to own arms and businessmen have the right to sell arms.”
Although the Yemeni government has been successful clamping down on terrorists since it joined the United States on the war on terror after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, there is concern that the availability of weapons will continue to be a threat to national security. Some argue that if weapons were not easy to be acquired at markets, the fighting between supporters of Hussein Al-Houthi and government forces which lasted for three months may not have happened.
“The reason Al-Houthi was able to create an armed militia was because all they had to do was go to the markets and buy weapons,” says a Yemeni analyst. “With weapons this easily available, there might be more conflicts in the future if other rebel groups are formed.”
With numerous obstacles ahead for gun control to be implemented, some agree with Dar Al-Salaam that the first step is to raise public awareness of the dangers of weapons in Yemen.
“Having guns is a tradition, it is part of the culture,” said a Yemeni analyst. “If a gun is part of your honor, legislation will not change that overnight. The only way to change is through the gradual process of education and awareness.”