Speaking at the outset of a Security Council meeting on threats to peace and security in West Africa, which included the participation of representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and more than 25 other speakers, the Secretary-General thanked the Council for focusing attention - even at the critical moment when the world's attention was on Iraq - on a subject that was of great importance to millions of people in that region.
Mr. Annan stressed that the unrestrained proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the use of mercenaries sustains conflict, exacerbates violence and fuels crime and terrorism. "The easy availability of small arms and light weapons is strongly linked to with the dramatic rise in the victimization of women and children and with the phenomenon of child soldiers," he said, adding that light automatic weapons can be carried and fired by children as young as nine or ten years-old.
Noting that the merging deadly phenomena also promotes cultures of violence and impede political economic and social progress, the Secretary-General cited the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and now in Côte d'Ivoire as having been fuelled "in no small part" by unregulated trade in small arms often paid for with the proceeds from the illicit exploitation of natural resources.
Stressing that the flood of small arms in the region has been accompanied and even facilitated by the rise in mercenary activities, Mr. Annan said the supply side of the mercenary problem, in turn, is linked to the failure of adequately funded and implemented disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes. He added that there had also been a failure to assist countries like Liberia and Guinea-Bissau in restructuring their armed forces as part of post conflict peace-building arrangements.
"Unless adequately addressed, the proliferation of small arms and mercenaries would continue to pose a severe threat to the region's hopes of attaining durable peace and security," Mr. Annan said, noting that spillover effects from one country to the next had been all too common, underscoring the need for regional cooperation and a comprehensive approach.
"I urge all of you to do your utmost to help the countries of the region to build up the capacity to address the issue," he said. "I urge the countries involved, and in particular their leaders, to focus more intently on this very real and very present threat to peace."