Barbara Frey explores the link between human rights and small firearms.
By Mary Shafer
Art work: Scott Menchin
As director of the Human Rights Program in CLA's Institute for Global Studies, Barbara Frey has covered a lot of ground. Her research and consulting on human rights issues like torture and penal reform have taken her from Argentina to Nepal, and her name appears on multiple international human rights law projects. Closer to home, she founded Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, the largest human rights organization in the Midwest.
But in 2002, when the United Nations Sub-Commission on Human Rights appointed her to study how countries could prevent human rights violations committed with small arms and light weapons, Frey was plowing relatively new ground: Human rights and light weaponry haven't typically been linked. In fact, “they have traditionally been in separate silos at the United Nations," says Frey.
There's no doubt that small arms—handguns and their cousins, including assault rifles, machine guns, and other easily-carried small weapons—take an enormous toll in human death and suffering, killing some 500,000 people every year and maiming ten times that number. Half of these incidents, Frey says, occur in non-combat settings, many with weapons of illegal or unknown provenance or off the record books. “The United States and Russia fed weapons to Afghanistan for 15 years," Frey says. “They're still there, and small weapons can serve you for 40 years. They're mobile; they're lethal."
In her August 2006 report to the U.N. sub-commission, Frey proposed two international legal principles. The first was relatively uncontroversial: the state has a responsibility to protect human rights and prevent abuses related to small arms. But the second, that small-arms possession is not a fundamental right under international law, aroused fierce opposition from those who view gun ownership as akin to other fundamental rights, like equal protection under the law. “I took on their Holy Grail," Frey says. “If I had stuck just to what governments can and should do to prevent the criminal use of weapons, I would have been fine."
Most of Frey's critics have come from the United States, where a strong gun lobby posits a fundamental right to self-defense. “That right is the basis on which you can buy a gun. On this issue, though, the U.S. is out of sync with rest of world."
Indeed, of the 650 million small arms in the world, 350 million of them are in the U.S. And the National Rifle Association's lobbying at the U.N. meant that the U.S. delegation voted against Frey's request for funding for a questionnaire on states' gun control measures.
The U.N. sub-commission's approval of Frey's report in August represented the highest-level recognition to date of the link between small-arms control and human rights. If the next step is taken—approval by the U.N. Human Rights Council—Frey's study will generate more interest, she believes, and probably more criticism.
“The report's success depends on whether there's momentum to go forward," she says. “If it begins to have a real impact on U.S. gun policy, you'll see an over-the-top assault on me."
But Frey doesn't mind bracing for the impact. In fact, she's hoping for the momentum. “We need to start seeing guns," Frey believes. “Law-abiding citizens, including people who lawfully own guns, need to work together to find reasonable common ground."
Frey's report can be viewed at reach.cla.umn.edu/frey.