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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Small Arms and Light Weapons: Controlling the Real Instruments of War
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One of the dominant features of the global community in the 1990s has been the violent breakdown of civil society in dozens of countries throughout the world. From the socialist states of the former Soviet bloc to Africa and Asia, we have witnessed the outbreak of ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic and other forms of communal strife and the melting away of social norms and government structures that would otherwise contain the violence. Adding to the disorder, in many instances, has been a significant upsurge in armed banditry and criminal violence.

The importance of this "failed state syndrome" during this decade can hardly be overstated. The very nature of conflict has been transformed—from traditional combat between nation-states to inter-communal conflict within states. Such strife typically involves a wide variety of actors, including governments, rebel movements, armed political militias, ethnic and religious groups, tribes and clans, expatriate and diaspora groups, criminal gangs and mercenaries. Common distinguishing characteristics of this type of intra-state conflict include multiple warring parties, blurred lines of conflict, greater involvement of civilians, and the fact that the conflict itself is not fought on traditional battlegrounds but in local communities; indeed, within society itself. Also characteristic of these conflicts is the presence among the warring parties of irregular and paramilitary forces with little or no formal military training and few compunctions about violating the rules of war. All too often, it is children and teenagers who are recruited or forced into these organizations and then made to kill, loot and rampage.

Another defining characteristic of such conflict is the fact that widespread death and suffering result not from the major conventional weapons traditionally associated with war—tanks, aircraft and warships, for example—but from small arms and light weapons. The global proliferation of assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other "man-portable" weapons has increased both the frequency and intensity of modern conflict and greatly complicated the task of restoring peace. Such weapons are readily obtainable on international markets, both legal and illicit, and are easily mastered by untrained and unprofessional soldiers, even children. Of the 49 major conflicts that have broken out since 1990, light weapons were the only arms used in 46; only one conflict (the 1991 Gulf War) was dominated by heavy weapons.< 1 >

Since 1990, these conflicts have resulted in the deaths of more than 4 million people and have produced 20 million refugees and 24 million displaced persons.< 2 > The resources of the international community are being overwhelmed by bitter conflicts, large-scale refugee movements and even genocide. In response to these disasters, the international community has spent tens of billions of dollars on emergency relief, refugee care and resettlement, peacekeeping, and direct military intervention. For the United Nations alone, the annual cost of humanitarian assistance and relief for war victims has increased ten-fold, from about $300 million a year in the 1980s to $3 billion a year in the mid-1990s.

In recent years, attention has come to focus on the ways in which the increased availability of low-cost small arms and light weapons contributes to the likelihood, intensity and duration of armed conflict. Although these conflicts often possess deep and complex roots, it is evident that the widespread availability of modern light weapons has emboldened belligerents to pursue their objectives on the battlefield, rather than at the bargaining table.

An analysis of contemporary warfare also reveals that such conflict overwhelmingly takes place in the world's poorest countries. In the 1990s, 30 of the 60 least-developed countries in the world have experienced conflict directly, while another 12 have had to support large refugee populations from neighboring countries in conflict.< 3 > This correlation between conflict and poverty helps explain why these conflicts are generally fought with relatively inexpensive small arms and light weapons. It also explains why the victims of these conflicts are so dependent on assistance from the international community.

 

Advantages of Light Weapons

In recent conflicts, more people have been killed by small arms and light weapons than by major weapons systems. The distinguishing features of these weapons that make them so suitable to contemporary intra-state conflicts include:

Low Cost and Wide Availability. Because the production of small arms and light weapons requires little in the way of sophisticated technology, and because these weapons are manufactured for military, police and civilian use, there are plentiful suppliers around the world. In addition, the existence of many tens of millions of such weapons—whether newly produced, given away by downsizing militaries or recycled from conflict to conflict—leads to bargain-basement prices in many areas around the world.

Lethality. The increasing sophistication and lethality of rapid-fire assault rifles, automatic pistols and submachine guns and their diffusion to non-state actors has given such groups a firepower that often matches or exceeds that of national police or constabulary forces. With such weapons capable of firing up to 300 rounds a minute, a single individual can pose a tremendous threat to society. The incorporation of new technology into shoulder-fired rockets, mortars and light anti-tank weapons has only increased the firepower that warring factions bring to bear in civil conflicts.

Simplicity and Durability. Small arms are easy to use and maintain, require little maintenance or logistical support and remain operational for many years. Such weapons require little training to use effectively, which greatly increases their use in conflicts involving untrained combatants and children.

Portability and Concealability. Small arms and light weapons can be carried by an individual soldier or light vehicle, are easily transported or smuggled to areas of conflict, and can be concealed in shipments of legitimate cargo.

Military, Police and Civilian Uses. Unlike major conventional weapons, which are most often procured solely by national military forces, small arms and light weapons cross the dividing line separating military and police forces from the civilian population. Depending on the gun control laws of a particular country, citizens are permitted to own anything from pistols and sporting guns to fully automatic rifles. In many countries, moreover, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and size of private militias and security firms which, in many cases, are equipped with military-type weapons.

All of these characteristics of light weapons have made them particularly attractive to the sort of paramilitary and irregular forces that have played such a prominent role in recent conflicts. These forces have limited financial and technical means, lack professional military training, and often must operate in remote and inaccessible areas—all conditions that favor the use of small arms and light weapons. At the same time, many states have increased their purchases of these weapons for use in counterinsurgency campaigns against ethnic and political groups and to suppress domestic opposition movements.

 

A Global Diffusion of Small Arms

For many years, the global trade in major conventional weapons has been well documented. By comparison, the global trade in small arms and light weapons has proved much more difficult to track. Few national governments publish statistics on the sale or transfer of light weapons or release information about the sales activities of private companies. Moreover, much of the trade—perhaps 25 percent—is carried on through illicit and black-market channels of one sort or another.< 4 >

In the absence of uniform statistics on the trade in light weapons, researchers must rely on anecdotal information and what little fragmentary data is available from government and trade sources. Fairly reliable estimates of the global trade in such weapons range from $5 billion to $7 billion a year, with some estimates running as high as $10 billion a year.< 5 > And while official statistics indicate that the trade in major weapons systems has fallen sharply with the end of the Cold War, many analysts believe that global transfers of light weapons have increased during this period.

The global spread of small arms and light weapons has been facilitated by the emergence in many states, including a dozen or more developing countries, of a domestic capacity for the manufacture of such weapons. Whereas the fabrication of major weapons systems is highly concentrated, with only a dozen or so states capable of producing modern tanks, planes and warships, some 50 nations now manufacture light weapons and/or ammunition of various types. The production of modern assault rifles, for example, occurs in many of the industrialized nations as well as in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. Many of these countries produce arms for export as well as domestic use, greatly adding to the number of sources from which a potential belligerent can obtain weapons of war.

The large number of production sites contributes not only to the expansion of national arsenals, but to the spread of arms within societies via theft, bribery and corruption. The multiplicity of trade channels leads to the diffusion of light weapons within societies—extending not only to governments and state-owned entities but also to private armies and militias, insurgent groups, criminal organizations and other non-state actors. Accordingly, any analysis of the trade in light weapons must take into account both the sharp increase in the number of producers and suppliers and how their weapons are being transferred to an ever-expanding array of states and non-state actors in every region of the world.

The following list of legal, illegal and covert methods by which small arms and light weapons are sold, transferred and exchanged underscores the complexity of the problem:

  • Grants or gifts by governments to allied governments abroad;
  • Sales by governments to client governments abroad;
  • Commercial sales by private firms to governments and private dealers in other countries;
  • Technology transfers associated with domestic arms production in the developing nations;
  • Covert transfers by governments to friendly insurgent and separatist groups in other countries;
  • Gifts by governments to armed militias and paramilitary organizations linked to the ruling party or the dominant ethnic group;
  • Black-market sales to the governments of "pariah" countries and to insurgent and separatist forces;
  • Theft of government and privately owned arms by insurgent, criminal and separatist forces; and
  • Exchanges between insurgent and criminal organizations, whether for profit or in pursuit of common political objectives.

Although it is impossible to discuss each of these methods in detail, it is useful to look briefly at the major channels.

Legal Channels. Currently, there are over 300 manufacturers of light weapons and related equipment in 50 countries around the world, a 25 percent increase in the last decade alone.< 6 > Until the end of World War II, the major producers of these weapons were the industrialized nations. In recent decades, however, these established producers have been joined by China, Israel, South Africa and many developing countries. Estimates of some common models produced by these countries in the past few decades show the enormity of the problem: 5 million to 7 million Belgian FAL assault rifles produced in 15 countries; 35 million to 50 million Soviet/Russian AK assault rifles manufactured by Soviet/Russian factories and licensees; 7 million German Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles made in 18 countries; 8 million U.S. M-16 rifles produced in seven countries; and 6 million Chinese-made AK-type assault rifles.< 7 >

These numbers, as alarming as they are, do not include the millions of surplus arms that have been sold or given away as the world's major military powers have reduced their forces and/or found themselves with excess production capacity following the end of the Cold War. Because small arms and light weapons have few moving parts and are extremely durable, even weapons that are 10- to 20-years old are often fully operational and as effective as newly produced weapons. Accordingly, countries such as the United States, Russia and Germany (especially with the dismantling of the East German army) have been able to sell or transfer millions of light weapons to their allies and clients abroad.

Covert and 'Gray-Market' Channels. In addition to legal sales and military assistance programs, small arms and light weapons are disseminated through covert and "gray-market" channels (that is, channels that operate with government support even though in violation of official government policy), most often by government intelligence agencies or private companies linked to such agencies. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA helped to supply some 3 million AK-47 assault rifles (mainly Chinese and Egyptian models) to rebel mujahideen; thousands of these weapons have since turned up in fighting in Kashmir and elsewhere in South Asia, and as far away as Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union supplied arms to rebel groups in Central America and sent massive amounts of weapons to various factions in Angola and Mozambique.

Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow have discontinued many of these activities. But it is widely believed that military commanders and managers of military factories in Russia and some of the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union have engaged in large-scale covert sales of weapons to clients in neighboring states and beyond. Government officials in other states have also been accused of smuggling arms to allied groups in other countries, whether for profit or to advance particular political or religious objectives. Officials in Zaire, for instance, reportedly bought large quantities of weapons on the international market and sold them to UNITA forces in Angola for profits running into the hundreds of millions of dollars—most of which is believed to have wound up in the overseas bank accounts of former President Mobutu Seso Seko and his associates.

Another form of gray-market transfers entails the delivery of weapons from government stockpiles to political entities and ethnic militias associated with the ruling clan or party. Prior to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, the Hutu-dominated government distributed small arms and machetes to government-linked militias. Once the killing began, the Rwandan military sought to crush any organized Tutsi resistance while the militias slaughtered unarmed Tutsis and moderate Hutus. A similar pattern was evident in Haiti in the early 1990s, when the ruling military junta organized and armed the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH) to suppress popular support for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Illicit and Black-Market Channels. The third major category of light weapons transfers includes illegal sales through black-market channels, the supply of arms in defiance of international embargoes and other legal sanctions, and the theft of arms from government stocks or private citizens. In recent years, there has been a striking growth in the operations of black-market dealers to satisfy the needs of non-state actors in ethnic and internal conflicts. Because such actors are normally barred from purchases on the legal munitions market, they must acquire their weaponry from illicit sources. The growing number of UN arms embargoes has also produced an increased demand for black-market arms. Although it is impossible to estimate the value or scale of all such transactions, some estimates place 1993 black market sales to the belligerents in Bosnia alone at $2 billion or more.< 8 >

The black-market trade has been facilitated by the existence of vast stockpiles of surplus arms in the states of the former Soviet bloc—arms which in many cases are guarded by near-destitute soldiers and officers who are all too eager to conspire in their theft by black-market dealers or to enter the illicit trade themselves. Moreover, there are strong linkages between the illegal narcotics trade and black-market arms trafficking. These underground networks have developed sophisticated methods for the procurement, transportation and sale of small arms and light weapons, at times with the connivance of governments or corrupt public officials.

Finally, theft of weapons from military and police warehouses is a major problem in countries afflicted by civil war or insurgent violence. As civil strife spread across Albania in the spring of 1997, thousands of weapons were looted from military depots by insurgents, criminals and civilians. These weapons not only increased the levels of armed violence in Albania, but reportedly were also being smuggled across the border into the Serbian province of Kosovo, where 2 million ethnic Albanians pose an irredentist challenge to Serbian authority. In South Africa and Colombia, stolen weapons contribute to a culture of violence and criminality that undermines the stability of the state and the cohesion of society.

 

The Need for Policy Initiatives

Clearly, the unchecked flow of small arms and light weapons to areas of conflict represents a significant threat to world peace and security. While it cannot be said that such weapons are a primary cause of conflict, their worldwide availability, low cost and ease of operation make it relatively easy for potential belligerents of all kinds to initiate and sustain deadly conflict. Accordingly, policy-makers have begun to highlight the need for new international controls in this area. In a January 1998 message to the UN Conference on Disarmament, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "With regard to conventional weapons, there is a growing awareness among member-states of the urgent need to adopt measures to reduce the transfer of small arms and light weapons. It is now incumbent on all of us to translate this shared awareness into decisive action."

Interest in the trade in light weapons has also been spurred by a growing number of national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which played a key role in the international campaign to ban landmines. Along with UN officials and leaders of interested governments, these groups have led the search for new policy prescriptions.

 

International Efforts

In line with the increased attention being focused by the international community on the dangers posed by small arms and light weapons, the United Nations has been engaged in a wide variety of activities to both publicize the problem and initiate steps toward policy controls. The two major efforts undertaken so far by the United Nations are the study conducted by the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms in 1996 and 1997, which analyzed the types of weapons used in contemporary conflicts and the nature and causes of their excessive accumulation,< 9 > and the parallel study of member-states' firearm regulations conducted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in the same two-year period.< 10 >

Operationally, the United Nations has sought to monitor the effectiveness of various international embargoes on the transfer of weaponry into areas of conflict. In 1996, a UN International Commission of Inquiry on Rwanda investigated the implementation of the UN arms embargo on Rwanda, paying particular attention to specific allegations of embargo violations. In their report, members of the commission noted that "[we] could not fail to note the absence of an effective, proactive mechanism to monitor or implement the arms embargo the Security Council had imposed on Rwanda."< 11 > Elsewhere in Africa, the United Nations has supported Mali's path-breaking efforts to collect and destroy firearms internally and to promote a regional moratorium on the trade in small arms and light weapons.

Other international organizations are also becoming involved in the light weapons issue, particularly as it relates to issues of economic and human development. The World Bank is devoting resources to issues of post-conflict reconstruction, particularly in regard to the demobilization of combatants and their reintegration into civil society. Also, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), through its task force on Conflict, Peace and Development Cooperation, is putting greater emphasis on the need for "timely prevention measures" (such as limiting arms flows in areas of potential conflict) in order to forestall armed violence.

 

Regional Efforts

Particularly in Africa and the Americas, national governments and regional organizations are devising a variety of measures to better regulate the legal trade in light weapons and to combat illicit weapons trafficking. In November 1997, the Organization of American States (OAS) signed a convention on the illicit weapons trade that calls for standardization of national firearms regulations and increased law enforcement and customs cooperation to prevent illicit weapons flows within the Western Hemisphere. The OAS has also developed model regulations that focus on the linkages between the narcotics trade and weapons smuggling. Within the Caribbean sub-region, moreover, Jamaica has proposed that similar efforts be undertaken by the 14-member Caribbean Community.

Elsewhere, West African governments are working with the United Nations to assess the regional implications of light weapons diffusion and to craft a regional moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of such arms. In Central Africa, the United Nations has established a trust fund with which to remove small arms and light weapons from the region. Similarly, the Southern Africa Development Community has recommended the establishment of a regional database on stolen firearms and the implementation of multilateral police operations to recover such weapons.

Among European countries, there are increased pressures for controlling both legal and illegal shipments of weapons, particularly to countries experiencing civil strife and human rights abuses. In June 1997, the European Union (EU) agreed to a Programme for Preventing and Combating Illicit Trafficking in Conventional Arms. In June 1998, the EU formally adopted a "code of conduct" on arms transfers with the goal of preventing such transfers to areas of conflict and internal repression. While useful steps, both measures will require political will in constraining arms transfers and dedicated resources to help affected countries monitor arms shipments and remove excess weaponry.

 

National Efforts

Because so much of the light weapons trade takes place illegally, the role of national governments in tightening and enforcing export regulations will be very important. Under pressure from Mexico, the United States has cracked down on illicit gun trafficking on the U.S.-Mexican border and has agreed to stronger export controls in the context of the OAS convention signed last November. Similar efforts are underway in a number of other states, including Colombia, South Africa and EU states.

In many communities, municipal authorities and NGOs have begun grass roots campaigns to remove small arms from circulation at the local level, and to pressure their national governments to take the light weapons problem more seriously. In South Africa, such initiatives involve bringing various ethnic and tribal groups together to deal with the "culture of violence" plaguing that country. In countries like Britain and Australia that have experienced horrific massacres carried out by automatic weapons—notably the killings in Dunblane, Scotland, and Port Arthur, Tasmania, national groups have come together to lobby for more restrictive gun control laws. Elsewhere, NGOs and grass roots organizations have put the spotlight on their own governments' responsibility for supplying weapons to areas of conflict and persistent human rights abuse.

 

What Is to Be Done?

From all that has been learned about the international trade in small arms and light weapons, it is evident that no single set of policy initiatives will suffice to deal with this problem. Unlike the relative simplicity of the landmines issue—where the international community could focus on one particular weapon (anti-personnel landmines) and seek its elimination as a weapon of war—the effort to control the diffusion of light weapons will demand a host of initiatives, extending from the international arena to regional, national and local levels. National governments especially will have to go beyond their support for cracking down on the illegal trade in light weapons and examine their own role in the current legal weapons trade. The following initiatives represent a rough menu of the sort of steps that will be needed to subject light weapons transfers to greater international scrutiny and to reduce the flow of such munitions to areas of conflict.

Establish International Norms. The first, and perhaps most important, step is to adopt international norms against the uncontrolled and destabilizing transfer of small arms and light weapons to areas of tension and conflict. Although deference must be made to the traditional right of sovereign states to arm themselves, it must be made clear that this right has natural limits and does not extend to the acquisition of arms for the purpose of engaging in genocide or the suppression of opposition political or religious movements. It must become axiomatic, moreover, that the right to acquire arms for self-defense entails an obligation to maintain such weapons under effective government control at all times and to preclude their diversion to illicit purposes.

While it may take some time to clarify and win support for such norms, the basic groundwork has been provided by the UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms. In its 1997 report, the panel concludes: "The excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons is closely related to the increased incidence of internal conflicts and high levels of crime and violence," and is, therefore, "an issue of legitimate concern for the international community."< 12 > With this in mind, the report calls on UN member-states to "exercise restraint" with respect to the transfer of such weapons and to take all necessary steps to prevent the diversion of government arms supplies into illegitimate hands.

Clearly, much work is needed to strengthen these norms and to promote their acceptance by governments. As in the worldwide campaign against landmines, the media can focus public attention on the dangers posed by such weapons, especially to civilians and children. The issue is admittedly complicated by the fact that, unlike anti-personnel landmines, national governments and military and police forces can demonstrate a far greater legitimate need for light weapons for purposes of self-defense and national security. Nonetheless, the frequency with which such weapons are used against civilians and children points to a humanitarian aspect of small arms that is quite similar to that of landmines.

International norms could also be developed along the lines of the Geneva Conventions, where states-parties would be prohibited from supplying light weapons to any government, group or entity that does not have the resources to treat its wounded or those of the enemy, or has not trained its own personnel in the laws of war. In addition, public sentiment could be mobilized to support constraints on the inhumane or indiscriminate effects of light weapons, in the same way that blinding laser weapons have been banned by the recently adopted protocol to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Increase International Transparency. At present, efforts to monitor and control the diffusion of small arms and light weapons are hampered by a lack of detailed information on the production, sale and transfer of such munitions. Few governments provide detailed data on imports and exports of light weapons, and the UN Conventional Arms Register covers major weapons only. To ensure effective international oversight of the legal trade in light weapons, efforts at increased transparency must be made at the national, regional and international level. National governments should be required to publish detailed annual tallies of weapons imports and exports, while regional arms registers covering light weapons should also be encouraged. Finally, at the international level, the UN arms register should be gradually extended to cover all types of munitions, including small arms and light weapons.

Enhanced international transparency is also necessary to curb the illicit trade in light weapons. In the absence of an effective transparency regime, it is relatively easy for illicit dealers to conceal their operations; as information on legal trade becomes more widely available, it will become more difficult to do this. Increased transparency will also facilitate joint efforts by law enforcement agencies to identify, track and apprehend black-market dealers.

Increase State Accountability. In the current international milieu, control over the import and export of small arms and light weapons rests with national governments; thus, efforts to better regulate the trade in such munitions will be most effective at the national level.

Increased governmental accountability is needed in two key areas: first, the establishment of effective oversight over all military-type firearms found within the national territory, so as to prevent their diversion to criminal elements and black-market dealers; and second, strict controls over the import and export of such weapons, so as to preclude their use for any purpose other than legitimate self-defense as sanctioned by the UN Charter.

Efforts to accomplish the first of these objectives should be guided by the draft proposals of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Particularly effective measures would include a licensing system for manufacturers and gun owners, more effective identification systems to track firearms, more effective record keeping of firearms, and safe-storage measures. An additional measure called for is the promotion of amnesty and weapons turn-in programs that encourage citizens to surrender illegal, unsafe, unwanted and excess weapons. (An Australian buy-back effort, for example, took in more than 600,000 firearms, Governments around the world should be encouraged to incorporate such measures into their national laws and regulations; those states that fail to do so should be barred from receiving arms from those states that do adopt such legislation.

Similarly, efforts to better control the import and export of small arms and light weapons should be guided by the recommendations found in the report of the UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms. These include the collection and destruction of weapons once conflict has ended; the destruction of surplus weapons no longer needed by a country's military or police forces (as opposed to selling or giving them away); and the exercise of restraint in exporting military and police weapons from one country to another.

States should also be encouraged to adopt a code of conduct for arms transfers such as those being considered at the regional (EU) and international levels. Such codes would bar the sale or transfer of small arms and light weapons to any state that is ruled by a military dictatorship, that fails to respect the human rights of its citizens, that violates UN arms embargoes, or that cannot ensure the security of the weapons already in its possession.

Regional and International Efforts. While priority should be given to the development of effective controls at the national level, efforts should also be made to establish systems of oversight and control at the regional and international levels. Action at the regional level is particularly important because light weapons are often circulated by regional networks of illicit dealers, insurgents and permissive government agencies. Moreover, experience suggests that it may be easier to mobilize political support for control systems at the regional level than at the international level.

At the regional level, policy initiatives could include agreements for the strengthening of import and export regulations, tougher enforcement of laws against illicit trafficking and joint operations against black-market dealers. The OAS effort is one means of fostering increased cooperation between national customs services and law enforcement agencies on a regional basis. Other such efforts could be greatly facilitated by countries like the United States and Japan, which could provide the requisite technologies for computer databases of suspected illicit weapons traffickers. In southern Africa, national governments and intelligence agencies are sharing information and mounting joint operations to uncover and destroy large caches of weapons left over from previous conflicts.

The Mali moratorium on the manufacture, sale and import of small arms and light weapons is another initiative that can begin to reduce the easy availability of such weapons. As one of the more successful multilateral attempts to control the flow of light weapons both prior to and following periods of civil tension, the Mali initiative might provide a model for other regions. In West Africa, for example, the experiences of Liberia and Sierra Leone demonstrated how even relatively modest numbers of light weapons inflicted horrific casualties on civilians caught in sectarian strife.

Other regional approaches include the establishment of regional codes of conduct on arms exports similar to that of the EU. Given the particularly troublesome black- market weapons activity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the OECD or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should consider adopting codes of conduct. Additionally, economic incentive plans could be devised that would facilitate the closure of excess production capacity in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For example, Western countries could buy surplus small arms and light weapons from these states and destroy them, much as the United States is purchasing excess Russian nuclear weapons material.

At the international level, emphasis should be placed on the adoption of measures needed to strengthen the implementation of weapons embargoes agreed to by the United Nations and associated bodies. While such embargoes may never be entirely leakproof, evidence has shown that even a modest number of international observers at airfields, seaports and other points of entry for weapons to an area of conflict can make a difference. When supplemented by stricter national export controls, embargoes can make it far more difficult to deliver significant quantities of modern weapons to areas of conflict.

The major arms-supplying countries should also establish a mechanism (possibly as part of the Wassenaar Arrangement for conventional arms control) for consultation on arms flows to areas of current and potential conflict, along with provisions for the imposition of a moratorium on weapons transfers to any state or region deemed to be at risk of ethnic slaughter, state failure or genocide. International inspectors should be sent to the region to ensure compliance with these measures and to suggest any other actions that might be taken to reduce the flow of arms.

Reducing Surplus Weapons. Addressing the problem of surplus weaponry generated by decades of Cold War competition is especially important because many states—particularly former Eastern bloc countries—are eager to sell arms for hard currency with few or no questions asked. Because export controls on surplus arms are generally less strict than those for newly manufactured weapons, black-market dealers find it easier to obtain and sell surplus arms than newly made weapons. The problem of surplus arms is especially acute in areas just recovering from armed conflict, where impoverished ex-combatants may try to sell their weapons for cash rather than turn them over to UN peace-keepers or other designated authorities.

Measures to reduce global stockpiles of surplus munitions—a critical component of any international effort to constrain the flow of light weapons—can take several forms. States that can afford to do so should agree to destroy the surplus arms and ammunition in their possession and to take all the necessary steps to prevent the leakage of weaponry from government depots and warehouses. An early precedent was set by the Dutch Ministry of Defense, which announced in January 1998 that it would destroy most of its surplus small arms, including 115,000 Uzi submachine guns, FAL assault rifles, Garand rifles, Browning pistols and M-1 carbines.

For their parts, the United States and Russia should agree to cooperate in locating and reclaiming (or buying back) weapons given by them to insurgent groups during the Cold War. In many regions, these weapons are now being used to fuel internal power struggles and criminal violence. Taking these weapons out of circulation would close one of the most deadly chapters of the Cold War and help promote international peace and security in the current era.

Post-Conflict Measures. A high priority should be placed on efforts to remove the large quantities of small arms and light weapons that often remain in-country once a particular conflict has ended. Too often, the availability of such weapons facilitates either a renewal of the conflict (as in Angola) or a destabilization of efforts to build a peaceful civil society (as in South Africa). The limited success of disarmament programs in countries like El Salvador, where the country suffers from an appalling rate of criminal violence despite the collection of tens of thousands of weapons, points up the complexity and difficulty of such efforts. Above all, decisions to disarm warring factions and remove light weapons from areas of conflict must be implemented uniformly and comprehensively.

Moreover, in many countries around the world the possession of arms is deeply embedded in society, so that arms collection efforts may prove futile or not be politically feasible. In such cases, and more generally as well, the primary emphasis should be on economic development and social reconstruction so that ex-combatants and non-combatants have viable options in the civilian economy.

Recent initiatives on the part of the World Bank and a number of development and humanitarian NGOs to better integrate economic assistance programs with demobilization, destruction of weapons and conflict prevention strategies are a useful step in this direction.

International Capacity-Building. Ultimately, any regime to control global trafficking in small arms and light weapons will only be as effective as the weakest links in the system. As long as black-market dealers enjoy safe havens in which they can operate with impunity, it will be difficult or impossible to enforce tougher international standards on the light weapons trade. It is therefore essential that the stronger participants in the system assist the weaker elements to establish effective and reliable mechanisms for the oversight of the arms market.

As part of such efforts, technology should be developed and deployed internationally to help track the flow of small arms and light weapons, identify illicit sources of supply, and improve law enforcement and customs prosecution of illegal suppliers and traders. In addition to developing computer databases and communications systems that can facilitate international cooperation on the light weapons trade, several other technical initiatives have been proposed for helping to increase the transparency of light weapons flows. One such initiative being developed by OAS members is more effective marking and registration of weapons, both at the point of manufacture and when such weapons are legally exported. Such marking will make it easier for law enforcement and intelligence officials to trace the supply routes of weapons originally acquired legally which then entered the black market.

Other proposals exist for the tagging of ammunition and explosives, and studies on their feasibility are being carried out by the Canadian government and the United Nations. While some of these technical solutions may prove difficult and expensive to implement, the international community has at least begun the process of thoroughly evaluating them.

 

An Imperative to Act

By the middle of 1998, there was increased international momentum for taking more decisive action to prevent the continuing global diffusion of small arms and light weapons. In addition to ongoing efforts on the part of the United Nations and regional organizations like the OAS, national governments—including Norway, Canada, Belgium, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa and Japan—had signalled their interest in devoting substantial political and economic resources to deal with the problem. In July 1998, the Norwegian government hosted a meeting of 21 countries, including the United States, that issued a call for stronger measures to deal with both the illicit and legal trade in light weapons.

The Clinton administration has indicated its willingness to be fully involved in international efforts to dampen the light weapons trade. In August, the administration released a list of the comprehensive initiatives the U.S. government is pursuing—through the United Nations, the OAS and at the national level—to support global efforts for combatting the threat posed by unrestrained trade in light weapons.< 13 > Most of these efforts were aimed at the illicit trade in arms, though some focused on legal sales.

Clearly, the U.S. and other governments, especially those responsible for the majority of light weapons production and supply, need to do more. At the moment, most countries, including the United States, are putting greater emphasis on the illicit light weapons trade. Yet, it is the continued supply of large amounts of small arms and light weapons, through legal channels, to governments and non-state actors, that is most worrisome. All too often, supplier states continue to give away or sell at a discount hundreds of thousands of surplus light weapons that end up in the wrong hands.

In some cases, such as Somalia, these weapons are then used against U.S. peace-keeping forces that are sent to restore civil order. In other cases, such as Bosnia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the United States and the international community will spend billions of dollars in peace-keeping and economic reconstruction when a more restrictive policy on light weapons transfers might have prevented or diminished the intensity of civil conflict in these countries.

As the international community is beginning to recognize, the humanitarian and development benefits of cutting the link between light weapons availability and civil conflict would be substantial. For the United States, the economic benefits of the light weapons trade are exceedingly minor compared to the ultimate costs of having to rescue "failed states," provide for millions of refugees, and reconstruct societies torn apart by genocide and ethnic strife. The savings inherent in preventing or greatly limiting conflict in even one Rwanda, Bosnia or Liberia would greatly outweigh the minimal political and economic benefits of being an indiscriminate light weapons supplier.

In sum, increased attention to the lethal effects of easily available small arms and light weapons on the part of humanitarian relief agencies, national governments, international organizations and the media is translating into a greater public appreciation of the need to better control the production, supply and diffusion of these weapons.

Admittedly, the problem is incredibly complex and policies to control and regulate these weapons will not come easily. Nonetheless, the scale of death and injury caused by light weapons is such that the international community must continue to search for effective means of controlling and reducing the lethal commerce of small arms and light weapons around the world.


NOTES

1. Major wars are those with at least 1,000 deaths per year, though most of these conflicts have resulted in far more fatalities and wounded. See 1996 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, Stockholm: SIPRI, 1996.

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2. See "Small Arms and Light Weapons: The Epidemic Spread of Conflicts," Conversion Survey 1997, Bonn: Bonn International Center for Conversion, 1997.

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3. Steven Holtzman, "Post-Conflict Reconstruction," Environmental Department, Work in Progress, The World Bank, Social Policy and Resettlement Division, 1996, p. 1.

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4. See The Economist, May 16, 1998, p. 47.

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5. Keith Krause, "Constraining Conventional Arms Proliferation: A Model for Canada," Multilateral Approaches to Non-Proliferation, Andrew Latham, ed., Toronto: York University, 1996, p. 57.

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6. Swadesh Rana, Small Arms and Intra-State Conflicts, New York: United Nations, 1995, p. 4.

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7. See Virginia Hart Ezell, "Small Arms Proliferation Remains Global Dilemma," National Defense, January 1995, pp. 26–27.

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8. See Lethal Commerce: The Global Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, Jeffrey Boutwell, Michael T. Klare and Laura W. Reed, eds., Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995, p. 9.

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9. "Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms," Report #A/52/298, from the Secretary General to the UN General Assembly, August 27, 1997.

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10. "Measures to Regulate Firearms for the Purpose of Combatting Illicit Trafficking in Firearms," United Nations Economic and Social Council, Vienna, July 28, 1998.

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11. UN Report in response to Security Council Resolution 1013, September 7, 1995, pp. 18–19; see also the "Interim Report of the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda)," S/1998/777, August 19, 1998.

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12. "Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms," August 27, 1998.

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13. See "Factsheet: ACDA Outlines U.S. Policy on Small Arms Issues," August 11, 1998, Washington, DC.

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Jeffrey Boutwell is director of international security studies at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Michael Klare, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hamphire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. This article is adapted from the authors' chapter in Light Weapons and Civil Conflict: Controlling the Tools of Violence, Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael Klare, eds., forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield, spring 1998.