Are small arms, as many describe them, the real weapons of mass destruction? A study commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization and the World Bank found that by 2020, the number of deaths and injuries resulting from war and violence would overtake the number of deaths caused by diseases such as measles and malaria. El Salvador has calculated that the extra annual costs associated with dealing with gunshot injuries would equal the cost of a brand new hospital. The Small Arms Survey estimated that 300,000 people are shot dead over the course of a year. Gun homicides account for around 200,000 of these deaths, the majority occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean, while 60,000 to 90,000 people are killed by small arms in conflict settings. In many contemporary conflicts, civilian deaths outnumber those of combatants.
Approximately 50,000 more deaths result from gun suicides. Over one million people are believed to suffer firearms-related injuries on an annual basis. While the accuracy of these figures can never be guaranteed, given that much data is inevitably incomplete, the magnitude is sobering.
Between 1960 and 1999, the Britain-based Omega Foundation found the number of companies manufacturing small arms had increased six-fold. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that between 1990 and 2001, there were 57 separate major armed conflicts, with only eight of them subject to UN arms embargoes. “Such embargoes are usually late and blunt instruments, and the UN sanctions committees, which oversee the embargoes, have to rely largely on member states to monitor and implement them,” SIPRI said. “Therefore, arms embargoes cannot be deployed effectively as an instrument by the UN to prevent illicit arms trafficking, without better national controls on international arms transfers. These controls are woefully inadequate.”
Small arms have a disproportionate impact – while accounting for only one-fifth of the global arms trade, they maim and kill far more than any other conventional weapons. Small arms were the most commonly used weapons - and in some instances the only weapons - used in the 101 conflicts fought worldwide between 1989 and 1996. They are relatively inexpensive, portable and easy to use, and are effortlessly recycled from one conflict or violent community to the next. Their durability perpetuates their lethality. An assault rifle, for example, can be operational for 20 to 40 years with little maintenance. Numerous human rights violations are perpetrated with small arms – indeed the manifold abuses committed at gunpoint reflect the unparalleled coercive power of the gun. The threat of a firearm renders victims largely unable to run away or defend themselves. Atrocities ranging from torture and arbitrary arrest to abduction and the silencing of political opposition are all frequently ‘assisted’ by small arms. Guns have facilitated both systematic rape in war and intimate-partner violence in the home. Armed violence is also intrinsically linked to forced migration.
“It is hard to imagine a small group of people terrorising and forcibly evicting entire communities without weapons such as AK-47s,” argued Cate Buchanan, manager of the Human Security and Small Arms Programme at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “It is often noted that although the majority of killings in the Rwandan genocide were committed with blades, guns were needed to round up the victims and keep them surrounded before killing them.”
The majority of small arms are produced in the most powerful countries in the world, the United States and the European Union combined account for about 75 percent of the total annual production, although more than 90 countries can, or do, produce small arms. The value of small arms exports from the US in 2001 stood at $741 million, while the value of small arms exports from all G8 countries for the same year totalled almost $1.5 billion. Other major exporters include Belgium, Brazil, Austria, Spain, China, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
The majority of the 7 million to 8 million new guns produced every year form the legal trade in small arms, that is the trade authorised by governments. However, limited controls of this legal trade, and a failure to enforce them, means that many arms are diverted into the illegal sector. The thriving black market trade in small arms provides guns to people who cannot obtain them legally, even though the vast majority of these guns have origins in the legal sector. The failure by most states to consider fully the end use of the weapons they export means that small arms often fall into irresponsible hands. The governments of key exporting countries may point to their stringent controls of small-arms exports, but many continue to transfer arms to irresponsible end users, that is, countries in which the weapons would likely be used to fuel armed violence or to contribute to human rights violations. The irresponsible exporting of small arms is made possible by an absence of export controls or a failure to enforce existing controls, or by loopholes in the law. “The issue of weapons is very close to governments and their national security priorities. Normal trade regulations cease to apply, and governments are reluctant to make compromises in this area,” explained Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s policy advisor on small arms.
Indeed, almost all the G8 countries have in recent years exported small arms to countries where there are major human rights concerns, including Algeria, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone. Some small-arms exports have been directly linked to human rights violations. Reports from Algeria, for example, suggested that sporting and hunting weapons were used by ‘death squads’ to massacre civilians in 1997. In 2003, a contingent of such weapons worth $1.7 million was shipped to Algeria by the Russian Federation. The developing world also spends massively on small arms. While information collated by the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), a research coalition of nongovernmental organisations, suggested the majority of small arms exported by western European countries remains in the region or goes to North America, guns to the value of $200 million were exported to Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East in just one year, a value equivalent to hundreds of thousands of weapons. This figure also does not account for the weapons transferred to, and within, the developing world through black market trading.
Legislative loopholes undermine weapon control efficacy. By licensing production to another country – that is, outsourcing production, often to the purchasing country – labour costs are lowered and controls over arms transfers that may apply in some countries can be evaded. Research by the Omega Foundation suggested that companies in at least 15 countries, including the US, United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany and Switzerland, have established agreements permitting the production of arms in 45 other countries.
Not only does the legal trade in small arms sometimes directly supply irresponsible end users, the absence of controls means guns can easily be diverted into the black market. Estimates suggest that 80 percent to 90 percent of the small arms traded on the black market originate in state-sanctioned trade.
While the value of the black market trade in small arms may be relatively small-scale – worth around $1 billion – it is almost impossible to control. In addition, the durability of small arms means they can easily be recycled from one conflict to another, or passed between the hands of different criminals. The recent conflicts in West Africa are but one arresting example of this, with guns passing from, and continuing to wreak devastation in, Sierra Leone to Liberia, and now most recently to Côte d’Ivoire.
Small arms move into the illegal arena in various ways. Governments at war, for example, may transfer weapons to sympathetic nonstate actors. Security forces and other authorised weapons users may supply and sell arms, while civilians, aided by inadequate regulation, can purchase firearms and then illegally sell them on, in a process known as the ‘ant trade’.
Weapons may be purchased or stolen from poorly guarded government stockpiles, or recovered from the battlefield following combat. In 2002, for example, arms collected in Albania were transferred to Rwanda, from where they were allegedly passed on to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In addition, disarmament programmes or changes of weaponry by armed forces can flood the black market with weapons, as was the case after former Warsaw Pact countries sold off the standard arms they had been using.
Arms brokers – effectively middlemen – also play a key role, and have been implicated in supplying some of the worst conflict zones and areas most notorious for human rights abuses, including Afghanistan, Angola, the DRC, Iraq, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Africa. As the arrangement of arms deals is an unregulated area, arms brokers can operate outside the law and traffic arms illegally on behalf of governments or private actors. Even where controls do exist at the national level – fewer than 40 countries were found in 2005 to have them – brokers either rely on a lack of political will to enforce such laws or simply move offshore.
Arms embargoes are also no barrier. Brokers find ways of either avoiding controls or colluding with authorities. Creating a complex supply chain involving many front companies and handling agents, using fraudulent or misleading paperwork, and routing deliveries through third countries that may not be subject to embargo restrictions are just some of the tactics deployed by brokers.