Small Arms Proliferation--The Next Disarmament Challenge

6:00 PM EST
Saturday, October 25,1997

Small Arms Proliferation--
The Next Disarmament Challenge

Assault Rifles, Hand Grenades, and Landmines
Fuel Social Instability Long After Wars End

More than 500 million military style hand-held weapons exist now- enough to arm every 12th human on earth - and millions more are produced each year, reports a new Worldwatch study released today. Violence fed by the uncontrolled spread of these weapons is further destabilizing societies already ravaged by war, poverty, and environmental degradation.

The report, Small Arms, Big Impact: The Next Challenge of Disarmament notes that in the aftermath of the Cold War, and as many "little" wars wind down, millions of assault rifles and similar military weapons fall into the hands of civilians, criminal elements, and irregular armed forces. These small arms are the tools for as much as 90 percent of the killings in today's wars, and are the fuel of criminal violence. The author of the report, Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner, notes that " . . . Parts of the world are now a caricature of America's 'Wild West', where force subverts the rule of law, threatening social stability and economic progress." He says:

"Disputes once settled with words are now solved with hand grenades in El Salvador. In Russia, South Africa, and Angola, weapons meant for war are now used by criminals to fuel crime waves and wage turf battles. Elephant poachers now use military weapons to slaughter herds and intimidate preserve guards. And in Kenya, historic conflicts between competing cattle herders have escalated to deadly warfare with the introduction of automatic rifles."

New arms production is one source of this proliferation, but the trade in second-hand arms flourishes. Excess equipment from United States, Russian, and European armies is routinely given away or sold cheaply to other countries. For example, Turkey has received 300,000 Kalashnikov rifles from the former East Germany.

Weapons left over after civil wars often enter the black market and resurface at other hotspots, or find their way to drug cartels and other organized crime groups.

Giving away surplus arms may appear to be the cheapest way to dispose of them, but when these same weapons are turned against soldiers or civilians of the selling countries, or destabilize what could be a strong market for its businesses, such accounting is revealed to be short-sighted.

Given a multitude of suppliers and supply networks-ranging from government agencies, arms manufacturers, and licensed firearms dealers to smugglers, organized crime groups and armed insurgents-there is no telling where such weapons end up. The line between legitimate and illicit transfers is often blurred.

The list of countries with serious small arms control problems encompasses war-torn cases we recognize from newspaper headlines to countries that are usually considered stable:

  • China is concerned about "leakage" of arms from military and police depots.

  • Mexico is receiving an influx of illegally shipped U.S. arms.

  • Mozambique and El Salvador have demobilized soldiers and guerilla fighters with mixed results, causing discontent and banditry.

  • Russia has the twin problems of demobilized and ill-paid soldiers and massive leakage of arms or all kinds from military depots.

  • South Africa is being flooded with illegal arms from within the country as well as from neighboring states, fueling waves of criminal violence.

  • In the U.S., where there are more firearm homicides in one day than in Japan in one year, there are more licensed gun dealers than McDonald's outlets.
There are several reasons for these weapons' wide use: They are cheap enough for even the poorest of criminals and insurgent groups to acquire in large quantities; they are lightweight and easy to conceal for smuggling and for carrying out operations; they are sturdy, require very little maintenance, and last a long time; and finally, they are very easy to use - no training is needed and no complex organization is necessary. That makes them child's play to handle - and indeed that may be boosting the use of children in combat.

"In stable societies with common mores and the rule of law," Renner notes, "Perhaps a case could be made for ignoring the proliferation of military-style small arms. But in so many countries today, governments are weak, justice is arbitrary, the economy is foundering, and crime is rampant. In these cases, the proliferation of small arms lights a match to gasoline."

In a global political arena in which the control of nuclear weapons, tanks, and poison gas have preoccupied policymakers, small arms have been the "orphans" of arms control. Yet since these small arms have had such a devastating impact on society, Renner suggests that it is time to carry out several key policy recommendations to stop the spread of small arms into society:

  1. Disarm former combatants quickly and fully when wars end, establish detailed inventories of arms, and destroy collected weapons.

  2. Create effective programs to re-integrate former combatants into civil society, and reduce the incentives for them to turn to banditry for survival.

  3. Destroy surplus arms instead of selling them off cheaply on the international market.

  4. Adopt an international code governing arms sales, to restrict transfers to those who flout international standards of non-aggression, human rights, and democratic governance.

  5. Clamp down on illegal trade by improving national customs controls and standardizing export regulations.

  6. Expand buy-back programs and other methods of collecting weapons already in circulation.

  7. Limit new production of small arms, and convert arms industries to more productive work.
But Renner cautions that curtailing arms availability will not in itself create stable societies. The most important step is to deal with the underlying causes of the violence in which these weapons are used. He says: "Only when we tackle the difficult tasks of eliminating poverty, halting environmental degradation, addressing gross social inequities, and slowing population growth will we have achieved our goal. Curtailing arms is vitally important, but it is just the first step toward a peace that is more than the absence of war."

The social instability we see from the inner cities of the United States to Mozambique is both a cause of and a result of the proliferation of small arms. While addressing the proliferation of small arms around the world is not a sufficient action in itself to bring peace and social stability to troubled societies, it is a necessary one step in that direction.