State of the World 2005 Trends and Facts - Disarming Postwar Societies

A Global “Wild West”

In countries across the globe, there are hundreds of millions of low-tech, inexpensive, sturdy, easy-to-use “small arms and light weapons.” This includes firearms such as handguns, hunting rifles, assault rifles, and machine guns, as well as portable weapons like rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired missiles. No one knows how many of these weapons exist, but estimates by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based NGO, run to 639 million. Military-style weapons, estimated at more than 240 million, have the greatest firepower. The most ubiquitous among these are assault rifles, of which some 90–122 million have been produced worldwide. But civilian-type firearms are far more numerous.

Small arms are the weapons of choice in most of today’s conflicts—battles fought within rather than between countries—and they are often the tools for criminal or personal violence in societies at peace. This is particularly true where guns are widely dispersed to private armies and militias, insurgent groups, criminal organizations, and private citizens. Hundreds of thousands of people are killed by small arms each year in armed conflicts and non-war gun violence.

Beyond injuries and loss of life, the wide availability of small arms creates a climate of fear and lawlessness that can undermine political stability and disrupt economic activity, in addition to the outright destruction or deterioration of physical infrastructure. In rural areas, endemic violence may compel farmers to abandon their harvests. Among pastoral groups in eastern Africa, the influx of high-caliber weapons has made traditional cattle rustling practices much more deadly. Small arms violence can also have fatal consequences for human development, disrupting already overstretched health care and education systems.

Sell, Loot, Smuggle

The United States, Russia, and China are the dominant producers of small arms, but there are at least another 27 medium-sized producer nations—15 in Europe, 6 in Asia, 3 in the Middle East, plus Canada, Brazil, and South Africa. All in all, at least 1,249 companies in 92 countries are involved in production. Not included in these statistics are insurgent and opposition groups in several nations that are able to produce simple small-caliber weapons. In addition, illicit small-scale production appears to be fairly widespread, taking place in at least 25 countries, including Chile, Ghana, South Africa, Turkey, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Global Small-Arms Production

Global production is estimated at 7.5–8 million units per year, of which 7 million are civilian-type firearms and the remainder military-style weapons. Annual production of military-caliber small arms ammunition alone is believed to be in the range of 10–14 billion rounds—or roughly one-and a- half to two bullets for every living person on Earth.

The United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Brazil, and China are the largest exporters, while the United States, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Canada are leading importers. Legal international trade has been estimated at $4 billion a year, or about half of the estimated value of total production; the illicit trade is believed to be somewhere under $1 billion.

Of course, a “legal” weapon can easily become an illegal one. A significant proportion of even the legal international trade is done secretly. And numerous trading networks allow clandestine supplies by government agencies, black market sales by private arms merchants, and unauthorized transfers from original to secondary recipients. Adding in such factors as theft or loss (at least 1 million firearms are lost or stolen worldwide each year), once the weapons are produced there is virtually no telling in whose hands they will ultimately end up.

In a number of developing countries, arms purchases have been financed through the sale of commodities or through direct barter for natural resources, animal products, or drugs. In Colombia, Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, for instance, revenues from oil, timber, diamonds and other gems, cocaine and opium, a variety of metals and minerals, and wildlife products helped both the government and rebel forces to buy arms and maintain fighting forces.

Other important sources of weapons flows are the capture of arms by insurgent forces, the wholesale looting of military and police depots, and continuous “leaks” from government arsenals as underpaid or disgruntled soldiers steal and sell off weapons. Small arms are also often transferred illicitly from one hotspot of the world to another.

Looted Weapons

  • Following the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship in Somalia, several hundred thousand weapons were pillaged from army arsenals in 1991–92, fueling the rise of warlords.
  • In 1997, a popular revolt in Albania led to the ransacking of military and police depots. Some 643,000 small arms were stolen, many smuggled to ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia, where fighting flared up later.
  • After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, an estimated 4.2 million guns were looted from military arsenals, adding to at least 3 million firearms already privately owned by civilians.
  • Guns from Argentine military and police arsenals have been rented out to domestic gangs and smuggled to crime-plagued Rio de Janeiro.
  • In the Philippines, the vast majority of weapons in the hands of insurgents are from the country’s police and military depots.

A Limited Response to Date

Tackling the proliferation of small arms requires a multitude of approaches, including greater transparency, tighter export controls to guard against illicit shipments, more cooperation among national customs agencies, codes of conduct and embargoes to prevent transfers to questionable users, a reduction in the number of weapons in circulation through gun buyback programs and other collection methods, and destruction of surplus stocks.

During the last decade, export controls have become increasingly strict and governments have begun to exercise greater caution in their sales to countries with armed conflicts or human rights violations. An array of regional agreements addressing arms manufacturing, transfers, and stockpile management are now in place, though most are not legally binding, and governments sometimes ignore their stipulations. On the global level, the U.N. General Assembly has adopted a Firearms Protocol to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which just entered into force in July 2005. The protocol aims to promote cooperation among governments in preventing and countering illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms, components, and ammunition by developing harmonized international standards.

Regional Codes, Protocols, and Moratoria

1993: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted Principles Governing Conventional Arms Transfers, followed by a Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons, laying out criteria on arms manufacture and export, brokering, and stockpile and surplus weapons management.

1997: Members of the Organization of American States signed the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials, the first binding agreement.

1998: The European Union approved a Code of Conduct on Arms Exports stipulating that arms should not be sent to countries where there is a clear risk that they might be used for external aggression or internal repression.

1998: West African heads of state proclaimed a moratorium on the import, export, and production of all small arms within the region. The moratorium has been marred by repeated violations, however.

2001: The Southern African Development Community adopted a Protocol on Firearms, Ammunition and Related Materials aimed at creating regional controls on possession and against trafficking.

2002: The South Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons was created in cooperation with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

2004: Representatives of 11 African nations in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions signed the Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons, obliging them to take concrete steps toward curbing the manufacture, trafficking, and possession of illegal small arms.

A coalition of civil-society groups from countries around the world, the International Action Network on Small Arms, is pressuring governments to follow through on their commitments and to close the gap between rhetoric and action. Other groups are conducting critical research and assessments of small arms–related issues for governments, NGOs, and the media.

One of the most pressing tasks is to collect arms left over at the end of civil wars. Since 1990, there have been at least 17 major U.N. and non-U.N. peacekeeping operations whose mandate included disarming former soldiers and rebel fighters. Also, a variety of gun buy-back programs have been launched, encouraging individuals to turn arms in voluntarily in return for monetary or in-kind compensation. Though the success of such efforts has been uneven, in total, more than eight million surplus arms have been destroyed between 1990 and 2003.

From Combat to Civilian Life

Demobilizing and reintegrating ex-combatants into civilian life is another essential task. But this is a monumental challenge where warfare has destroyed a large portion of public infrastructure, economic activity remains handicapped, and national treasuries are depleted. Many former combatants have limited or inappropriate education and skills, and job training is often either not available or inadequate. The temptation to engage in banditry, drug trafficking, or other criminal activities may be hard to resist, particularly as these tend to be more lucrative than the precarious life of a subsistence farmer or day laborer. Others may decide to sell off any weapons they kept in order to supplement otherwise meager incomes, feeding a rampant black market in surplus arms.

Reintegration of ex-combatants needs to go hand in hand with the broader reconstruction of society, including reconciliation and the building of political processes and institutions that can prevent renewed instability and violence. The experience with demobilization in different parts of the world over the last 10–15 years is decidedly mixed. Undoubtedly, however, the practical understanding of what it takes to make post-conflict demobilization and reintegration processes work has increased significantly.

Child soldiers have particular needs. Many of them never had a “normal” childhood, and some know nothing but organized violence. Family, friends, and community have typically been ravaged by war; schools are often destroyed or abandoned, meaning that many child soldiers lack the literacy and other skills necessary for civilian life.

Child Soldiers

Altogether, more than a half-million children—most aged 15 to 18, but some far younger—have been recruited into government armed forces and a wide range of non-state armed groups in more than 85 countries worldwide. More than 300,000 of these minors are thought to be actively involved in fighting in some 33 ongoing or recent conflicts. While some children have been recruited forcibly, others are driven to join by poverty, particularly a lack of education and jobs, alienation, and discrimination.

Demobilization and reintegration programs frequently suffer from a dearth of financial support, lacking the wholehearted commitment of donor states. In general, it has proved easier to secure funding for disarmament than demobilization; the reintegration component—which tends to have less visibility and requires longer-term commitments—has been particularly shortchanged. In the end, in the interest of human development, disarmament needs to proceed. And in the interest of disarmament and security, sustainable development is indispensable.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who are the major producers of small arms?
  2. What are some of the major social and economic impacts of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons?
  3. Is there a clear distinction between legal and illegal arms?
  4. Does the international response to the small arms challenge seem appropriate? Is there sufficient progress in controlling the production and trade of such weapons?
  5. In what regions of the world does there seem to be the most progress in small arms control? What regions are behind?
  6. Why is the demobilization and reintegration into civilian life of former soldiers and other combatants an important aspect of small arms control?

Further information as well as the references for this material is available in State of the World 2005.