|ISSUE 55 SUMMER 2007
- conscience in cold storage
Small arms and light weapons are the weapons of choice for insurgents, terrorists, warlords and crime syndicates as we see in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are also the weapons of choice of governmental military, which is why they are also available to insurgents and warlords. Governments in the United Nations have failed to reach a common definition, but you will recognize a small arm when you get hit by one. They are generally considered to be weapons that can be carried by one or a small group of persons such as pistols, revolvers, assault rifles, machine guns, man-portable air defence systems, and howitzers with calibres of less than 100 millimeters. The Kalashnikov AK is the best known and the most widely used of small arms.
The Small Arms Trade: A Beginner’s Guide is a good overview of the question, usefully supplemented by the SIPRI Yearbooks (published by Oxford University Press). It is estimated that there are more than 600 million small arms in global circulation. One would think that with so many weapons around the market would be saturated, but there are always new buyers and sellers. However A Beginner’s Guide is not very helpful for those who want to get into non-governmental gun running, although the book has a good bibliography of articles and websites. Basically, gun running is part of a three-fold system of trafficking in drugs, weapons and people. Those who are already running the guns probably recruit from their own milieu rather than from employment offices. Governments, which do most of the trafficking, have their own avenues of advancement for civil servants, though how ‘kickbacks’ for arms sales are done is not often set out in books on public administration.
It is likely that the editors at Oneworld hope to sell the book to those who oppose small arms transfers rather than those wanting to join in the business. Unfortunately, the anti-arms buyers are not a very large market. While there are hundreds of thousands of people estimated to have been killed each year with such weapons, and many more are living in daily fear of armed violence, they do not read books on how to limit the arms trade. Some people have faith that governments will do something — faith being confidence in things unseen. In 2001, more than 140 states sought to address the proliferation of illicit small arms by agreeing to a UN Program of Action to Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. ‘All its aspects’ is only in the title since the unexamined legal sales is how most weapons get on the illicit market. In June 2006, the UN organized a review of the 5-years of action and was to set out steps for the future. However, no agreement proved possible. There was no review of the arms trade, illicit or legal, and no agreed upon steps for the future. In fact, there was no final document of the review conference — a sign of how deeply divided the governments were. Such arms control conferences usually have a ‘final document’ written well in advance of the conference with square brackets around the words on which there is disagreement. Diplomatic editors have long experience on making documents weaker so that at the end of a conference some text comes out allowing everyone to go home with the impression of having done something. That they could not produce even a weak final statement is an indication of how difficult it was to reach even a minimum agreement.
In the case of the illicit small arms review, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the USA led the way to do nothing. With such powerful leaders other states who also wanted to do nothing just sat back and shook their heads saying ‘we can’t go against the leaders’ especially as Pakistan was speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s 40 some members. Russia, the USA, and China all have friends or clients. Moreover, there is a procedural hangover from the Cold War years when governments felt that you cannot get disarmament by resolutions. Therefore consensus — reaching an agreement without a negative vote — became the UN way of dealing with arms control issues. Thus, one small state can hold up the process. When you have China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the USA as a solid bloc of opposition, there is little that Norway or the Netherlands can do other than propose that ‘the process should continue’.
There may be ‘coalitions of the willing’ as Norway has been creating, concerning cluster weapons. Ways must be found to reduce global suffering by opposing gun runners. The non-governmental International Action Network on Small Arms has done a good job of awareness-building and putting pressure on governments. As The Small Arms Trade stresses ‘What is new is the ability of terrorists, criminals, renegade soldiers and guerrillas to cause many casualties and create extensive chaos and political upheaval in a very short time. Graves throughout Africa: in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia are mute testament to the deadly effects of recycled small arms and light weapons when governments fail to control their flow.’
It is up to us to transform the mute testament to a strong call to deal with a key threat to peace.