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Lora Lumpe (Ed). Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms (London: Zed Books, 2000, 243pp)

The United Nations will be hosting the ‘UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects’ 9-20 July 2001 in New York. Some cynical observers noted that the governments did not want the meeting held in Geneva – where most arms control negotiations take place – because the Red Cross and human rights groups have too many representatives on the ground in Geneva, and they know too much of what is going on. As the editor notes ‘Hardly any criminals, paramilitaries or insurgents, and even relatively few repressive governments produce their own weaponry. Most rely on the illegal – or black market – for guns, grenades, mortars and other weapons that sustain their warfare, repression, terrorism or violent crime... In the black market, private dealers (who often have ties to various governments’ intelligence agencies) knowingly violate the arms sales laws or policies of source, transit, and/or recipient states for commercial gain... Moreover, due to the high level of secrecy that attends legal, state-authorised small arms transfers, it is unknown whether, in general, the legal or the illegal small arms trade contributes more directly to ongoing warfare and repression around the world.’

Thus it would be useful for Peace Matters readers to contact the Foreign Office so that the Conference will have the attention it merits. Non-governmental organisations and some peace research institutions have been bringing attention to the effects of the unrestricted flow and wide availability of small arms and light weapons. This book has grown out of the important work of two Norwegian efforts: the research of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers which is a coalition among a small number of Norwegian aid organisations and research centres. (For an update on their small arms research, see their website: There is also a website of the International Action Network on Small Arms:

Lora Lumpe ends the book with a ‘Summary of Recommendations’ which would be a good place for the reader to start if s/he wishes to lobby for action prior to the Conference. None of the recommendations are very radical, but the Conference’s aim is to take arms out of the hands of guerrilla groups who may be fighting the governments attending. Illicit is the key word in the title of the Conference and in All Its Aspects was added as a public relations gesture. This is not a conference on limiting the sales of small arms from one government to another government. The aim of the Conference is to keep weapons out of the hands of thugs in Sierra Leone, UNITA in Angola and a mosaic of Islamist groups in Kashmir. This is a worthy aim – although from the experience in Sierra Leone, we know that people are willing to kill with locally-made machetes. Thus there is little likelihood that government representatives will spend much time on ‘root causes’ of small arms proliferation. No one wants to discuss why there are armed Islamist groups in Kashmir. As Emanuela-Chiara Gillard notes in her useful chapter ‘What’s Legal? What’s Illegal?’ ‘Illicit arms transfers are commonly held to mean those that occur outside the control, or against the wishes of exporting states.’

Probably the most comprehensive initiative to date to create a framework to regulate arms exports is the Code of Conduct for Arms Exports adopted by the Council of the European Union in June 1998. The Code covers exports of military equipment – including small arms and light weaponry – and dual-use goods. The Code also contains provisions aimed at harmonising its application by member states and increasing transparency. However, the principal weakness of the EU Code of Conduct is that it is a non-binding statement of intent and does not address related issues such as arms brokering and the licensed production of weapons in non-EU countries. Thus, the ultimate decision remains with the national authorities. The process is not regularly open to parliamentary scrutiny and member states are not required to report comprehensively to the public on implementation.
Canada has also floated a proposal to make the licit trade in arms more open, accountable and responsible on a world-wide level. These codes of conduct and standards will be in the background of the Conference, but the emphasis will remain on the small area on which governments agree, at least in public – that illicit trade is a bad thing.

The illegal trade is also linked to the drug trade which is complex with political and financial aspects and growing sophistication of the means of evasion: the proliferation of bank and corporate secrecy havens, free trade zones, flag-of-convenience shipping centres and the rapid diffusion of information about how to use them. As R T Naylor points out in his analysis ‘Gunsmoke and Mirrors: Financing the Illegal Trade’: ‘There are glaring asymmetries in national regulations producing a multitude of cracks through which an arms deal can fall. In some cases, these cracks in the system were deliberately created by governments to let certain deals get through. Governments also play games with their own rules, declaring material to have been destroyed in combat or in accidents, and then quietly selling it, or insisting that certain militarily essential components and supplies are really ‘non-lethal’... Yet another, often overwhelming obstacle is that arms merchants, however profit driven, have proven in too many cases in the past to be working not solely on their own account. Governments, usually through their intelligence services, have long made a practice of deliberately diverting deals to the black market to give themselves deniability. Unless there has been a dramatic wave of internal reforms among powerful governments, they can hardly be relied upon to crack down on the movement of arms or on the people – often ‘retired spies’ – who move them. Veteran intelligence operatives from the former East Bloc countries numbered among the most prominent suppliers of the Balkan wars, and much of the material originated in state inventories.’

Pushed by investigative journalists, academics, and non-governmental organisations, the issue of small arms trade and use has gained ever greater attention. There are a wide number of efforts under way with varying degrees of success. Many of these efforts are related to, or draw techniques from approaches being made to limit other types of trafficking such as drugs, women and endangered species. There are very real difficulties. However, one of the opportunities of the UN Conference in July is that people working on the issue will to meet, exchange experiences and plan future actions. Thus, it is important that NGO representatives prepare well for the Conference and build real governmental support. Running Guns is a good place to start for an overview, and the chapters have useful bibliographies for future study.

René Wadlow