The major wars of the 20th century gave a boost to the legal arms trade. But the end of the Cold War and the move from international to local and regional conflicts pushed trade in small arms and light weapons into a gray zone where oversight is difficult. Today, brokers and their networks of intermediaries and sub-contractors are increasingly involved in trafficking weapons to rebel groups fighting in developing countries.
Amnesty International arms expert Barry Wood explains how illicit weapons are transported into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"This is one of the planes coming into the DRC. That registration number there is entirely fictitious and that is more or less normal," he noted.
Wood, co-author of a recent study on illicit arms brokering, says it requires a lot of expertise and can involve people across many continents. The eventual destination of the weapons is more often than not Africa.
"This one is again a plane with no markings on it whatsoever, just delivering its green boxes in Entebbe not very long ago," he added. "And just in case you think the problem is going away, this is another arms flight coming into Darfur just a few months ago."
The United Nations calls Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. Since war broke out in 2003 between government-backed Arab militia and rebel groups some 200,000 people have been killed.
Hilde Janne Skorpen of the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs says illicit traffic in small arms is a threat to international peace and security and a serious impediment to development.
"The role of the U.N. in combating the illicit flow has been more firmly established," she noted. "The decision by the General Assembly this fall to start work on an arms trade treaty is a crucial step towards control of the international weapons trade."
The United Nations estimates small arms cause more than 1,300 deaths every day. At least 500,000 people are killed by them every year. Since small arms are cheap and easy to move, the trade in these weapons is extremely difficult to trace or monitor.
Small arms expert Keith Krauss, says today more and more brokers are working privately and illegally. From a global standpoint, he says arms brokering is not a huge money maker. But individually, a broker can make a decent profit.
"The seller is prepared to pay a significant premium over the market price, because they are not legally able to acquire weapons," he explained. "But I would have to say, like all black-market activities, you don't have a good sense of the scale. But it is not a large percentage of the total small arms market. It might be up to a quarter. It's probably lower than that. So, it's a few hundred million dollars a year probably in total."
The illegal small arms trade extends all over the world. Weapons reportedly are being sold to rebel groups in South America and Asia, such as the FARC in Colombia and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But in recent years the trade has been mainly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the last decade, Wood says the arms procurement system has moved away from single suppliers to a more globalized market. A study of the Rwandan archives traces the network of small arms dealers that supplied weapons to the people who carried out the Rwandan genocide. Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in the spring of 1994. Wood says the extremists got their arms from dealers in several countries, including Belgium, Britain, Italy, Albania and Israel.
"There were seven cargo loads that were flown through just before the genocide started right up until the genocide had ended. And so, you could say, if you cost it all up, $12.5 million of small arms and light weapons were used in that terrible humanitarian catastrophe," he noted.
Improved transport and communications aided by the Internet have expanded the scope and reach of small arms traders. A broker with a mobile phone, a laptop computer and an air ticket can conclude deals and move from one country to another without any control over his activities. It is virtually impossible to prosecute someone for an alleged crime if the legal jurisdiction under which it was committed cannot be pinpointed.