Small arms kill more people around the world each year than other conventional weapons of war such as tanks, bombers or warships. And small arms proliferation has become a major item on the United Nations’ agenda.
“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?”
That's from the movie “Lord of War” about the shadowy world of small arms trafficking. The story’s protagonist is an international arms dealer who acquires vast sums of money selling cheap, Soviet-era arms to corrupt African warlords.
Since its release last September, the film “Lord of War”, has appealed to audiences and policy analysts alike. It received official support from Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization that is spearheading a worldwide campaign to curtail illicit weapons trading.
Colby Goodman with Amnesty International in New York says the film scooped the media, “The movie brought to life things that we were trying to convey. The concerns about the trafficking, the way arms middlemen can so easily flout national and international rules to get arms to the most abusive rebel groups and repressive regimes.”
According to Rachel Stohl, a senior researcher at the Center for Defense Information here in Washington, “The illegal trade in small arms is valued at anywhere up to a billion dollars a year. Some people say it is 25 percent of the legal arms market, some people say it could be as high as 50 percent.”
“The customers can be an individual, a rebel group, a guerilla or insurgent group. It could be a street gang or a government ineligible to receive weapons because they are under an international arms embargo. If you want weapons and have the resources to pay for them, then you can get them,” says Stohl.
Cold War Stockpiles
The small arms black market received a tremendous boost with the end of the Cold War, when huge amounts of arms suddenly became available for sale through former Soviet states.
The supply of weapons has never been so plentiful, says Matthew Schroeder, Manager of the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project in Washington.
“The Soviet Union”, adds Schroeder, “had stockpiled millions of weapons in places like the Ukraine in the event that there was some type of military action on the plains of Europe. And when the Soviet Union collapsed they pulled their forces, but they left the weapons. And so you had countries in various states of political and financial chaos with these huge stocks of weapons. And a lot of these weapons were diverted to war zones.”
Illicit arms are traded like most other commodities. “There’s often a variety of middlemen who operate these transactions that move the merchandise from one location to another,” says analyst Rachel Stohl. She adds that in some cases people literally smuggle “weapons across borders on their persons and other times, it is much more sophisticated -- private jets landing in remote airfields like what you see in the movies.”
According to Matthew Schroeder, illicit arms dealers are often private contractors closely linked to government power structures. “Some of them are government officials, some of them have lots of contacts with government officials and then some of them are real small-time actors. You know, people purchase guns from stores or bribe government officials to get them from arsenals and then they trade them on the black market. They have no network, no contacts,” says Schroeder.
Conflicts Fueled by Small Arms
Groups like Amnesty International argue that the proliferation of small arms escalates and prolongs violence and perpetuates repressive regimes. They say these weapons kill, on average, more than a thousand men, women and children every day. Many more are wounded or forced to flee their homes. Moreover experts note that the spread of arms disrupts economic development and intensifies poverty.
Ann McDonald is Director of the Control Arms Campaign for the British aid organization Oxfam International, which has joined a worldwide effort of more than 700 human rights organizations to curb the illicit small arms trade. She says the proliferation of weapons incites crime in places like Africa.
McDonald recently spent time in Kenya. There she talked to farmers and villagers who described how formerly peaceful communities were experiencing a real increase in the level of conflict with things like armed cattle rustling taking place, resulting in any the deaths. “This is an area that previously didn’t have a problem with armed violence,” warns McDonald.
A devastating byproduct of prolonged warfare in Africa and elsewhere are child soldiers. Former child soldier Okewa from Uganda is typical of the 300-thousand children around the world who, according to the United Nations, are armed with pistols and machine guns. “I was given different assignments like killing people. Cutting them dead or shooting them with a gun. It was easier to cut them, the gun would jerk me painfully,” says Okewa.
Small arms proliferation is now on the U.N. agenda. The world body recently held a conference on the subject and agreed to establish an expert group focused on taking steps to control arms brokers.
The momentum for international intervention has been mounting in the wake of the devastation in the many conflicts since the end of the Cold War, says arms specialist Rachel Stohl.
She points to the “myriad human rights abuses that the world has witnessed, the genocide that we know now could have been prevented had there been some kinds of interventions by the international community.” This has been, she maintains, “the impetus for countries to say, ‘We have a responsibility to make sure that weapons we are producing and exporting are used in an appropriate responsible way.’”
Meanwhile, the U.N. intergovernmental expert group on curtailing illegal small arms is expected to hold its first session next month.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.