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Small Arms Increase Civilian Death; are Difficult to Control
By Emily Thompson, American RadioWorks

Most warfare in the past two decades has been regional and often ethnic in nature. So why should Americans be concerned about the increase in the global arms trade?

This light machine gun—the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon—can be used by an individual or mounted on a Humvee. Photo: Coloradio Army National Guard
The Problem With Small Arms

Since the end of the Cold War, ethnic and internal conflicts have replaced superpower races. Since 1990, more than 100 of these conflicts have erupted worldwide, killing millions of people. The struggles have been along tribal, religious and ethnic lines, and the fighting locally confined. Most victims are civilians, a large majority women and children, and most die as a result of small arms.

Small arms are the weapons of choice for combatants in these conflicts. They are cheap, easy to use, durable, and require little maintenance. They are easy to transport, and can be operated by one or two people (and even children). United Nations secretary Kofi Annan has listed small arms as "revolvers and rifles, machine guns and mortars, hand grenades, anti-tank guns and portable missile launchers."

The UN estimates that there are more than 500 million of these small arms in the world today and that 40 to 60 percent of them have been acquired illegally.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, in some countries an assault rifle can be bought for $15 U.S., or for a bag of maize.

Characteristics of small arms which make them particularly well suited to the intrastate conflicts of the 1990s:

Simplicity and durability: Small arms have few moving parts and are easy to handle with a minimum of training. Assault rifles can remain operational for 20-40 years or more.

Portability and concealability: Small arms are easily transported or smuggled into areas of conflict.

Low cost and wide availability: There is an abundance of suppliers who mass manufacture weapons for civilian, military and police use. Weapons are recycled from conflict to conflict, and the profusion of arms has caused prices to drop. In Uganda the price of an assault rifle was reported to be the same as that of a chicken.

Lethality: New technologies have dramatically increased the lethality of rapid-fire assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. A small group can have firepower that matches or exceeds that of police and military forces.

Source: Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict, International Conference of the Red Cross, 1999

In addition to government-sponsored transfers and legally sanctioned sales, small arms end up in developing countries through complex deals orchestrated by middlemen and gunrunners. The middlemen operate across national borders and are often former military and government officials familiar with the arms business.

Efforts to Control Small Arms

In 1996, Congress passed an amendment to the 1976 arms control export act requiring American arms brokers to register and obtain licenses for all their weapons sales. This law has been hailed as one of the best legislative instruments for controlling arms middlemen. Yet to date no one has been prosecuted for failing to register sales.

In July of 2001, the United Nations convened to discuss the problem of small arms. The conference resulted in a program of action and participants agreed to reconvene no later than 2006 to review progress.

At the conference, The United States—backed by Russia, China and India, all gun producing countries—made clear its opposition to any efforts that might infringe on the rights of American citizens to own guns or restrict American gun manufacturers from selling arms abroad.

The U.S. also rejected any measure barring governments from arming "non-state actors" (i.e. groups such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan).

Both demands were met in the final program of action, which is voluntary but politically binding and has no enforcement or timeline. ( Read a summary of the program of action from the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs.)

The U.S. Department of State calls the conference a success, saying the program of action has strengthened export controls, embargo enforcement, arms brokering enforcement, and assistance to affected regions.

The humanitarian group Human Rights Watch says that the conference did not address state responsibility for weapons proliferation and has focused too much on the illegal trafficking of small arms.

UN investigators have found that legal arms shipments can easily be diverted into illegal deliveries. Current UN sanctions and embargoes on arms are difficult to enforce -- to date no one has been prosecuted. And disabling tons of guns is neither cheap nor easy.

The U.S. State Department has said that establishing strong monitoring and policing mechanisms throughout the world will require "an unprecedented demonstration of sustained political will on the part of regional and international leaders."

UN Conference on Small Arms
Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael T. Klare, A Scourge of Small Arms (Scientific American, June 2000)
The New York Times, Nations Agree to Limit Sales of Illicit Arms (July 21, 2001)
International Committee of the Red Cross, Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict (June 1999)
Robert Muggah and Eric Berman, Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Geneva: The Small Arms Survey, July 2001)

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