The Scourge of Small Arms

December 12, 1999
Anya Schmemann

Small arms and light weapons -- weapons that can be carried by an individual soldier -- are most commonly used in the small wars of the post-Cold War era. In the 1990s, about 4 million soldiers and civilians have been killed by small arms in internal conflicts of the developing world. A new report offers a comprehensive strategy to curb illegal small arms trafficking, which has fueled an increasing number of armed conflicts.

The Scourge of Small Arms, published by the World Peace Foundation (WPF) and the Program on Instrastate Conflict in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, outlines measures that the U.S. and other international organizations can take to combat the proliferation of light weapons. They include the monitoring and tracking of weapons, the creation of an international database of traffickers and the establishment of a United Nations Convention that criminalizes illicit small arms sales.

More people been killed in wars in this decade by small arms than by major weapons systems and millions have been wounded and displaced from their homes. Economic development efforts have been undermined, medical costs increased, and improvements to living standards denied -- all caused directly or indirectly by the proliferation of small arms. The easy availability of small arms also assists drug trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and much more.

Portable, cheap, and readily procured, these weapons are supremely destructive. A Brazilian-made assault rifle can fire 700 rounds a minute, for example. It is estimated that as many as 500 million small arms may currently be in circulation in the developing world. The global trade in these weapons is valued at $7 billion a year. About 70 countries manufacture small arms, but the biggest suppliers are the United States, Russia, the Czech Republic, China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Brazil, and Bulgaria.

In The Scourge of Small Arms, authors Michael Klare and WPF Program Director Robert Rotberg focus on whether or how supplies of small arms can be limited by United Nations, European Union, or U.S. initiative and action. They recommend twenty-four ways to advance awareness of the problem and how to limit illicit sales and shipments. Their proposals include the following:

* U.N., U.S. and European efforts should be focused on gathering data on weapons production by country, type, quantity, and destination;

* The creation of a database of black-market traffickers and brokers in the small arms field should be compiled;

* The United States should try to add specific language about small arms reporting to the proposed U.N. Convention to Transnational Crime, to boost efforts underway at the U. N. and in regional organizations;

* A strong U.N. Convention should be drafted and signed that criminalizes illicit small arms trafficking and requires that all legal trafficking be conducted with verifiable end-user certificates;

* The world’s excess stockpile of guns, such as older durable weapons like Kalashnikovs manufactured in during World War II, should be significantly reduced, and new production should be limited.

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