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Weapons Stockpiles and the Arms Trade

by Bernard ADAM, Director of the GRIP

Full text of an article from The Courier ACP-EU
No. 168, March-April: pages 73-75


Can one conceive of an effective conflict-prevention policy without tackling the problem of the global arms trade? The economic and geopolitical interests of certain states would certainly be affected by such a move, but it would also make the main weapons exporters (and those who buy arms) face up to their responsibilities. The author of this article, who is Director of the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security Peace (GRIP), believes that a key element in conflict prevention is improved controls on arms exports, particularly where fight weapons are involved. Acknowledging the difficulties involved, he nonetheless highlights various initiatives and measures that could make a difference.


The accumulation of massive stockpiles of armaments is an undeniable reality in many places, particularly in the southern hemisphere. Africa, for example, is overflowing with small-calibre weapons. It is estimated that there are 10 million light weapons in circulation in Mozambique, a country of only 15m inhabitants, while in Luanda (Angola), there are 700 000 weapons of various calibres for a population of just 1.5m.

Disastrous consequences

Analysts have long been divided over whether weapons are the cause or the result of insecurity. Surely, this is a sterile debate. Nowadays, observers all agree that the steady flow of arms maintains and spreads insecurity, and triggers conflicts - with all their disastrous consequences for the civil population. Civilians may have nothing to do with the aims of the warring factions, but they make up 90% of conflict victims these days. Over the last 25 years Africa alone has been the theatre of 10 major conflicts affecting almost 155m people. Between 3.8m and 6.8m have been killed as a result, that is to say between 2.4% and 4.3% of the population.

Another, somewhat morbid, debate has also divided experts on occasion. There are those who have argued that the Rwandan massacres (1994) involved bladed weapons (machetes, axes, spears) and not firearms. In fact, the role played by light weapons was decisive in this carefully prepared genocide. Hit lists were drawn up and light weapons distributed to militias close to those in power. The militias, in turn, with the protection of the Rwandan armed forces, initiated the massacre before going on to incite part of the population to act in the same way, using the light arms and bladed weapons they had supplied to them. Equipped just with blades, and without the encouragement and training from the militias, who convinced them they were above the law, the population could never have perpetrated such carnage. Several witnesses insist that there would have been fewer victims, and even that the genocide might not have taken place, had the militias not been equipped with firearms and had the Rwandan armed forces taken steps to protect the people.

The militarisation of society, and the constant stream of light arms, makes any attempt to settle disputes peacefully all the more difficult. Recourse to weapons inevitably leads to the militarisation of a portion of the civil population. Opposing groups adopt a belligerent stance and, in effect, abandon negotiations. In many cases, even if an agreement has been reached, it is impossible to apply it because of the implacable and obstinate attitude adopted by armed groups - who do everything in their power to provoke incidents and renew fighting. There are many examples of agreements that have foundered in these circumstances - for example, Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-995), Angola (Bicesse accords - 1991), Rwanda (Arusha accords - 1993), Liberia (from 1989) and Sierra Leone (since 1991).

A further problem stems from the actions of the international community. Since the early 1990s, peace-keeping forces have been sent in to halt the fighting, but on the ground, such missions have been plagued with difficulties. Indeed, although industrialised nations are nowadays called on as mediators, it was they themselves who in the past, sowed the seeds of conflict by supplying the arms used by groups challenging the forces of law and order.

Reducing demand and illegal use

To restrict the arms trade, action is needed to inhibit both demand and supply. For demand to be undercut effectively, the motivations of illegal users (non-government parties to a conflict) must be properly understood. There are two broad categories involved here. The first encompasses Mafiastyle groups who are subject to the law, and militias, the latter being employed either by non-democratic states against their opponents, or by uncontainable groups in democratic states. The second category is equally illegal but perhaps somewhat more 'legitimate'. If a political system does not allow political forces access to power by democratic means, the regime's opponents will sometimes attempt to overthrow those in power by force of arms. Similarly, if a country is unstable, civilians may arm themselves for their own protection (as is currently the case in Algeria).

The difference in motivation between these two broad categories of user is easy to understand, and there are therefore two prerequisites if any attempt to combat the illegal use of weapons is to be successful. First, there must be a democratic system enabling any political force to gain power legitimately by peaceful means. Second, there must be security forces whose primary mission is to serve not just the established government, but also democracy, and therefore to protect the population against armed aggression. This presupposes major reforms, and these are already in progress in a number of countries - the fruits of international and even regional cooperation. The ideal thing would be to have a regional accord similar to the convention adopted in November 1997 by the Organisation of American States. This seeks to prevent, combat and eradicate the production and illegal sale of firearms, ammunition and explosives.

There have also been efforts to achieve something along the same lines in West and Southern Africa. In 1997, eight countries in the Sahel/Sahara region spoke out in favour of a moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of light weapons. The initiative came from Mali which, in 1996, succeeded (with UN assistance) in demobilising some of those involved in the Tuareg rebellion, while integrating the others into its own armed forces. It was able to destroy 2700 light weapons in the process. The aim of the moratorium is to obtain undertakings from African states on the confiscation of illegal stockpiles border controls, the training of security forces, international cooperation, and so on. A coordination and assistance programme to promote security and development, supported by the UNDP, will also be set up. In Southern Africa, efforts are concentrated on improved monitoring of stockpiles and of weapons trafficking. This is being done notably through SADC, and under agreements concluded by South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

International cooperation is essential. In Africa, regional organisations and the OAU need strengthening, and this must involve the implementation of confidence-building measures such as the exchange of information. International institutions should step up their mediation efforts if their aim is indeed to prevent conflicts being settled by force of arms. Not only are new methods needed. Also - and more importantly there must be a political will to act, with greater support given to what is still a hesitant culture of peace.

One source of weapons currently in circulation is the huge stock held illegally by civilians or by opposing groups. To combat their spread, micro-disarmament is necessary. According to former UN Secretary-General, Boutros Ghali, this means that the arms must be collected and then, more crucially, destroyed, so that they cannot be used again. Such action must take place in the context of 'buy-back' programmes when peace accords are implemented. Unfortunately, some recent agreements have failed to include micro-disarmament. Others have provided for it, but without the required conditions for full and successful implementation. In El Salvador, 20,000 weapons were collected and destroyed out of a total of 200,000 in circulation. In Mozambique, fewer than 200,000 weapons were seized (and very few destroyed), this figure representing only 2% of weapons known to be in the country. In Cambodia and Somalia, planned disarmaments have failed. On the other hand, programmes in Mali and Nicaragua have worked. The highly successful collection recently carried out in Australia demonstrates that micro-disarmament can also be extended to industrialised nations.

Many micro-disarmament actions could be included in development cooperation projects, both at bilateral and multilateral level. Countries such as Norway, Canada, Belgium (which allocates 2.5% of its cooperation budget to conflict prevention), the Netherlands and Sweden, have begun supporting such projects, particularly in the area of mine-clearance. The UNDP is also involved. Such projects need to be extended to include demobilisation operations, weapons collection and destruction, border surveillance, training and restructuring of security forces and international cooperation. Moreover, international agencies such as the World Bank, IMF and OECD are currently investigating ways of promoting a lessening of tension and the establishment of a safe and secure environment through a reduction in armaments, armed forces and military spending. The difficulty is in deciding whether these criteria should be expressed as conditions for aid allocation (effectively making them compulsory), or whether their observance by governments should be voluntary. Any discussion of this topic is complex because account has to be taken of very different situations, and of variable data relating to such matters as international and internal security, the level of development, respect for human rights and the existing political system.

Improved multilateral control - limiting supply

So, what of supply? Arms come from two main sources. First, new weapons are produced by industrialised countries (the USA, the EU, Russia, China, South Africa, Israel and Brazil). Then there is the huge second-hand arms market, based mainly in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe. This market developed with the ending of the Cold War.

There is currently no multilateral system for controlling or limiting conventional arms as there is for the nuclear, chemical, biological or ballistic weapons which are seen as the most dangerous. Yet, for several years, conventional armaments and, in particular, light weapons have proved the most lethal. There does, however, appear to be a growing awareness of the need for control. The ideal solution would be to conclude a multilateral treaty on controlling and limiting the transfer of conventional weapons along the lines of the Non-Proliferation Treaty covering nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a number of interesting ideas have recently been put forward by private individuals and groups. Since 1995, on the initiative of former President Oscar Arias of Nicaragua, a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates has been proposing an international code of conduct on the transfer of weapons, under UN auspices. In late 1997, Edward Laurance, a professor at the Monitary Institute of International Studies, suggested a convention on the prevention of the illegal and unreasoning use of light weapons, aimed principally at establishing strict criteria to govern the export, collection and destruction of surplus armaments, and at promoting more transparent international cooperation.

Four other initiatives, again under the auspices of the UN, deserve a mention. First was the decision in 1991 to set up a register of conventional weapons transfers. The objective is to ensure greater transparency of weapons movements by providing data on exports and imports. However, there is no obligation on states to make such declarations, only seven categories of arms (heavy weapons) are covered and existing stocks or internal purchases are not recorded. In spite of these shortcomings, the register undeniably promotes transparency, since about 80% of transfers are recorded. There have also been proposals to set up regional registers covering West and Southern Africa. A second initiative was the adoption by the UN's Disarmament Commission, in May 1996, of directives governing the international transfer of armaments, with a view to harmonising certain procedures. Thirdly, on 5 May 1997, the same Commission put forward a resolution on crime prevention and criminal justice, which was adopted in the UN Economic and Social Council, containing practical recommendations to combat the traffic in light weapons. Finally, a study was conducted between 1995 and 1997 by a group of experts, into the application of the recommendations of an earlier group on how the issue of the munitions trade should be addressed.

Slow progress in Europe

Despite increasing multilateral activity, progress at that level remains extremely slow. Hence the need, as far as supply is concerned, to supplement the process with regional provisions.

Within the EU, progress has also been slow. A common policy and common regulation covering weapons exports would be desirable, but the institutional machinery is highly complex, with extensive overlap between the EU system on the one hand and national jurisdictions, rules and policies on the other. Despite the tentative appearance of a Common Foreign and Security Policy, Article 223 of the Treaty of Rome remains applicable. This means that Member States still have exclusive jurisdiction over their weapons production and exports. Since January 1993, the Single Market has abolished the Union's internal borders, so the continued survival of national export policies is now anachronistic and irresponsible. The current situation could, indeed, facilitate trafficking in and illegal exports of armaments. In 1991 and 1992, the European Council did adopt eight criteria with a view to defining a common code of conduct, but these are merely guidelines and each Member State interprets them in its own way. In an attempt to remedy this situation, a group of 600 European NGOs, on the initiative of Saferworld, BASIC and Amnesty International, proposed a European code of conduct. The initiative was backed by the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium. The current British Presidency has included the proposal on its agenda for discussion in Council. The UK's aim is to have the code of conduct adopted before the end of June 1998.

On 26 June 1997, the EU Council also adopted a programme aimed at combating illegal trafficking in conventional weapons. While a genuine common policy is still awaited, this initiative does represent progress towards better control. In the absence of binding multilateral or regional regulations national rules will take precedence in the area of the control and limitation of arms exports.

If international or European codes of conduct were to be adopted, this would be one step on the road to harmonisation of national policies. Sales could be restricted by applying better-defined criteria for the granting or refusal of export licences. Improved national legislation would need to cover three points: better definition of which items are subject to licensing; better monitoring of the truth of statements made about end use and whether the stated end use is adhered to (the purchasing country's undertaking not to re-export weapons); and greater transparency in the form of annual reports on exports. Another area where improvement is needed is in stepping-up anti-trafficking measures. In this connection, Belgium established, in 1997, an Interdepartmental Committee to combat illegal trading in weapons, which brings together the various departments concerned (customs, police, foreign affairs).

To conclude, an effective conflict-prevention policy needs to include improved control and limitation of arms exports. This is the responsibility of political leaders, who must take account of the disastrous consequences of exporting to developing countries that already have an excess of weapons. Such decisions are often difficult, particularly when arms manufacturers are lobbying for exports to be liberalised. But weapons are unlike any other merchandise. The trade must be regulated in a way that recognises their potentially lethal, destructive and destabilising effects.

The global campaign to outlaw anti-personnel mines taken up by almost a thousand NGOs, resulted in signature of the Ottawa Convention in December 1997 by more than 120 states. This success has given impetus to a new international campaign to limit exports of conventional arms and their use, with a particular emphasis on light weapons.


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