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A Scourge of Small Arms
by Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael T. Klare


Source: Scientific American, June 2000 Edition,



A Scourge of Small Arms

With a few hundred machine guns and mortars, a small army can take over an entire country, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands

by Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael T. Klare


Most media accounts of the 1994 Rwandan genocide emphasized the use of traditional weapons--clubs, knives, machetes--by murderous gangs of extremist Hutu. As many as one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu perished, many of them women and children. To outsiders, it appeared as if the people of Rwanda had been caught up in a violent frenzy, with common farm implements as their favored instruments of extermination.

But this isn't the whole story. Before the killing began, the Hutu-dominated government had distributed automatic rifles and hand grenades to official militias and paramilitary gangs. It was this firepower that made the genocide possible. Militia members terrorized their victims with guns and grenades as they rounded them up for systematic slaughter with machetes and knives. The murderous use of farm tools may have seemed a medieval aberration, but the weapons and paramilitary gangs that facilitated the genocide were all too modern.


MOST DESTRUCTIVE WEAPONS are assault rifles, according to Red Cross workers asked to describe which arms caused the most civilian casualties.

The situation there was far from unique. Since the end of the cold war, from the Balkans to East Timor and throughout Africa, the world has witnessed an outbreak of ethnic, religious and sectarian conflict characterized by routine massacre of civilians. More than 100 conflicts have erupted since 1990, about twice the number for previous decades. These wars have killed more than five million people, devastated entire geographic regions, and left tens of millions of refugees and orphans. Little of the destruction was inflicted by the tanks, artillery or aircraft usually associated with modern warfare; rather most was carried out with pistols, machine guns and grenades. However beneficial the end of the cold war has been in other respects, it has let loose a global deluge of surplus weapons into a setting in which the risk of local conflict appears to have grown markedly.

The cold-war-era preoccupation with nuclear arms and major weapons systems has left those of us in the arms-control community with very little knowledge about the global trade in small arms (technically, pistols, revolvers, rifles and carbines) and light weapons (machine guns, small mortars, and other weapons that can be carried by one or two people). Over the past few years, however, many of us have begun to examine why these weapons are so easily accessible and how they affect the societies now flooded with them. The disturbing findings are driving a new arms-control movement, led by a loose coalition of the United Nations, concerned national governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Small arms and light weapons are weapons of choice in most internal conflicts for a number of reasons: they are widely obtainable, relatively cheap, deadly, easy to use and easy to transport. Unlike major conventional weapons, such as fighter jets and tanks, which are procured almost exclusively by national military forces, small arms span the dividing line between government forces--police and soldiers--and civilian populations. Depending on the gun laws of a particular country (if such regulations even exist or are enforced), citizens may be permitted to own anything from pistols and hunting guns to military-type assault weapons.

Supply and Demand

In contrast to the declining trade in major weaponry since the end of the cold war, global sales of small arms and light weapons remain strong. No organization, private or public, provides detailed data on the global trade in these weapons, in part because of the difficulty of tracking so many transactions (and because of the low level of attention that has been paid to the problem). Reliable estimates of the legal trade in small arms and light weapons put the annual figure between $7 billion and $10 billion. A large but unknown quantity of small arms--worth perhaps $2 billion to $3 billion a year--is traded through black-market channels . Because data are so scarce, comparing these numbers to those for small-arms exports during the cold war is difficult. But studies in southern Africa and the Indian subcontinent do indicate that during the 1990s the availability of modern assault rifles increased considerably.

Governments transfer vast quantities of small arms, either through open, acknowledged military aid programs or through covert operations. And as the size of their militaries has dwindled, Western and ex-Communist countries have sold off their excess weapons to almost any interested party. Most arms, though, are sold by private firms on the legal market through ordinary trade channels. Although such sales are supposedly regulated, few countries pay close attention. The U.S. probably has some of the strictest controls, but even so, it sold or transferred $463 million worth of small arms and ammunition to 124 countries in 1998 (the last year for which such data are available). Of these countries, about 30 were at war or experiencing persistent civil violence in 1998; in at least five, U.S. or U.N. soldiers on peacekeeping duty have been fired on or threatened with U.S.-supplied weapons.

We have few data on the quantity or dollar value of small arms sold by other manufacturers. Based on existing weapons inventories of military and police forces around the world, though, certain major suppliers can be identified: Russia (maker of the AK-47 assault rifle and its derivative, the AK-74), China (maker of an AK-47 look-alike known as the Type 56 rifle), Belgium (FAL assault rifle), Germany (G3 rifle), the U.S. (M16 rifle) and Israel (Uzi submachine gun).

Common small arms such as the AK-47 are cheap and easy to produce and are extremely durable. Manufactured in large quantities in more than 40 countries, they can be purchased at bargain-basement prices in many areas of the world. In Angola , for instance, a used AK-47 can be acquired for as little as $15--or a large sack of maize. Cost is a crucial factor: many of the belligerents in these internal battles are poor and have often been barred from the legal arms market. As a result, they consider cheap small arms and light weapons, perhaps traded illegally, to be their only option.

The proliferation of automatic rifles and submachine guns has given paramilitary groups a firepower that often matches or exceeds that of national police or constabulary forces. Modern assault rifles can fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition per minute. A single gunman can slaughter dozens or even hundreds of people in a short time. With the incredible firepower of such arms, untrained civilians--even children--can become deadly combatants. Unlike the weapons of earlier eras, which typically required precision aiming and physical strength to be used effectively, ultralight automatic weapons can be carried and fired by children as young as nine or 10 [see "Children of the Gun," on page 60].

Although the figure of $10 billion spent on small arms and light weapons each year may seem insignificant when compared with the roughly $850 billion spent annually on military forces around the world, the money for light weapons has had a hugely disproportionate impact on global security. In addition to ravaging so many countries, the arms have drastically increased the demands placed on humanitarian aid agencies, U.N. peacekeepers and the international community. To cite but one statistic, international relief aid for regions in conflict increased fivefold during the 1990s, to a high of $5 billion a year. At the same time, long-term development aid dropped overall. Short-term remedies have replaced more lasting cures for the worst ills of poverty, deprivation and war. Moreover, armed militias equipped with but a few thousand assault rifles have erased the benefits of billions of dollars and years of development effort in many poor countries.

From 100 Men to the Presidency

Nowhere has the relation between the accessibility of light weapons and the outbreak and severity of conflict been more dramatically evident than in West Africa. Liberia was the first to suffer. On Christmas Eve in 1989, insurgent leader Charles Taylor invaded the country with only 100 irregular soldiers armed primarily with AK-47 assault rifles; within months, he had seized mineral and timber resources and used the profits to purchase additional light weapons. Had he needed to equip his forces with heavier weapons such as artillery, armored cars and tanks--the weapons conventionally associated with a conquering army--Taylor would have faced crippling logistical obstacles. In comparison, a few boatloads of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns were simple to transport and provided more than enough firepower. In 1990 Taylor's ill-trained and undisciplined insurgents toppled the government of President Samuel Doe (who had come to power in a conventional, albeit bloody, coup 10 years earlier). Fighting continued for seven more years.

The firepower of modern small arms--and the rapid escalation of violence that such weaponry makes possible--was evident even in the early stages of Liberia's civil war. In August 1990, in retaliation for Ghana's participation in a West African peacekeeping force (which had tried but failed to stop the fighting), Taylor's troops slaughtered 1,000 Ghanaian immigrants in one day in the Liberian village of Marshall. Likewise, forces loyal to Doe massacred 600 ethnic Gio and Mano --Liberian groups that favored Taylor--as they vainly sought refuge in a church in the capital city, Monrovia.

FIFTY CONFLICTS around the world are charted above. Information on child soldiers and leading arms suppliers is noted where available.

Sierra Leone was next. In 1991 Taylor and a disgruntled army officer from Sierra Leone, Foday Sankoh, initiated an informal alliance. Soon weapons and fighters were flowing back and forth across the border between the two countries. By 1999 the civil war in Sierra Leone had claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, while another 100,000 had been deliberately injured and mutilated. Only in the summer of 1999 did the combined efforts of the U.N. and West African peacekeepers prove successful in helping to broker a peace agreement --an agreement that included a campaign to collect and destroy former combatants' weapons.

The current peace efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia remain tenuous and highly dependent on what happens to the tens of thousands of weapons now in these countries. By October 1999 the disarmament program in Liberia had destroyed some 20,000 small arms and light weapons and more than three million rounds of ammunition. Across the border in Sierra Leone, however, U.N. officials complain that former rebels surrender to peacekeepers without also turning in their weapons, despite a $300 cash incentive to relinquish their guns. Unfortunately, this inability to disarm former combatants has led to renewed outbreaks of fighting during the past several months.

Much the same cycle of violence engulfed Rwanda--but on an even more horrific scale. The majority Hutu government and the minority Tutsi opposition both had been amply supplied with small arms and light weapons. France, Egypt and South Africa outfitted the government; Uganda and China equipped the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). While government forces held off the RPF with mortars and machine guns, Hutu militiamen armed with guns and machetes slaughtered up to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in May and June of 1994. The genocide ended only when most Tutsi in Rwanda had been killed or had fled to areas controlled by the RPF.

Similar acts of brutality routinely characterize today's ethnic and sectarian violence. Once competing groups have been armed with automatic weapons, any minor dispute can escalate quickly into a major bloodbath. And the availability of such weapons, even in remote and inaccessible places such as southern Sudan and eastern Congo , makes it difficult for the international community to bring the warring parties to the bargaining table--and, when a cease-fire is signed, to curb the cycle of bloodletting. Brokering peace has proved especially difficult in countries such as Angola and Sierra Leone, where rebel forces have been able to exchange diamonds or other commodities for guns and ammunition on the black market.

The Corrosive Effect of Guns

The root causes of ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts around the world are of course complex and varied, typically involving historical grievances, economic deprivation, demagogic leadership and an absence of democratic process. Although small arms and light weapons are not themselves a cause of conflict, their ready accessibility and low cost can prolong combat, encourage a violent rather than a peaceful resolution of differences, and generate greater insecurity throughout society--which in turn leads to a spiraling demand for, and use of, such weapons.

In 1998, in a comprehensive survey of the problem of small-arms proliferation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted its deepening concerns about this issue, particularly regarding the safety of civilians. As a leading guardian of international humanitarian law , the ICRC stated that it was especially troubled by three dangerous trends. First, the group expressed its alarm at the growing number of civilian deaths and injuries--which often reach 60 to 80 percent of total casualties--that occur in modern conflicts. Equipped with rapid-fire automatic weapons, untrained and undisciplined fighters, few of whom know anything of the Geneva Conventions on human rights, either specifically target civilians or fire indiscriminately into crowds, killing and wounding scores of noncombatants, including women and children.

Second, civilians now suffer increased pain and deprivation when international relief operations must be suspended more frequently because the aid workers themselves have become targets of attack. In the 1990s more than 40 ICRC personnel were killed in Chechnya and Rwanda alone, compared with the 15 who lost their lives in all conflicts between 1945 and 1990.

Third, societies awash in weapons often find themselves caught in a culture of violence even after the formal conflict ends. For young ex-combatants who have known little else besides war, their weapons become a status symbol and a means of making a living, either through individual acts of street crime or as part of an organized criminal operation.

By conducting interviews with its field personnel and by analyzing medical data collected during its operations in Cambodia and Afghanistan, the ICRC has been able to document the high rates of civilian death and injury caused by small arms and light weapons, both during armed combat and after the fighting had stopped. In looking at the data from Afghanistan , for example, researchers found that weapons-related injuries decreased by only one third after the civil war ended and that gunshot fatalities actually increased. In many postconflict societies, up to 70 percent of all civilians still possess military-type firearms, mainly assault rifles such as the M16 and AK-47. ICRC personnel indicate that these weapons are responsible for more than 60 percent of all weapons-related deaths and injuries in internal conflicts--far more than land mines , mortars, grenades, artillery and major weapons systems combined. From El Salvador to South Africa, the story is depressingly similar: years of internal conflict are followed by high rates of social and criminal violence made possible by the easy access to small arms and light weapons.

Faced with the chaos and devastation wrought by the influx of small arms and light weapons, political leaders are now beginning to push for their control. In July 1998 representatives of 21 countries (including the U.S., Brazil, the U.K., Germany, Japan, Mexico and South Africa) met in Oslo and agreed to work together to curb the proliferation of these weapons. The U.N. has also called on member states to tighten their munitions-export regulations and to cooperate in efforts to suppress illicit trade in small arms. But although there is widespread agreement that something must be done, there is considerable uncertainty as to what. Nevertheless, arms experts and others are beginning to devise practical and enforceable methods for controlling the small-arms trade.

Proponents of small-arms control have largely abandoned the goal of enacting a single, all-encompassing instrument like the land-mine treaty . When signed in 1997, that treaty seemed a natural model for an agreement that would prohibit most exports of small arms and light weapons. But eliminating all transfers of small arms between states would never receive the support of those countries that depend on imported weapons for their basic military and police requirements. Many states, including China and Russia, also view guns as legitimate items of commerce and are thus reluctant to embrace any measures that would restrict their trade. Accordingly, the favored approach emphasizes a multidimensional effort aimed at eliminating illicit arms transfers and imposing tighter controls on legal sales, along with promoting democratic reform and economic development in poor, deeply divided societies.

Setting Sights on Arms Control


MORE COMPANIES MAKE SMALL ARMS today than ever before. A survey of the number of private companies in the business of small-arms production over the past four decades shows how the market expanded at the end of the cold war.

No widely accepted blueprint describes how to accomplish such broad goals. Arms-control experts have agreed, however, on five basic principles. First, timely information on global trafficking in small arms must be made available for the identification of dangerous trends (such as the buildup of arms stockpiles in areas of instability) and for the facilitation of local or regional curbs on imports. Some data on small-arms deliveries are now made public by individual suppliers--the U.S. and Canada have been particularly forthcoming in this regard--but at present there is no international system of reporting. The only existing mechanism of this kind, the U.N. Register of Conventional Weapons, covers major weapons only.

Second, major military suppliers should adopt strict standards for the export of weapons through legal channels. Although the manufacture of small arms and light weapons is widely dispersed, a dozen or so countries are responsible for the bulk of arms sold on the international market. These include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council --the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France--plus a number of other European, Asian and Latin American countries. If these countries could agree to a common system of restraints on exports, the sale of arms to areas of instability should fall substantially. Some weapons would still flow through clandestine channels, but most large-scale transactions would be subject to international oversight.

Third, no system that regulates the supply of arms can be entirely effective without an effort to dampen the global demand for arms, especially in areas of recurring conflict. Significant progress has been made in this direction in West Africa, the locale of several of the most pernicious conflicts of the 1990s. In 1998, under the prodding of Alpha Oumar Konaré, the visionary president of Mali , the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a three-year moratorium on the import, export and manufacture of small arms and light weapons. This moratorium represents the first time that a bloc of states that import large numbers of light weapons has adopted a measure of this kind and stands as an important model that other regions can emulate. Already member states of the Southern African Development Communit y (SADC) have considered such a step; a group of East African states met in Kenya in March to discuss a similar enterprise.

Fourth, efforts to control the legal trade will have only limited effect unless steps are taken to eradicate the black-market trade in arms. The Organization of American States (OAS) has been especially active in working to curb this trade. Recognizing the close link between illicit arms sales, drug trafficking and violent crime, the members of the OAS adopted a convention in 1997 that requires member states to criminalize the unauthorized production and transfer of small arms and to cooperate with one another in suppressing the black-market trade. (The U.S. has signed the treaty, but the Senate has not yet ratified it.) The Clinton administration is pushing to have similar measures incorporated into the Transnational Organized Crime Convention, now being negotiated in Vienna, to make them applicable in every region of the world. To promote further cooperation in this area, the U.N. plans to convene a conference on illicit arms trafficking next summer.

Finally, as U.N. peacekeepers in Angola, Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere have learned, peace agreements must help reintegrate former combatants into the civilian economy, or fighters are likely to drift into careers as mercenaries, insurgents or brigands--taking their guns with them. The collection and destruction of used and surplus weapons is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the small-arms problem. Nevertheless, individual states and nongovernmental organizations have begun to devise and test possible solutions such as weapons "buy-back" programs . The European Union and the World Bank have also promised to assist in the development of job-training programs and other services for ex-combatants seeking to reenter civil society in war-torn areas of Africa and Latin America.

None of these measures by itself can overcome the dangers posed by the uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons. The problem is far too complex to be solved by any single initiative. Yet each time international leaders have sought to enact controls on nuclear, chemical or biological arms, they have dealt with similar problems. The foundation has now been laid for the world to bring small arms under effective control. If we fail, we are likely to face even greater bloodshed and chaos in the decades ahead.


The Authors

JEFFREY BOUTWELL and MICHAEL T. KLARE are co-directors of the Project on Light Weapons at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-editors of Light Weapons and Civil Conflict (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). Boutwell is associate executive officer at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he heads the program on international security studies. Klare is a professor of peace and world securities studies at Hampshire College and is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies.



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