Dr. Peter Lock
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letzte Änderung:03.01.2011
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Illicit Small Arms Availability

Research note prepared for the 3rd International Berlin Workshop Consolidating Peace through Practical Disarmament Measures and Control of Small Arms — From Civil War to Civil Society (Berlin, 2-5 July 1998)


For a long time little attention was paid to the pervasive availability of small arms. Their proliferation was considered to be a simple correlate of major arms traded.[1] Additionally both sides of the Cold War were heavily engaged in covert transfers of large volumes of small arms in support of their perceived allies in intra-state wars. Thus, governments intent to keep their operations under cover actively discouraged investigative journalism focusing on the resupply of armed conflicts, except when machinations of the 'enemy' were exposed. The arms control and peace research communities were focusing on the East-West arms race and neglected the impact of small arms in intra-state armed conflicts as well.

Most of these proxy wars survived the the end of the Cold War because their underlying dynamics bore little relation to the global block confrontation. While the government sponsored resupply with small arms came to an end, other, often illicit sources emerged in abundant numbers. At the same time the media increasingly supplied their audiences with nightmarish images of intra-state armed conflicts. Their transmission was spurred by a rapidly expanding humanitarian aid industry which occasionally comes dangerously close to a symbiotic relationship with armed conflicts. The preponderance of non-governmental organisations at the geographical fringes of on-going armed conflicts reflects the neo-liberal ideology which asigns non-governmental actors a growing role in the implementation of foreign policy particularly towards Third World countries. In the United States the "de-stating" of external relations with the African continent became the declared policy.[2]

Even though the number of conflict related UN-missions grew considerably, their capability to resolve conflicts is limited so far, not least because the member states are not willing to provide sufficient resources. The field is left to humanitarian non-governmental organisations, though they are often heavily funded by governments. They are increasingly confronted with situations where fighting parties do not respect the existing rules of humanitarian law. The only alternatives, they are left with, are either withdrawal or political compromises with one or more of the fighting parties. But engaging in the latter violates their neutral status and turns them de facto into fighting allies, whereas a withdrawal poses a moral dilemma in the face of crimes against humanity.

Responding to these pressing problems which threaten to paralyse humanitarian aid a vigorous debate on bringing the flow small arms under control has emerged. Following the success of the campaign to ban anti-personnel mines a large number of non-governmental organisations are engaged and are eager to repeat the success. However, small arms availability poses different and inherently more complex problems than AP-mines. Whereas the laying of mines occurs in specific situations of armed fighting, small arms are instrumental in a much wider range of forms of societal violence as well as legitimate security concerns. Therefore strategies aiming to restrain the pervasive small arms availability must be differentiated, multi-layered, and reach far beyond conventional arms control measures at the supply side. It is evident that a strict application of already existing laws and regulations would significantly improve the situation and that there is a potential in further tightening the supply-side controls. But this is an uphill battle against well entrenched black market networks. As the failure of governments, in spite of energetic efforts, to bring the drug trade under control demonstrates, there are little chances that improved policing at borders alone will extirpate the black markets.[3] Though among others the G 8, the OAS, UN and the European Union have pledged to intensify their efforts in combatting illicit trade of arms, it is evident that governments have only a very limited knowledge of how the illicit trade is operating, else they could be accused of continuously failing to act.

So far, reviewing the growing body of literature[4] does not help much either, except for cumulative evidence that the existing worldwide stock of small arms, often badly controlled and leaking into illicit trade circuits, suffices to resupply on-going armed conflicts for some years to come. In other words, strict controls of production is a necessary, but not sufficient measure. The picture is somewhat different with respect to ammunition[5] where resupply from new production seems to be a vital factor facilitating the thriving flows towards effective, though illicit demand.

Against this background this research note attempts to position small arms availability in a broader context transcending the arms control agenda and to consider the role of firearms in societal violence in general. For political reasons many advocates [6] of the present campaign attempt to keep proliferation control separated from the traditional gun control debate. From an empirical perspective such a separation is not warranted, because the ease with which firearms can be acquired in some countries provides a supply source[7] for extensive illicit small arms trade circuits.

The forms of violence which characterise pre-conflict, conflict, and post-conflict situations all share many features with violent crimes in highly segmented societies with their "inner cities", "bidonvilles", "favelas", etc. In particular the core actors, the age group of 14 — 25 years old males, are the same in armed conflicts and in organised gangs. Usually these actors are structurally excluded from the regular labour market and the participation in armed violence gives them recognition, a role in the society as well as income. As present economic trends point towards increased segmentation of most societies, North and South, a rapid growth of the irregular economy will become an almost global circumstance. Economic transactions in the growing territories of the irregular economy are in the end not market-, but violence regulated as neither the exiting laws apply nor is the state monopoly of violence effective.[8] The global GCP (gross criminal product) is rated at 1000 billion US-dollars[9], several times the GNP of all sub-saharan African states.

With this in mind this research note sets out to consider the scourge of small arms availability also as a public health issue which opens new ranges of action aiming to curb illicit small arms availability. In a second section linkages between small arms availability and armed conflict will be discussed. The focus will be that the availability is amenable to economic factors. Thus, any measure increasing the cost of arms or reducing the often illicit income of the fighting parties is likely to have a mitigating effect on the availability of arms and possibly on the intensity and the duration of fighting.

Small arms: a public health issue

Conflicts are universally part of the human fabric, but the ways conflicts develop, are fought, mitigated, mediated, and resolved are co-determined by the means available in the respective circumstances. Thus, the diffusion of small arms as a potential instrument of illegitimate violence will be discussed from a general societal perspective rather than from a proliferation perspective only. It is evident that firearms require stricter controls in many countries where firearms rank high in the death statistics.[10] While a number of governments recently tightened controls, others are lagging and constitute an important source for illicit transborder networks. A variety of useful controls are already in existence in different countries which may or may not be entirely applicable in the context of different cultures and political systems. The same holds for the four innovative approaches which will be submitted for further discussion in this research note. They might be directly applicable in a large number of countries, while in others the development of a political consensus on the issue will take some time. The four measures to be discussed are first, a compulsory third party liability insurance for any form of firearm possession; second, a tax on ammunition, third, a recycling deposit due with the acquisition of a firearm, and four, restrictions on advertisement for firearms.

The case for an obligatory third party liability insurance

All but a few small arms like those manufactured in small traditional workshops are produced and traded in abidance of existing laws. However, at some point of their respective life-cycles large quantities of small arms enter the sphere of illicit circulation and misuse. The "transsubstantiation" of legally possessed firearms (manufacturers, traders, armed forces, law enforcement bodies, and private licensees) into instruments of crime, violence and internal warfare takes many routes. It is an obvious truth that the criminal energy in this process is not restricted to the demand side. Greed, extra profit and passive corruption, covert support and interference (mainly by governments), fraud and negligence are among the facilitating factors at the supply end, while criminal energy and corruption are the main tools at the demand side. By no means all facilitating factors are punishable, nor are the sentences always commensurate with respect to the often appalling consequences of the ensuing criminal offences. In particular, the original owners are never held liable, for the damages, on the basis of their negligence or active participation, the respective firearms provoke during the illicit phase of their life cycle. With respect to the actual perpetrators claims of victims are often of no avail because only in rare occasions sufficient assets can be forfeited.

Therefore the liability of legitimate owners of small arms, in case their weapons enter for whatever reasons into illicit circulation and are eventually identified to be implicated in damages of various kind urgently requires greater attention. This note proposes the introduction of a compulsory third party liability insurance for every small arms item produced or traded irrespective of the status of the ultimate legimate owner. The logic of this proposal draws among others upon the regulation of car ownership in many countries as well as on already existing international conventions regulating and securing the liability in the case of transborder risks like transport of oil at sea and nuclear energy. In the latter cases the international community perceived the need to react to emerging large-scale dangers and established an obligatory third party liability coverage.

Given the recognition that the indiscriminate diffusion of small arms puts the existence of entire states into danger and causes human suffering and enormous economic damages almost everywhere, the situation is ripe for the international community to agree on joint measures to reverse present trends and most importantly to give support to the countries presently most affected. A convention on small arms liability would be one such measure.

Cars and a guns are both commodities which are at risk to cause major damages (to third parties) when misused. The damaging act itself may be perpetrated by a third person following a theft or just by accident. A car owner is obligated to take out a third party liability insurance, because the state rightly wants to protect the victimized third parties. Damages are covered irrespective of the financial capability of either the owner or the actual perpetrator. The regulation gives priority to the victim. It also protects the tax payer from being shouldered with the bill as a last resort.

It is striking that in the case of firearms third parties are not protected in a similar manner against accidentally or intentionally caused damages when misused. Absolutely no liability protecting third parties takes effect in case a firearm is stolen. This is a serious lacuna which should be corrected, particularly since the general taxpayer is usually charged with the costs provoked by the misuse of firearms, alternatively victims are left without compensation. The changes required can be initiated unilaterally at the national level. They should, however, rapidly expand into an international convention, because illicit circulation of firearms is borderless. And more importantly, the international community has to find ways of coping with the heritage of millions of small arms already circulating illicitly and not covered by any insurance.

When discussing third party liability it is important to take into account that no institution or person entitled to possess firearms is aloof from the risk of theft and eventual misuse of its inventory. This applies to the armed forces as well as to the police, where the custody of firearms is not always as tight as one would wish. The need to introduce the concept of liability is best illustrated by the enormous damages caused by the huge stock of small arms recklessly left behind by the US-forces at the end of the Vietnam war. These weapons were marketed off-shore by the exhausted Vietnamese government, entered the web of global illicit circulation and surfaced in the hands of insurgents and criminals all over the world engendering untold suffering and enormous destruction. It would offer an interesting exercise for insurance mathematicians to calculate the rate that they would have to have charged the US-army for each American gun left behind in Vietnam to cover the (economic) risk of their illegitimate use off the Vietnamese battlefield.

Every firearm carries the potential of creating havoc, when misused. This risk must be translated into costs which are to be born by the legitimate possessor. In order to implement this logic, every firearm is to be produced with an unique mark (number) to allow for traceability. The only feasible moments in a life-cycle of a firearm for collecting an insurance fee or a tax to cover potential and statistically predictable damages are the production itself and every legitimate trade transaction. For practicable purposes the total fee would have already to be collected with the first transaction after production. It seems evident that the private insurance industry would collect a considerable fee against a policy covering all possible liabilities, taking into account the long life-cycles and the enormous damage any firearm can cause. The principle to charge the owner of small arms with the costs of potential liabilities would increase the price of gun ownership more than marginally. It would make the true (societal) costs of gun possession finally transparent. It might also reduce the effective demand for firearms as life-cycle costs increase. Finally, a healthy pressure to improve the safekeeping of firearms would come from the insurance industry trying to protect its stakes. Technical innovation, like personalised trigger locks, would rapidly enter the market because such firearms would in the end allow legitimate gun owners to economise the insurance premium.

As a first step it would be important to establish the principle of compulsory third party liability insurance to be levied on the ownership of guns. It must apply to the military and the police alike, because arms stolen from their stock are as likely to become the means of destructive acts as any other firearm (Different rates are conceivable, but this is a technicality to be solved during a later stage.). Such a regulation can be introduced unilaterally, but the nature of illicit circulation and international diffusion of small arms strongly suggests to pursue in parallel the implementation of an international convention. For example, a sniper gun stolen from the stores of the FBI might end up in some remote country and be used in terrorist activities. Thus, such a risk tax or insurance would have eventually to be operated as an international fund charged to regulate liabilities. Enormous sums can be involved when small arms not legitimately possessed see action in violent conflict and civil wars.

This proposal clearly embraces market mechanisms to achieve its ends and considers this an appropriate complement to tighter government regulation of firearm ownership and trade. It is likely to provoke an outcry from the gun lobby and also from the armed forces and the police. However, the latter must understand that risk coverage is a reasonable principle. Once the problem is handled as normal insurance business, of course, a discussion about different risk classes is bound to develop.

But the important aspect of the proposed move is the translation of the risk small arms embody into monetary terms, making the costs of "gun cultures" transparent. The increase in effective prices would discourage overstocking at all levels and possibly reduce the demand for new production as excessive stocks will be marketed first. It also ends the effective subsidisation of gun ownership. Presently the taxpayer shoulders the damages ensuing in case of theft. With an obligatory insurance the gun owner would finally pay for the eventual damages, his individual choice to carry a firearm purporting to enhance his personal security entails.

Of course, this note can only provide a stimulus for a debate of how compulsory third party liability insurance for small arms can contribute to improving the controls, the safety standards, and reduce illegal circulation. Small arms are a dangerous commodity, but lack the normal treatment of dangerous commodities. Otherwise long since some obligatory insurance regime would have been introduced as in the case of car ownership. But as the problems are becoming more pressing and costly every day, it should finally be possible to tackle them more vigorously, in this case from the economic end and call for an end of the effective subsidisation of privately owned small arms. However, innovative approaches to old problems always need a long breath and must work towards winning wide political support.

Ammunition tax

While a majority of nations seems resolved to strengthen controls both at regional and global levels, real progress is frustratingly slow. Therefore additional measures are needed to reduce the pervasive availability of small arms. Many observers would agree that the supply of ammunition is a key factor in most on-going armed conflicts. In many conflicts the warring parties are absolutely depended on the efficiency of the logistics of the black market. This reliance on the black market to resupply the fighting forces introduces an economic dimension into the political equation which determines the level of fighting and possibly the disposition to seek a political solution of the conflict. Moreover, in some protracted conflicts fighting has virtually developed into a "mode of production", there the calculation of the "fighters" should be particularly sensitive to the prices of their "inputs", not least because illicit trade networks operate on a cash basis and prices can be volatile depending on the circumstances. In general, however, prices are low, quite often below the cost of manufacture as huge stocks of surplus are being cascaded in a chain reaction which increases the likelihood of leaks filtering into black markets. In contrast to the creation of new jobs in the regular economy being virtually unaffordable in the context of war-torn economies, the economic threshhold of turning armed violence into a profitable business is rather low due to the pervasive availability of cheap small arms.

The long shelf-life of most small arms suggests to additionally explore the control of ammunition supplies as a means to effectively reduce the availability of operational small arms at least in medium term. The definitive consumption when used promises an impact on the availability through improved controls and significant increases in prices.

Against this background it is proposed to lobby governments to levy a significant (consumer) tax on all ammunition fitting small arms used in armed conflicts. Such a tax would be absolutely consistent with the historical evolution of taxes and their legitimacy. An important element in the evolution of taxes are levies on demeritorial goods, like alcohol, tobacco. A tax on ammunition would follow in this tradition where the state acts on the basis of a consensus that a certain commodity has negative external effects and affects the common welfare. The current international discussion indicates that this consensus is rapidly maturing with respect to small arms. Though the conversion of this consensus into a consumer tax is unfortunately not yet on the political agenda.

A tax on ammunition would be a non-fiscal tax aiming at changing consumption patterns and the behaviour of the consumers. Small arms have become an increasingly important public health issue, therefore they require a health-oriented steering of consumption patterns. In changing the relative price of this commodity the government explicitely intends to discriminate against the potential (mis)use of this commodity. To make an impact the rate should between 100% and 500%, in order to truly discriminate against the use and overstocking of ammunition. Being a mass produced commodity with only a limited number producers an ammunition tax would be collected at the source. The tariff must be levied for all ammunition produced. This is perfectly acceptable because the tax is neutral for the government as a legitimate customer. The higher prices its agencies have to pay are fully balanced by tax income. All private users of small arms would have to pay a premium for their hobby or for the privilege of presumed self-defence. This is perfectly justified given the risks of inevitable health-hazzards due to the danger of illegitimate use of privately owned firearms in case of theft and other ensuing negative external effects.

With respect to international trade in cases of certified deliveries to legitimate governmental recipients only the consumer tax would be relinquished. In all other cases of export the tax would be levied at the source. The additional tax income would help to cover the social costs of the misuse of firearms which are presently shouldered by the general tax payer. Given the fact that a tax levied indiscriminately at the source would be collected from foreign customers as well, a large part of the tax income should be dedicated to an international trust fund charged with coping with the disasterous consequences of reckless proliferation of small arms in the past.

There are, of course, also arguments against such a consumer tax. At the principle level neo-liberal economists argue that any consumer tax infringes the liberty of the consumer, but this tax intervention must be weighed against the negative externalities of the diffusion of small arms. "If we don't, others will do"(sell and export cheap, duty-free ammunition), this standard argument against national initiatives, will be advanced by the different lobbies associated with the ammunition business. This argument is not valid as can easily be understood, when applied to the cultivation of marijuana and other drugs, in order to create additional jobs for farmers.

It will certainly be argued as well that the stocks presently in the hands of the black market will earn windfall profits as a result of the institution of such a tax. This will inevitably be so, before black market stocks will begin to be crowded out. It should also be taken into consideration that the introduction of an ammunition tax will provide an environment for black market activities if neighboring states do not coordinate their tax policies. The mutual history of the United States and Canada provides a number of negative examples when different tax policies created black markets and huge profits for transborder smuggling.[11]

But these hurdles are not insurmountable. The history of demeritional taxing shows a surprising convergence between different cultures and continents. Ammunition seems to fulfil the properties needed to justify an internationally coordinated promotion of a tax. The most important factor bringing the international community in line in a process of strictly applying a hefty consumer tax on ammunition is the emerging consensus on the dangers of small arms diffusion and the commonly felt need to counteract this tendency.

From a security perspective the control of ammunition and its taxing is by far more efficient at the source than at the level of ultimate consumer. It also allows for a rigourous accountability of those legitimate international transactions which would not be subject to taxation. Higher prices for ammunition lower the chances of unlawful appropriation of ammunition, because all actors will be less inclined to overstock ammunition and the final demand is likely to display some elacticity to prices. Finally, if the major international suppliers (G-8 and NATO member states among others) could agree on a concerted tax on ammunition, they would easily be able to muster sufficient pressure to bring most other suppliers to conform to such an international tax regime.

A recycling deposit

Increasingly states intervene in markets and put up regulations to make sure that environmentally hazardous commodities are being properly recycled to avoid lasting negative effects if left as waste. Thus, car manufacturers will eventually be forced to recycle their cars at the end of their useful life. The costs of recycling will be charged with the sales price. To minimise the risk of illicit firearm possession and black market activities small arms should also come under an obligatory recycling regime aiming to soak up potential sources of illicit transactions. All small arms items are particularly sensitive commodities which constitute a potential danger if the decommissioning does not lead to the destruction and recycling of the material. To insure a proper recycling of firearms and possibly ammunition, a recycling deposit should be charged with the sale of firearms. The deposit must be a consequential sum, in order to make it attractive for everybody to return any weapon found or not any longer needed. If further investigations of ammunition supplies confirm that illicit refilling of empty cases constitutes a problem[12], a deposit should be levied on ammunition as well, in order to secure the safe return of the cases within the licensed circuits.

Such a compulsory deposit would have a double effect. It would elevate the economic threshhold to acquire firearms, but it would also contribute to reduce the average life cycle of the existing stock of weapons and hence the availability in general. The incentive to decommission weapons and be rewarded by a refund is likely to forestall the accidental appropriation and entry of many firearms into illicit circulation. If old stocks of ammunition can be converted into cash, they are also less likely to end up in the borderless black markets. A recycling deposit operates not unlike a buy-back program, but its costs are borne by the legitimate or tolerated owners of firearms and it is made a permanent feature. Given the large existing stock which was acquired without the payment of a deposit, the basic funds would have to be advanced by the government during the initial phase, while the program would become self-sufficient after a certain period. Compared to the potential security gains the initial investment required is modest.

Restrictions on advertisement for small arms

The aggressive visibility of advertisements for military weapons in all kind of print media is but one example of many accepted practices which contradict the declared intention of many governments to fight the diffusion of small arms, including weaponry of military design.Advertisements for military weapons[13] in print media are particularly suspect, since the readers are legally not entitled to purchase the products advertised. Since procurement officers are certainly not appropriately addressed by scenic advertisements praising the performance of automatic guns and military ammunition in a wide range of journals, it is pertinent to raise the question: what is the purpose of such advertisements?

To secure contracts in the legitimate market sending extensive documentation, offering at competitive prices and bribing the right person would seem much more efficient and indeed practised strategies to win procurement contracts. So, what is the logic behind the advertisements for sniper guns, automatic weapons etc.? Is it merely to entice the appetite of prospective customers, fanatics who are addicted to weapons, so that they would place their orders on the black market which eventually translates indirectly into higher demand in the legal market where the advertising manufacturer has its stakes? Or is it about cultivating a political climate where the focus is on military solutions of political conflicts which guarantees business as usual for the military sector?

The fact that in general media aggressive publicity for weapons which nobody is entitled to possess, except for the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, is tolerated worldwide, indicates the prevalence of a permissive political climate with respect to the diffusion of small arms. Just as advertisement for medicine, smoking, and drinking came under regulation in many countries, advertisement for weaponry individuals are under no circumstances authorised to possess legally should be restricted to the absolute minimum required for rational procurement procedures.

Displaying ammunition as if it were lipsticks in the window of an up-market perfumery attempts to impart ammunition with an ethetic aura and obfuscate the inherently dangerous character of the commodity (See appendix for examples). Given the legal antecedents of restricting advertisements for certain other products, the chances to challenge the public relations practice of the international small arms industry look promising. The aim must be to curb the indiscriminate propagation of firearms, at least of those legally restricted to military use only. Early parliamentary initiatives in the FRG[14] to prohibit advertisements for military weapons in general print media should be reactivated and provide a model for an initiative within the European Union.

Towards a change of culture

Advertisement for military weapons is but one example of the many established cultural patterns bound to change, if the diffusion of small arms into the world of crime and warfare is to be brought under control. Reducing the availability of small arms is a process of reconstructing mutual confidence, it calls for a consensus of putting the state back into the driving seat along the road towards improved security. The four different measures proposed to improve the control of firearms and to reinforce the supply side controls will require extensive discussions before legal action can be taken. But these discussions will already be part of the cultural and political change required to convert declaratory policies of governments into effective measures of control. Bringing the diffusion of firearms under control is not merely legal act, it requires to overcome the latent gun culture whose "virus" is more firmly established in some countries than in others. Unfortunately the propagation of this culture is well entrenched in the global electronic media and strategically sponsored by the US-based National Rifle Association. This "virus" does not recognise national borders and expands to where it encounters fertile ground, not unlike the global network of illicit arms trade. The discussion of the proposals should also be considered as a chance to highlight the scourge of small arms diffusion and help to overcome the worst symptoms of the gun culture.

Linkages between small arms availability and armed conflict From a perspective of a victim whose wounds stem from the use of small arms the exclusive focus on war and armed conflict is not always acceptable. Some post-conflict scenarios turn out to be more murderous than the preceding armed conflicts were. Such situations are marked by copious availability of small arms. El Salvador is a case in point.[15] Often marauding groups band together; they either continue to invest the procedes of their robberies in weapons or waste them on ostentatious (ostentatious only in the empoverished social context) consumption. Chances to accumulate the procedes by channelling them towards productive investment are non-existent, not least because these groups are not endowed with the necessary social capital.[16] The only trade they learnt in their life is fighting a civil war. Thus, the sometimes insinuated chances that these empoverished criminals and robbers eventually emerge as urgently needed capitalists in the reconstruction of the economy are nil. The reverse change of roles, however, seems to be a role model in armed conflicts. In the context of a number of decaying states important merchants turned into warlords.

But shockingly large scale manifestations of firearm violence in some countries also do not fit the definitions of armed conflict, large sectors of big cities and entire rural regions are controlled by criminal gangs at gun point and the police regularly uses firearms far beyond the limits of law enforcement.[17] Large sectors of the civilian population particularly at the lower end of the income distribution perceive gangs and police alike as an armed threat and build their own defences. The evolving social dynamics can be adequately described as an intra-societal arms race during which the state looses fully its coercive monopoly. The thriving private security sector and the formation of self-help and vigilante groups replace the state as a guarantor of personal security. Fire arms of all kind become profane commodities and their possession a pervasive feature. The escalation towards armed conflict can be seamless. The Colombian delegate to U.N. disarmament conference depicts this dynamic process:

The demand for light weapons in many Latin American countries is intimately tied to threats originating in internal conflicts and to the atmosphere of insecurity engendered by criminal violence. Given that automatic and semi-automatic weapons and other light munitions can be acquired by a wide range of insurgents and criminals, as well as by ordinary citizens who feel vulnerable in the face of rising crime, the unrestrained circulation of and illegal traffic in these weapons - often stimulated by the state's inability to provide a just solution to long-standing socio-economic problems and to curb rampant criminal violence - fuels domestic conflict and increases the sense of insecurity.[18] The urgency of the situation with respect to the worldwide diffusion of small arms is documented by the fact, that so far reduced availability in cases of strong demand has not been observed anywhere. All available evidence suggests that small arms are nowhere under efficient control, though there are socially cohesive societies where demand is minimal. This is not really surprising because the world is awash with small arms. The worldwide stock of small arms as well as the manufacturing overcapacities are so pervasive that shutting one loophole at the supply side is likely to open two new veins of potential supply. Only a radical downsizing of the potential supply would change the picture. Some measures seem within the reach of coordinated international action. But more importantly specific empowering factors likely to restrain the demand side are to be studied.

Controlling and destroying surplus weapons

Since the end of the Cold War small arms among others are being shed aggressively onto a second-hand market or handed down to friendly countries. It is being overlooked, however, that the logic of overboarding stock applies to these recipient armed forces as well. "Cascading" surplus becomes an uncontrolled chain reaction rumbling through the entire international system. The German donation of more than 250 000 Kalashnikovs and the corresponding ammunition stock which became surplus when the former East-German army was dissolved, to Turkey is a case in point.[19] The cascading has not yet come to an end, moreover there are many idle manufacturing capacities, particularly in destabilised transition economies.

Apart from the humanitarian aspect there are robust economic reasons for the international community to act and reverse present trends of increased availability of small arms. Not withstanding the scarcity of reliable statistical reporting in the context of armed conflict recent studies of the economic effects of armed conflicts account for the considerable economic losses countries suffer as a consequence of armed conflict.[20] The magnitudes of the forgone economic development strongly suggest that investing parts of the development portfolio in the reduction of small arms availability would pay off considerably by restaining armed violence in its various forms.

The most efficient intervention would be the absorption and destruction of surplus and the targeted conversion or closure of excess manufacturing capacities. Unfortunately many governments presently act to counter the market forces and heavily subsidise the survival of small arms production untenable in medium term.[21] The situation in transition countries is equally troublesome, because the governments neither have the means to finance industrial conversion nor can they mitigate the social consequences of plant closures. As long as insolvency procedures are not well developed, many factories will continue to linger on and will inevitably be tempted to resort to black market activities.

Small arms are on the agenda of various international fora which suggests that a consensus on the urgeny of the issue is emerging. Unfortunately few practical measures have been formulated so far and even fewer have been put to practice. Coping with surplus and industrial overcapacity requires instant action.[22] Thus, an international organisation should be endowed with expertise and sufficient funds, so that non-requitted support can be offered in the field of small arms to destroy surplus, rationalise and protect existing arsenals and downsize manufacturing capacities upon request. As long as such a program is restricted to small arms, it will not be perceived as an infringement of national sovereignty. To the contrary, as it would also positively effect the internal security situation, many governments would welcome outside support. The investment in such a program would pay significant, though not directly accountable dividends. Bringing the present situation under control would help to reduce the volumes of small arms entering international black market circulation and eventually elevate the threshhold of small arms availability in on-going armed conflicts.

Active black market intervention

The armed forces and the police are also regular sources of supply for the black market of small arms, which operates as a well entrenched network not efficiently constrained by borders. Many observers believe that the leaking of public arsenals can be attributed mainly to the absolute crisis in government finances in many countries. Military and police alike are not or not sufficiently paid, so that they resort to moonlighting in the private security sector or more dubious activities. Additionally government inventories of all kind are being sold illegally, including small arms and ammunition. The complete breakdown of government control over military arsenals in Albania was but the superlative of a structural pattern. Starting with a permanent fiscal crisis many states drift along a path leading to a systematic looting of the state and ultimately towards the privatisation of the state. Along this path small arms among others leak into the black market. While international programs for mine clearing are widely accepted and receive considerable support, the idea of a follow-up initiative focusing on clearing illicit small arms has not yet taken root. Like mine clearing small arms clearing has strong humanitarian and economic dimensions. The efficiency of resupply observed in many conflicts highlights the flexibility and the virtually global realm of the illicit networks. It is for this reason that the problem must be addressed by an international monitoring organisation allowing for an efficient flow of information on all illicit transactions and trade observed. But one should go one step further and create a Rapid Intervention Fund (RIF) which governments could call upon, if black market activities directed to resupply armed conflict in the region or organised crime in neighboring countries are localised. The RIF would support active intervention in the black market by purchasing arms and ammunition offered. Such a tool could be particularly useful in regions where tensions accumulate and preparations for armed confrontation are likely.

But the resupply of organised crime might also be targeted. In Southern Africa the southern border towns in Angola are believed to operate huge black markets where organised crime in South Africa procures weapons left over from the civil war in Angola. Two digit million dollars invested in mopping up the arms baazars in the border region is likely to help containing the sprawling violence in South Africa. It is evident that such "buy back" programs pose considerable legal problems and organisational challenges to be solved, but so does the pervasive, borderless black market. The project is not without antecedents, i.e. the American CIA is known to comb all black markets in order to buy back the Stingers originally freely distributed to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan. Thus, some governments at least command already the necessary know how. What is needed is the political resolve to act.

A role for non-governmental actors

The declared intention of governments to fight against illicit trade of small arms is seriously hampered by the lack of information needed before state agencies can target black market actors. In many armed conflicts the origin of the available weapons is not well known. While there is no deficit of reports from people who have observed either people carrying weapons or even using them, most eye witnesses are not educated to distinguish types of small arms. Only in exceptional cases they are able to identify the model or the manufacturer. A steady flow of reports on the type of weapons in use in specific locations would enable an international monitoring agency to reconstruct the puzzle of the international black market networks. Modelling these networks will be a tedious, time consuming process, but the reward would be qualitative improvements in the capacity of state agencies to intervene.[23]

What is required to capacitate the large numbers of aid workers, journalists, and other witnesses to better identify what they observe is a small arms identification booklet to be widely distributed. It is to be expected that this would eventually improve the quality of information on worldwide small arms availability. The initiative for such a modest project should be taken by organisations like amnesty international or the emerging small arms campaign networks like PrepCom (based in Monterey CA) and the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Trade (NISAT). At present the international climate is generally supportive to initiatives aiming at curbing the availability of small arms. This situation should be resolutely taken advantage of to speed practical initiatives at all levels. Ngos can make a difference and help to highlight the machinations of the illicit arms traders forcing governments to act.

Targeting the demand side

With the end of the bi-polar systemic competition most parties in armed conflicts have to generate all the resources they require to fight by themselves. Protecting and expanding the often illicit economic activities which underwrite the fighting has become an imperative for insurgent movements and warlords alike. Because weapons are not any longer for free, insurgent movements additionally require access to foreign exchange. This is not to deny that a few states still support insurgent movements for religious and other ideological reasons. But the scale of this continued support is minimal compared to the lavish military supplies provided in the context of the Cold War. Therefore fighting parties are economically more vulnerable than before. These new conditions are also likely to change the way armed conflicts are being fought. So far, however, the emerging new doctrines have not been studied systematically. Anecdotal evidence and many case studies hint at an increasing amalgamation of business and fighting strategies, radical ideologies not withstanding.

The potential of this new economic vulnerability as a means to suffocate armed conflicts has not yet been sufficiently explored. This may be related to the fact that traditional trade embargos have come into disrepute for being inefficient and often victimizing the wrong groups. But as most war economies link up with the criminal sectors of the global economy[24], they can not be aimed at by normal sanctions. Hence negligence and inability of governments to combat criminal economic activities combines sometimes with connivance when national interests are at stake and allow for an economic sphere where war economies can inject their spoils into regular economic circulation. Only a few empirical studies of how present war economies operate are available, but they allow already to broadly determine the areas where the international community should act, in order to weaken the economic logic of on-going conflicts.

Rufin and Jean[25] have presented the most comprehensive analysis so far. They have identified at least four major income generating sources war economies rely upon: embargoes which empower tiny leagues of monopoly profiteers and empoverish the population; drugs and illegal exploitation of raw materials; diasporas and other remittances from abroad; and humanitarian aid.

Embargoes favour a dramatic concentration of the internal revenues making a continuation of the conflict uniquely profitable for a small layer of the population. These vested interests are likely to actively foment national, ethnic, or religious sentiments to cover up the fact that unrestrained illegal power regulates economic transactions. In the end the state is held captive while being privatised by a criminal elite. Without the criminal energy of internationally operating trading companies illegally exploited resources like tropical wood, gems, diamants etc. would not be marketable. Insurgent movements would not be able to constantly refill their financial coffers and continue fighting. These companies are often located in off-shore tax havens from where they can operate with impunity as long as the international community lacks the resolve to clamp down on these "pirate islands" of the global economy.

In a number of cases conflict parties were empowered to enter into and sustain armed conflict by wealthy diaspora communities or by the remittances of exported labour force.[26] So far host countries have not effectively intervened to control warmongering activities of ethnic or religious groups on their territory. Often backed by blackmail in combination with demonstrations of brutal violence ethnic groups are subjugated under an illegal tax regime by criminal front organisations purportedly to save the brothers back home from annihilation. Armenians, Croates, Albanians, Bosniacs, Kurds are among the more conspicuous expatriate communities directly involved in sustaining a war in their native land.

The most complex links exist between sustaining war fighting capacities and humanitarian aid[27] supposed to provide relief for the victims of civil wars. There are indications that the private emergency aid industry is increasingly being ambushed and blackmailed by fighting parties and local warlords.[28] As a result a general awareness is emerging that new strategies must be developed, in order to overcome the present circular causation between armed conflicts and humanitarian aid.

This short review of the economic foundations of on-going armed conflicts draws attention to the fact that armed conflicts are not just isolated events in remote regions. To the contrary, their dynamics depend on their continued participation in the global economy, often through the backdoor of criminal sectors. Thus, tackling the small arms availability in on-going wars requires an understanding of the underlying economics which would allow targeted and internationally coordinated action to close the revenue generating backdoors of the legal economy through which criminal brokers organise life lines for the fighting parties. More generally small arms availability and the growth of the global GCP seem to be closely linked, not only in cases of armed conflict as increasing societal violence and violent crimes in fragmented societies in Latin America and Africa testify. At present politicians have not yet developed sufficient consciousness with respect to the serious consequences of tolerating the criminal sectors of the economy as well as of the off-shore centres of operation. Cutting the life lines of fighting parties requires determined action against illegal economic transactions. In some cases it might even be necessary to sharpen the legal instruments, in order to stem the resupply of on-going wars. At this point it is important to open the discussion and to improve our knowledge of the economic circuits sustaining armed conflicts. With time a political consensus to take targeted harsh action will emerge and open new dimensions of curbing illicit small arms availability beyond traditional, but ineffective embargoes. Necessary infringements will certainly be tolerated by an enlightened population.

Empowerment of critical groups

Almost worldwide young people have presently only reduced chances to find a productive and legitimate role in the global economic circuit. In many countries as many as 50 % of the young adults are barred from participating in the regular economy. The excluded constitute a huge reserve army for the illegal economy, organised crime, and not least for armed conflicts. Young men between 12 and 25 years of age are, indeed, the backbone of on-going armed conflicts and organised crime. They are trained on the job and do not acquire other skills.[29] Preventing their integration into crime or war as well as promoting their reintegration into the civil society in post-conflict scenarios presupposes education and vocational training and some hope to find a productive role in society. At present few governments in critical countries have the means to offer appropriate opportunities and their perspectives equal a downward spiral. It is not realistic to expect the international community to offer large economic support programs, similar to the Marshall-Plan after WW II, but enabling governments in critical countries to launch broad educational initiatives should be within the reach of international cooperation. Such a youth oriented initiative would symbolize a global compact between generations and contribute to conflict prevention. Though capacitation is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for improving the persepctives, it buys precious time by allowing the temporary absorption of large numbers. Education and vocational training programs combined with social mobilisation can offer at least a perspective of economic development. And hope is an important ingredient of conflict resolution and a potent mobilizer.

Final remark

The present forms of illicit small arms availability reflect the profound changes of international relations as well as the weakening of the state in most parts of the world. A new delicate balance between the private organisation[30] of security and the coercive monopoly of the state is in the offing whose ramifications are all but clear. The transformation of the global economy into an increasingly borderless system additionally facilitates rapid changes of the security paradigm. Combatting the illicit availability of small arms needs to account for these new systemic scenarios, in which conflicts are being engendered further by the ease of criminal economic transactions and illicit supplies.

The lack of focus in this research note is deliberate and attempts to highlight both the lack of encompassing research and policy initiatives and the multi-layered complexity of the issue. Widespread societal violence and armed conflict are not any longer easy to distinguish and seem to present different phases of a seamless social process. Therefore the note attempts to stimulate and enlarge the debate beyond the traditional arms control paradigms. Since no single measure is likely to succeed in bringing illicit small arms under control, a selection of possible action has been presented.

Taking the landmine campaign as an example many people believe that small arms should also be dealt with by concentrating on one measure, like a code of conduct for example. Such proposals overlook that small arms have many legitimate roles and pose a much more complex problem. Combatting illicit small arms will be a process of cultural change and requires economic changes. Each of the partial measures presented will contribute to these changes and it is only their combined effects which are expected to improve the situation internationally.


[1] For an early discussion of the issue see: Peter Lock, Time to catch up — on the SIPRI-Yearbook, in: Security Dialogue, Vol.24 (1993) No.4 pp.459-461; and the rejoinder of Ian Anthony, Old whine in a new bottle, Vol.25 (1994) No.1 pp.111-112.

[2] On the general trend towards privatising diplomacy in Africa see: Christopher Clapham, Africa and the International System, Cambridge (University Press) 1997, pp.244-265.

[3] The difficulties of tightening border controls were already documented in 1992 in a pioneering article by Edward Laurance "Political Implications of Illegal Arms Exports from the United States", Political Quarterly, vo.109, 1992, no.3, pp.501-533.

[4] Pioneering in the field: Boutwell, J., Klare, M., Reed, L. eds. "Lethal Commerce The Global Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons', Cambridge (Academy of Arts and Sciences) 1995. Most useful: Small Arms and Light Weapons: An Annotated Bibliography published by the Canadian Foreign Ministry 1996. For recent additions see: Internet site: http://www.prepcom.org

[5] Rachel J.Stohl, Deadly Rounds: Ammunition and Armed Conflict, Washington D.C. (BASIC) 1998;David Declerq, The Role of Ammunition Controls in Addressing the Excessive and Destabilizing Accumulaton and Misuse of Small Arms, Ottawa 1998.

[6] A single issue campaign is considered to have more chances to be successful and most importantly proliferation control as opposed to diffusion control does not face as much head-on opposition of the powerful NRA (National Rifle Association) in the United States.

[7] Miami is known to serve as a preferred source of sophisticated small arms being smuggled into Latin America's most violence infested regions. With hindsight it was also established that legal Swiss arms dealers were a major source of small arms availability on the Croatian side during the initial months of the emerging civil war in former Yugoslavia.

[8] For a detailed African chronicle see: Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis, Béatric Hibou, La Criminalisation de l'État en Afrique, Paris (Éditions Complexe) 1997.

[9] Vincent Boland, Earnings from organised crime reach 1000 bn, in: Financial Times 14.2.1997 p.1. For an international survey of the situation see: United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation, New York 1998, Sales No. E.89.IV.2.

[10] I am indebted to David Declerq who drew my attention to this aspect.

[11] On this point see: David Declerq, op.cit.

[12] For a detailed analysis of advertisements for military weapons see: Peter Lock, Rüstungswerbung Der Boom gegen die Krise der Rüstungsindustrie, Militärpolitik Dokumentation No.41/42, Frankfurt 1985.

[13] In 1985 the Social Democratic Party proposed to insert a paragraph into the Law to Control Military Weaponry (Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz) banning the advertisement for military weapons in general print media.

[14] On the levels of post-conflict armed violence see: Sabine Kurtenbach, Frieden ist mehr als die Abwesenheit von Krieg, in: Jahrbuch 3.Welt 1999, München C.H. Beck forthcoming.

[15] It is often reported that fighters regularly waste considerable amounts of ammunition during celebrations and other social events which highlights the fact that in most environments resupply does not seem to be a problem (Declerq op.cit.). But it also indicates that these formations have little aspirations beyond fighting, else they would economise their resources. In terms of the empoverished local economies the cost of ammunition is significant and requires foreign currency.

[16] For the best overview over typical economic patterns in civil wars including examples of merchants turned warlords see: Jean-Christophe Rufin, François Jean eds.: Èconomie des guerres civiles, Paris Hachette 1996.

[17] For systematic case studies see: Ignacio Cano, Letalidade da Ação Policial no Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro (ISER) 1997; Luiz Eduardo Soares et al., Violência e Política no Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro (Relume Dumará, ISER) 1996.

[18] Uribe de Lozano, G. , Afterword, p.105, in: Klare, M., Andersen, D., A Scourge of Guns The diffusion of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America, Washington D.C(FAS) 1996.

[19] The Turkish armed forces use rifles of H and American design, mostly produced domestically. Any army would hesitate to introduce yet another rifle whose ammunition is not compatible.

[20] For a collection of ground breaking studies see: Oxford Development Studies, Vol.25, No.1,1997, in particular: Francis Stewart, Frank P. Humphreys, Nick Lea, Civil Conflict in Developing Countries Over the Last Quarter of a Century: An Empirical Overview of Economic and Social Consequences, therein pp.11-43; also: Michael Cranna, The True Cost of Conflict, Seven Recent Wars and Their Effects on Society, New York (New Press) 1994; for a recent review of the economic literature see: Gilles Carbonnier, Conflict, Postwar Rebuilding and the Economy: A Critical Review of the Literature, Geneva, UNRISD WSP Occasional Paper No.2, 1998.

[21] FN-Herstal in Walonia is a case in point. Presently the company is being revamped with an infusion of tax payers money by the regional government; it is already the third such operation after repeated insolvencies (compare the recent FN-advertisement in the appendix).

[22] The international media and diplomats bemoan the emerging civil war in Kosovo, but only belated and modest support was offered to Albania to rapidly collect the huge stocks of small arms looted in 1997.

[23] The non-governmental, Paris-based observatoire géopolitique des drogues has demonstrated what even a modest ngo-initiative can achieve by putting pieces of the puzzle together. Not surprisingly many linkages between the illicit trade of drugs and small arms are documented in their reports. See: Observatoire géopolitique des drogues, Géopolitique des drogues, Paris (La Découverte) 1995, also: Atlas mondial des drogues, Paris (PUF) 1996.

[24] Authoritative estimates put the global GCP (gross criminal product) at 1000 bn. US $, two fifths of it are believed to be related to drugs. See: Vincent Boland, Earnings from organised crime reach 1000 $, in: Financial Times Feb. 14,1997 p.1.

[25] Rufin, Jean Christophe; Jean, François eds., Économie des guerres civiles, Paris (Hachette) 1996.

[26] In the case of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka the export labour force, often as fraudulent asylum seekers, is a deliberate strategy to sustain the war. See: Aline Angoustures, Valérie Pascal, Diasporas et financement des conflits, in: Rufin op.cit. pp.495-542, here 501-506.

[27] See among others: François Jean, Aide humanitaire et économie des guerre, in: Rufin op.cit. pp.543-589; Mark Duffield, NGO relief in war zones: towards an analysis of the new aid paradigm, in: Third World Quarterly, Vol.18, No.3, pp.527-542; Alex de Waal, Democratizing the aid encounter in Africa, in: International Affairs, Vol.73, No.4, pp.623-639.

[28] The International Red Cross is seriously alarmed that the international humanitarian law is not any longer respected in many on-going conflict scenarios. See: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, World Disaster Report 1997, Oxford (Oxford University Press) 1997, chapt 1.

[29] While some would argue that closing loopholes is impossible, the crippling record of the American embargo against Cuba suggests, a lot can be achieved provided the necessary political will exists.

[30] For a discussion of the consequences of this generational economic apartheid see: Peter Lock, Armed conflicts and smal arms proliferation, in: Policy Sciences, Vol.30, pp.117-132.

[31] For an approval of a new division of labour see: David Shearer, Private Armies and Military Intervention, Adelphi Paper 316, London (IISS) 1998; for a critical assessment: Peter Lock, Military downsizing and the growth in the security industry, in: Jakkie Cilliers, Privatisation of Security in Africa, Half-Way House 1998 forthcoming.