Small Arms Trade

Tom Arendshorst

April 2005

Small Arms in Intractable Conflicts

In the age of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the vast majority of all warfare continues to be conducted using conventional weapons: machine rifles, grenades, landmines, explosives, and light rockets. These small arms, and the ability to obtain them, are the operational means of warfare. The much-touted efficiency of "high-tech" warfare based on computer-guided rockets and remote-controlled war machinery has been generally successful only as bombardment[1] in advance of ground-based attack which ultimately depends on soldiers wielding hand-held weapons. Thus, even when blessed with unlimited war capability and unlimited weaponry options, militaries such as those of the United States and Russia depend on small arms to subdue populations and control territory. So do guerilla revolutionaries and those defending themselves against their own violently abusive governments.

This essay will consider the issue of the global trade in small arms, examining its scope, its global economic underpinnings, its relationships to the economies of conflict- plagued countries, its particular connections to the current war in Sudan, and finally possible initiatives for reform of the global small arms trade.

The Scope of the Problem

As recently as World War II, the ability to prosecute war depended on developing the industrial capacity to produce these "small arms." During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union provided conventional weapons for their respective client states fighting "proxy" wars. The high-geared military-industrial economies of the two leviathans have stimulated France, China, Germany, the UK, Italy, Ukraine, and Israel to compete in the lucrative worldwide business of weapons export. In 2002 these nine weapons-selling countries exported $14.8 billion in conventional weapons to the rest of the world. Forty percent of this staggering volume of weapons flows from Russia; 27% is shipped from the USA.[2] The USA, UK, and France earned more in small arms sales to developing countries in 1998-2001 than they gave in aid.[3]

The gigantism of this industry renders it a force in national economic policies. It is in the national interest of these nations, to some degree, to promote violent conflict and war around the world. As is apparent in the case of Sudan, the economic leverage of the weapons industry, including the small arms industry, may determine whether major first-world nations support or impede peace processes in war-torn countries. This positive self-interest that weapons-supplying first-world nations have in the negative interest -- the active destruction and resulting impoverishment -- of third-world nations is a very dark side of the economic colonialism that typifies neo-liberal economic globalization.[4]

Classic game-theory analyses of arms race determinants assume arms development and production to come at the expense of a nation's economic well-being.[5] While that may actually be true in terms of benefit to an entire nation's economy, it is always true that war yields positive economic benefit to national military industries, and that military industries hold disproportionate power over their governments' decision-making processes.

In result, the world is flooded with weapons, and the potential to pursue violence is immediately and endlessly available to all. As Mary Kaldor notes, "violence is increasingly privatized both as a result of growing organized crime and the emergence of paramilitary groups."[6] There are reported to be more than 639 million small arms in the world today; in the case of South Asia, 80% are in civilian (non-governmental) hands.[7]

The availability of small arms is further assured through the worldwide financial deregulation that is a cornerstone of neo-liberal economic globalization.[8] The deregulation of financial transactions has effectively rendered the financing of war exempt from national or international governance. Arms merchants and, significantly, diaspora supporters of civil conflicts are easily able to move funds instantly and covertly behind the screens of small states specializing in such banking services, thanks to the blessings of deregulated economic globalization.[9] Weapons procurers are similarly enabled to operate with impunity, even when supplying arms illegally to the perpetrators of humanitarian crimes and genocides. Even when legal "controls" are in effect, sales and movement of small weapons to parties in conflict can proceed unabated. The illegal arms trade is estimated at more than (perhaps much more than) $1 billion per year.[10] Conflict entrepreneurs -- weapons manufacturers, gun-runners, merchant middle-men, and the weapons users themselves-- profit both from the supply of weapons and from their use in protracted conflict.

During the Cold War massive supplies of conventional and more sophisticated weapons systems were pumped into client states by the Cold War powers, providing vast stores of machinery for ensuing post-Cold War wars. Weapons fed into the Afghanistan and Cambodian conflicts have been the foundation of supply for current South Asian violence. Massive supplies of weapons supplied to the Congo and Angola wars provided the stockpile for succeeding West African wars. [11] The killing lives of such weapons may last many years. During the Cold War, the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) operated as the Western self-regulation of which weapons and technologies were to be restricted. By 1989, however, the appeal of economic gains effectively overwhelmed security concerns. CoCom was disbanded in 1994,[12] and first-world weapons producers have since fed arms to parties in conflict with unrestricted, free-market eagerness.

The Social and Economic Impact of Small Arms in Warring Nations

Small arms trade plays a prominent role in the economies of nations at war, and particularly in intrastate conflicts. The availability of small arms makes war possible, and their continuing availability fuels the protraction of war.[13] War economies require continuing violence for sustenance.[14] In many protracted civil wars, the availability of weapons exceeds that of soldiers, leading to the mushrooming prevalence of child-soldier "recruitment" by kidnapping (Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere).

Thus, the small arms market helps to drive the diverse disabling economic and social effects of war. Wars fed by small arms supply divert economic investment and energy from normal productivity, and suck up resources otherwise available for domestic services and infrastructure[15] (education, health care, social welfare, and productivity-related infrastructure like roads, energy provision, and water supply). "War interrupts, and indeed reverses, economic development."[16] War destroys physical and social capital, and erodes what Sen calls the "capacities" and "entitlements" of people's lives.[17]

Small arms warfare is intimately connected to poverty and arrested economic development in conflict-affected areas. Agriculture suffers both from the loss of opportunity to work in fields and from the weapons themselves, especially land mines. Looting and the ruination of croplands are common tactics. Commerce suffers as well; necessary safety, reliable transportation, and open communication become extremely difficult in areas infused with small arms. Industry and international trade suffer for all these reasons, plus the increased risks of loss to combatants. The stability of government and policy, required for the smooth function of economies, suffers in the presence of active violence. When war concludes, conflict-damaged societies must then face the economic burdens of both weapons disarmament and disposal and the education and employment of habituated combatants

The ready availability of small arms enables conflict economies of robbery and looting, extortion systems, and kidnapping. Lives lost to small arms violence are a major economic loss to societies torn by conflict, with long-reaching adverse effects on the economic function of families and communities. Small arms violence results in major dislocations of refugees and internally-displaced persons, who are rendered both severely needy and unable to be productive. And the supply of small arms stimulates drug-running and other smuggling economies. Finally, when active warfare abates, the presence of abundant small arms and abundant ex-soldiers fosters the escalation of crime rates and the development of organized crime that has been a virtually constant sequel to recent wars.

Even the ability of outside humanitarian donors to ease the suffering of people in conflict-infected regions risks being hijacked for economic gain by warring groups empowered by small arms. In many situations, armed independent gangs or unofficial militias derive significant funding from regular looting or "taxation" of humanitarian aid providers.

The Case of Sudan

The individual case of the complex, protracted intrastate war in Sudan clearly exemplifies the terrible hazards of the global small arms market. In Sudan, the genocidal campaign of the Sudanese (Muslim) government against native Muslims living in the newly-discovered oil field lands of Darfur has been actively pursued through government-assisted militias, primarily the Janjawid. The Janjawid are able to carry out their program of mass terror, murder and intentional starvation by virtue of their wealth of small arms provisions -- Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and jeep-mounted machine guns -- despite the UN adoption in 2001 of Article 16 of the UN International Law Commission's Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts. The agreement is binding on all states, and forbids any assistance of another state in the commission of "any internationally wrongful act." The Janjawid's atrocities clearly surpass international definition as "Internationally Wrongful Acts," and the Sudan government's claims to be uninvolved and opposed to the arbitrary and indiscriminate killing, "disappearances," systemic rapes, and torture fly in the face of heavily documented evidence of the government's supply of and government troop participation in the atrocities. [18]

In 1994, the European Union joined in an arms embargo against all non-governmental entities in Sudan in order to "promote lasting peace and reconciliation within Sudan," but the world weapons industry has continued to sell arms to the Sudanese government without restriction.[19] Given the clear evidence of the Sudan government's programmatic support of and participation in the Darfur genocide and crimes against humanity, any sale of arms to Sudan violates Article 16 of the UN International Law Commission. Every nation fully understands this, yet the world community of weapons exporters have continued to feed small arms into Sudan, fueling the Darfur genocide. In March, 2004, The UN Security Council voted 13-0-2 to demand that Sudan disarm its paramilitary militias, but issued its demand without teeth.[20] Further, small arms shipments to other East African countries from the USA and Germany, among others, is certain to bolster Sudan's stockpile of weapons. It is estimated that 85% of the personal assault weapons in Africa originate in the five countries of the UN Security Council: the USA, the UK, Russia, China, and France.[21]

Finally, only two weeks ago, the UN Security Council approved a total weapons embargo, targeted economic sanctions against atrocity perpetrators, a 10,000-person peacekeeping force, and an International Criminal Court investigation and prosecution of criminals against humanity in Sudan.[22]

Principal exporters of small arms to Sudan appear to be Iran, China, France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and the UK[23] (this tally excludes further volumes of arms sales in terms of fighter jets, helicopters, etc.). The fact that UN Security Council nations have stakes in the illegal arms supply of the Janjawid/Sudanese government genocide in Darfur (and China's strong oil-supply relationship with the Sudanese government) helps explain the Security Council's failure to act to stop the war. In November 2004, Amnesty International revealed densely documented details of the uncontrolled arms exports that have fueled massive human rights abuses in Sudan, including the killing, rape, torture and displacement of more than a million civilians since the Darfur conflict escalated in February 2003[24] after the discovery of Darfur oil deposits.

The inability (or unwillingness) of the Swiss, paragons of organization, to regulate their own export of weapons demonstrates the degree to which the weapons market is out of control. After being told by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies that Swiss small arms exports to Sudan totaled more than $4 million in 2002, the Swiss Finance Ministry promised that Switzerland would review its weapons exports. The Swiss government records reveal less than $4,000 worth of handgun exports to Sudan, to be used "for use as personal protection or sporting purposes." "Such trade would not have been approved by us," stated Ottmar Wyss, responsible for export control. "Either there is illegal export trade going on, or the numbers are wrong."[25] Reason and experience suggest that the wrong numbers are those of Mr. Wyss.

The Sudanese government estimates that "two to three million" landmines cover 32 % of the country; the original exporters of the landmines were Russia, China, the UK, Iraq, Iran, the USA, and a list of others.[26]

While Sudan's population is impoverished and has been victimized by its two decades of civil war, and although Sudan is one of the 38 "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries" eligible for favorable borrowing terms, Sudan is also sitting on major oil reserves -- a resource pool that could possibly deliver economic stability and domestic freedoms to the people of Sudan. Instead, oil production is bankrolling the government's pursuit of genocide against its own people, through the purchase of small arms and other weapons, a political economic decision founded on abuse of one part of its population for the benefit of a relative few. The main foreign direct investors in Sudan are companies from China, Malaysia, and India.[27]

Halting the Global Small Arms Market

What measures might effectively govern the worldwide small arms market and reduce the likelihood of violence? Given the present prevalent system of deregulated trade and finance, and the monstrous productive capacity of a profusion of nations to produce the weapons that fuel conflict, it is hard to be sanguine about the prospects for real change. Rhetorical advocacy for peace and human rights is often a smokescreen to cover the transnational corporate "national" interests of weapons producers.

The following measures must be pursued as part of an aggressive world response to the calamity of the global small arms market system and its contributions to the Sudan civil war:

1. The UN Security Council must aggressively pursue all of its new measures against Sudan's criminal war against its own people, and apply this same standard to all conflicts.

2. The United Nations, regional interstate security unions, and individual weapon-producing nations must be aggressively and resolutely pushed to reform policy in order to reduce and govern weapons manufacture and export. The economic benefits of the global small arms market enrich a few while impoverishing the interrelated economies and lives of most of the world. Targeted financial sanctions[28] against non-compliant producers might enable this reform, if the Security Council permanent members can find the political and moral will to curtail their own weapons industries. Real change will take determination, and will not be a short-term project.

3. All weapons should be given international registry marks, so that manufacturers and countries of origin can be determined.

4. A fund should be created to pay for the purchase and destruction of small arms, initially in areas of conflict and then globally, in order to reduce the massive world stockpile of such weapons.

5. The neo-liberal system of economic globalization itself must be progressively reformed. It is time for the world to again implement regulatory governance of trade, finance, labor, environment, and community, on state and transnational bases.

This essay allows space only for an introductory analysis of the global small arms system of manufacture, export, trafficking, and use in violent conflict; and economic bases and effects of this system. Small arms, and the broader concern of all weapons production for sale, are a major piece of the conflict and peace puzzle. Weapons manufacture and traffic, and particularly that of small arms, is a beast that will require taming if the world's wildfires of violence are to be contained.

[1] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, (New York, Henry Holt, Metropolitan Books, 2004) pp. 26-28.

[2] Campaign Against Arms Trade,

[3] Lanka Business Online,, Oct. 10, 2003.

[4] Charles Kater, "The Political Economy of Conflict and UN Intervention: Rethinking the Critical Cases of Africa," in Karen Ballentine and Jake Sherman, eds., The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed and Grievance (Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), p. 33.

[5] Todd Sandler and Keith Hartley, The Economics of Defense, (Cambridge, Campbidge University Press, 1995) pp. 73-109.

[6] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized violence in a Global Era (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 5.

[7]Lanka Business Online,, Oct. 10, 2003.

[8]. Karen Ballentine and Jake Sherman, The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed

and Grievance (Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 82.

[10] Katherine Heine, "Small arms threaten Sri Lanka's stability," Reuters Limited, Sept. 30, 2003.

[11] Joanna Spear, "Conventional Weapons," in Managing Global Issues : Lessons Learned,, P.J.

Simmons and Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, eds. (Washington, D.C. : Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001), pp. 576-7.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See the essay on conflict profiteers.

[14] Kaldor, p. 9.

[15] Ballantine and Sherman, p. 2.

[16] Paul Collier, V. L. Elliott, Havard Hegre, Anke Hoeffler, Marta Raynal-Querol, and Nicholas

Sambanis, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy (World Band and Oxford University Press, Washington, D.C., 2003), p. 84.

[17] Amartya Kumar Sen, "Poverty as Capacity Deprivation," Development as Freedom (New York; Knopf, 1999), pp. 87-110; and

Amartya Kumar Sen, Poor, Relatively Speaking (Dublin, Ireland; Economic and Social Research Institute, 1983).

[18] Amnesty International: Sudan, "Arming the Perpetrators of Grave Abuses in Darfur," Dec. 2004,

[19] Ibid.

[20] UN Security Council Resolution1556 (2004),

[21] Africa News, "Small Arms Boom in East Africa", May 7, 2001,

[22] USA Today, April 1, 2005, "UN Security Council to Prosecute Sudanese War Crimes,"

[23] Amnesty International, November 11, 2004, "Sudan: Arms Trade Fuelling Human Rights Abuse in Darfur,"

[24] Amnesty International, November 11, 2004, "Sudan: Arms Trade Fuelling Human Rights Abuse in Darfur,"

[25] Sudan Tribune, July 4, 2004, "Switzerland to Review Small Arms Exports to Sudan"

[26] Amnesty International: Sudan, "Arming the Perpetrators of Grave Abuses in Darfur."

[27] Amnesty International: Sudan, "Arming the Perpetrators of Grave Abuses in Darfur."

[28] David Cortright and George Lopez, "Introduction: Assessing Smart Sanctions: Lessons from the 1990's" in Cortright and Lopez eds., Smart Sanctions: Targeting Economic Statecraft (Lanham and Boulder, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).

Use the following to cite this article:
Arendshorst, Tom. "Small Arms Trade." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2005 <>.

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