Small Arms—they cause 90% of civilian casualties
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The growing availability of small arms has been a major factor in the increase in the number of conflicts, and in hindering smoother rebuilding and development after a conflict has ended. It is estimated, for example, that:
- There are around half a billion military small arms around the world;
- Some 300,000 to half a million people around the world are killed by them each year;
- They are the major cause of civilian casualties in modern conflicts.
This section attempts to look at some of the issues surrounding small arms.
This web page has the following sub-sections:
- What are Small Arms?
- Civilians Affected Most by Small Arms
- People and Governments are Trying to Address the Issues
- More Information
What are Small Arms?
Small arms include weapons such as
- hand guns
- sub-machine guns
- light missiles.
There are many more which are often not regarded “officially” as small weapons, as described by Philippe Riviere, in Small Arms Cover-up; The problem of proliferation, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2001
Civilians Affected Most by Small Arms
Consider, for example, the following:
- Modern conflicts claim an estimated half a million people each year. 300,000 of these are from conflicts, and 200,000 are from homicides and suicides.
- Over 80 percent of all these casualties have been civilian
- 90 percent of civilian casualties are caused by small arms. This is far higher than the casualty count from conventional weapons of war like tanks, bomber jets or warships.
- Estimates of the black market trade in small arms range from US$2-10 billion a year.
- Every minute, someone is killed by a gun
- At least 1,134 companies in 98 countries worldwide are involved in some aspect of the production of small arms and/or ammunition.
- Civilians purchase more than 80% of all the firearms that are currently manufactured worldwide each year.
- There are at least 639 million firearms in the world today, of which 59% are legally held by civilians.
Small Arms are an Ever-Present Problem
Some of the factors include that small arms are often
- Low maintenance;
- Relatively cheap and easily available;
- Highly portable and so easily concealable.
The above therefore makes it easy for things like:
- Illicit trafficking;
- Operation by young children. (There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world.)
Small Arms Linger Long After Conflicts are Over and Hinders Development and Rebuilding
As the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs describes, Small arms and light weapons destabilise regions. This is because they
- Spark, fuel and prolong conflicts;
- Obstruct relief programmes;
- Undermine peace initiatives;
- Exacerbate human rights abuses;
- Hamper development; and
- Foster a “culture of violence.”
However, as the UN also adds, “unlike nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there are no international treaties or other legal instruments for dealing with these weapons, which States and also individual legal owners rely on for their defense needs.”
During the cold war, many nations were flooded with small arms by powerful nations such as the USA and the former Soviet Union and their major allies. Even though the cold war has ended, the small arms still remain and help fuel political and ethnic differences into conflict.
Small Arms are Proliferated Through Both Legal and Illegal Trade
For example, an extensive report from Oxfam in 1998 revealed that UK involvement in the small arms trade is much higher than previously acknowledged. Between 1995 and 1997, UK sold small arms to over 100 countries.
“The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—France, Russia, China, the UK, and the USA—together account for 88 per cent of the world’s conventional arms exports; and these exports contribute regularly to gross abuses of human rights.” as a report from the control arms campaign, Shattered Lives, mentions.
As the report notes further:
This presents a huge obstacle to development in some of these countries.
A documentary back in 1998, from the Center for Defense Information, describes the problems of small arms as epidemic.
Small Arms Cause Mass Destruction
The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) describes that, in effect, small arms are weapons of mass destruction. Summarizing and quoting IANSA:
- Small arms are a Big Problem
- Small arms are Big Business
Small arms lead to Big Damage
- 300,000 deaths a year from conflicts
- 200,000 deaths in “peacetime” nations (from homicides, suicides, unintentional shootings and shootings by police)
- 2 million children are thought to have been killed since 1990 with small arms
- 1.5 million non-fatal injuries each year
- They also have a humanitarian impact:
- Guns are the primary tools used to force families and entire villages to flee their homes
- During humanitarian crisis, armed people can make it harder, or impossible, for the most needy to get aid.
- Small arms inhibit development.
- Small arms present a Global Challenge
People and Governments are Trying to Address the Issues
A documentary from the Center for Defense Information in 1998 suggested that one step towards peace and stability in some regions can be taken by stopping the flow of small arms.
There have been a number of examples of governments and people trying to address the issues. For a small example:
There had been an increase in pressure to discuss disarmament issues and the United Nations was trying to seek a moratorium on small arms trade. The G8 (the world’s major economies plus Russia—also the world’s major arms suppliers) met in Birmingham, UK, 15–17 May, 1998, as part of their annual meetings. Small arms was a major topic of discussion.
In Oslo, Norway, July 1998, there was a meeting where representatives from a number of countries were present to tackle and control the spread of small arms. Although some major producers of small arms were not in attendance, this was still seen as a positive step forward.
South Africa started to take a positive step forward by attempting to tackle the problem that it has created in the past of availability of small arms in Africa and other parts of the world. Yet, as the section below on the UN conference on the illicit arms trade shows, they were against certain moves to tackle exporting of arms to troubled areas.
For the first time in the United Nation’s history, the issue of small arms was finally a topic of conversation at a UN Security Council meeting in 1999, where Kofi Annan also noted the efforts of NGOs in this. NGOs are often doing the hard work and are in the front line. When it comes to small arms, they have been working diligently to fight the effects of small arms. This is not an easy undertaking given the amount of small arms that are traded legally and illegally.
Also in 1999, the UN General Assembly voted to hold a “Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” which was to occur two years after this conference:
UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms, July 2001
A UN conference was set up from 9th to 20th July, 2001, to try and address issues regarding the proliferation of small arms in conflict zones. Amongst the numerous issues at hand, some major gun-producing countries such as the United States, China, Russia, India, and others were against effective universal criteria against arms export. In fact, it is interesting to note the United Statess’ stance on this, as reported by the radio show, Democracy Now!:
This is a remarkable position, as one must note how much controversy and concern was raised in the U.S. when there were revelations about Chinese influences in previous elections. That led to such vehement statements by U.S. politicians. Yet, the above statement says that while others should not be involved in such political interference, it is ok for the U.S. to do this (and, historically, more) to others.
As the Guardian in Britain reported, the United Kingdom, a close ally of the U.S., offered £19.5m to UN efforts to curb the supply of small arms, and yet, the “US is opposed to even a commitment to negotiations on a binding legal agreement.” (emphasis added). A partial reason for this, as explained in the Guardian article, is due to the influential gun lobby in the U.S.
On a slightly lighter note, there was the following response to a comment from someone against the UN conference:
As with the John Bolton comment, the above confuses the issue of of domestic gun control with the trade and transfer of small arms and light weapons across international borders, which is what the UN conference was about.
As with numerous other international issues, this issue has been putting the U.S. at odds with many of its other allies, such as various European nations.
As the session was nearing a close, Human Rights Watch was raising concerns that this conference would “[fail] to produce a serious plan of action.” They further pointed out that, “Many delegates have tried to single out shadowy gunrunners as the chief culprits, while neglecting the governmental role in supplying the weapons used to commit atrocities.”
Amnesty International also pointed out that when some countries tried to get committments that small arms wouldn’t be sold where there was a high risk of human rights violations, or fueling tensions etc, the “USA, China, many ASEAN countries, the Arab Group and South Africa, were amongst those governments that blocked moves to secure such commitments.”
As the conference ended, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) described the result as a “squandered” opportunity as the final agreement was watered down so much. The Washington D.C.-based Center for Defence Information also described how the “United States repeatedly used its political capital to weaken the Programme of Action”:
The final Programme of Action was created, but weakened:
As IANSA summarized, the programme of action committs governments to:
- Make illicit gun production/possession a criminal offence
- Establish a national coordination agency on small arms
- Identify and destroy stocks of surplus weapons
- Keep track of officially-held guns
- Issue end-user certificates for exports/transit
- Notify the original supplier nation of re-export
- Disarmament, Demobilisation & Re-integration (DDR) of ex-combatants, including collection and destruction of their weapons
- Support regional agreements and encourage moratoria
- Mark guns at point of manufacture for identification and tracing
- Maintain records of gun manufacture
- Engage in more information exchange
- Ensure better enforcement of arms embargoes
- Include civil society organisations in efforts to prevent small arms proliferation
However, as IANSA adds, the programme “provides no international mechanism for monitoring compliance, and the UN’s role has been limited to compiling information submitted by states on a voluntary basis.”
A follow-up biennial conference to guage the progress of the programme was held in July 2003.
United Nations Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and the Programme of Action, 7-11 July 2003
This follow-up meeting was to consider the national, regional and global implementation of the Programme of Action agreed at the 2001 UN Conference and for governments to report their progress and lessons learned in the first two years of implementing it.
Leading up to the meeting, IANSA noted how many states had progressed poorly so far on this issue, under their obligations to the Programme of Action.
Human Rights Watch detailed misuse of small arms by many governments and groups around the world.
Robert Muggah, senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey—the principle international source of public information on all aspects of small arms based in Geneva—detailed that the issue also involves a difference between the rich and poor. The NGO, ID21, summarized Muggah’s report noting that:
- People living in poor countries in Africa and the Americas are more than twice as likely to die a violent death as those living in rich European countries.
- Many of these deaths are due to the misuse of small arms, the ownership of which has spread throughout poor communities as a result of war and the insecurities of poverty.
- The spread of small arms is both an effect and a cause of underdevelopment and poverty.
- Small arms misuse means that instead of making investments in improving their well-being and economic development, the already poor are burdened with the cost of nursing the injured and paying for informal forms of security such as vigilantism and para-militaries.
- Yet much of the initiative to reduce and control small arms has been left to the poor communities themselves, with little help from international governments or agencies.
- One of the causes behind the inaction of some of the world’s wealthiest states is domestic politics and economic self-interest.
- On the political front, not all governments in a position to donate funds towards small arms control recognise civilian ownership of arms as a problem.
- In terms of economic self-interest, a number of governments are also reluctant to be involved in initiatives which seek to reduce armed violence by restraining local markets in small arms. The value of the legal global trade in small arms is estimated at 4 billion US dollars per year. The estimated value of the illegal global trade in small arms is an additional 1 billion US dollars. Yet the UN’s current Programme of Action on arms control focuses only on illegal trade in small arms, despite the fact that most illegally sold arms initially come from legal sources.
IANSA summarized the outcome of the meeting as having some critical positives, and some negatives:
You can also find out more about this meeting from the official United Nations web site for this conference.
Various efforts have resulted in codes of conducts and even a call for an Arms Trade Treaty. These are discussed in more depth in the next section on this site.
For more information, the following links are good places to start:
- The International Action Network on Small Arms has a lot of links and documentation on small arms issues and is a good place to find out more.
- Small Arms, Big Impact has a lot of information, with a lot of tables and statistics.
- Small Arms, Wrong Hands from Oxfam examines the role of the UK as a supplier of small arms to zones of conflict.
- The Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Trasfers (NISAT) combines the resources and networks of its partner organizations to help block the spread of small arms to areas where they are likely to produce conflict, violence and human rights abuses.
- Small Arms Campaign from Human Rights Watch.
- Small Arms Survey is an independent research project serving as the principal international source of public information on all aspects of small arms, and as a resource centre for governments, policy makers, researchers, and activists.
- Official United Nations web site from the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs
- Control Arms is a campaign jointly run by Amnesty International, International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and Oxfam.
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