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Small Arms and Forced Migration

Robert Muggah

October 2002



The world is awash with small arms. At least 640 million weapons are in circulation, and more than half a million people are killed each year as a result of their use. Millions more are disabled, or die from untreated injuries and secondary illness. Yet the human costs of small arms are so systemic and pervasive that they largely go unseen. Research and policy focus almost exclusively on technical issues to do with production and stockpile management, transparency and oversight of the small arms trade, and legal or normative regimes designed to reduce the flow of arms. Where the question of small arms has arisen in UN fora, the focus has been on supply-side measures designed to harmonize and tighten export criteria, the development of marking and tracing mechanisms, and the reining in of illegal brokering.

Small arms have not yet emerged as an issue of specifically humanitarian concern - much less one for the research community working on forced displacement and resettlement. With few exceptions, humanitarian language is absent from most international and national codes or conventions tied to regulating their trade. Even as a growing number of advocates from the public health and human rights sectors are raising the profile of the issue, relief and development actors have been slower to react, and a comprehensive humanitarian response to small arms availability and use has yet to emerge fully.

Humanitarian agencies have been slow to react because the evidence is limited, and so awareness of the issue has not taken root. At field level, humanitarian actors often subsume small arms under a larger basket of 'security' concerns, without ever defining appropriate measures to reduce risk and vulnerability. Personnel at headquarters often fail to recognize the value of collating and analysing direct evidence, and are understandably preoccupied with the demands of rapidly responding to complex emergencies.

Central to the humanitarian perspective is the recognition that intentional violence perpetrated with small arms has both short- and long-term consequences for human safety and well-being. Some of these impacts can be measured empirically, such as in epidemiological studies of fatal and non-fatal injuries and disability during, or in the aftermath of, armed conflict. As this research guide will show, patterns of forced displacement and the militarization of refugee camps as well as the withdrawal of humanitarian assistance in areas affected by armed violence are all readily quantifiable. Other effects are less easily recorded, such as the long-term economic and psychosocial burden of disability, or the behavioural responses of relief workers exposed to small arms use.

Ultimately, small arms availability and misuse profoundly affect civilians - including refugees and those that are internally displaced - in a number of ways. There are three key periods at which displaced people are most vulnerable when faced with small arms availability:

immediately prior to and during the displacement event ('as catalyst' - often a massacre, a rapid escalation in armed violence, etc.);

during the period of protracted or repeated displacement ('fatal and non-fatal injuries', 'forced recruitment', 'harrassment', 'declining access to entitlements and basic needs', etc.);

and at the place of resettlement or return ('increased criminality', 'reduced indicators of wellbeing', 'reduced mobility', etc.).

The basic rights and entitlements of displaced people are threatened at each stage by, among other things, the insecurity generated out of the barrel of a gun.

This research guide charts the international dimensions of small arms production, stockpiles and trade for researchers interested in better understanding the magnitude and dimensions of the issue. It then describes how the humanitarian and development community, including those partially responsible for ensuring the protection and assistance of forcibly displaced people, has started to respond to the issue. Three approaches have emerged - perspectives that simultaneously address the supply of small arms to states that violate human rights and international humanitarian law; the issue of demand and the need for better enforcement of international humanitarian law among armed actors; and the operational security risks at the field level. The guide concludes with a discussion of the human costs of small arms - and the relationships between small arms availability and forced displacement, refugee camp militarization.

Summary of small arms issue

Summary of small arms issue

The small arms agenda and a definition

Policy makers, arms control and disarmament experts, particularly the humanitarian community, still lack a detailed understanding of the full dimensions of the small arms issue. There are many reasons for this, tied primarily to the political climate and to the particular interests of domestic constituencies. The 1970s and 1980s were not conducive to a spirit of multilateral transparency on conventional arms. In a strategic environment dominated by nuclear weapons, small arms were seen as more-or-less inconsequential, a marginal or 'soft' issue. As a result, research was confined to a small group of spirited academics, investigative researchers, and peace activists.

From the beginning, research on small arms has been concentrated almost exclusively in the USA, and focused exclusively on abstract notions of 'international security' ( BASIC), issues such as US ( Arms Sales Monitoring Project) and UK exports ( Saferworld), as well as civilian possession and domestic abuse ( CDC). Studies on small arms production, trade, and proliferation outside the USA tended to be anecdotal, and advocates and campaigners found it difficult to move the agenda forward.

After more than a decade of acrimonious debate, the UN's member states are still unable to agree on a suitable definition for small arms and light weapons. According to the Report of the UN Panel of Experts (, produced in August 1997, small arms are defined broadly as 'those weapons designed for personal use'; light weapons are 'those designed for use by several persons serving as a crew'. Specifically, 'small arms include revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles, and carbines, sub-machine guns and recoilless and assault rifles. Light weapons include heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, portable launchers and small mortars and ammunition of calibres less than 100mm'. For the purposes of this paper, 'small arms' denotes both categories of weapon, unless otherwise stated.

British American Security Information Council
Federation of American Scientists
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United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs
United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research
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The scale of the issue: production, stockpiles, and transfers

There are at least 640 million small arms in circulation, of which roughly 10-20 per cent are powerful high-calibre weapons designed to military specification. While robust data is hard to come by and the number of illegally held arms unknown, it is estimated that more than half of these weapons are in private hands, with around 40 per cent belonging to military forces. Police forces account for around 3 per cent, and insurgent groups and non-state actors for less than 1 per cent.

During the Cold War, small arms production was often confined to state-owned factories. The global small arms industry has, however, restructured in the aftermath of the Cold War. Currently, more than 1,000 companies are involved in some aspect of small arms production in 98 countries (see Tables 1.1 and 1.2). At least 30 per cent of these firms are based in the US, and just less than half are located in Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Other major manufacturing states include Brazil, China, and Israel, with new producers such as India, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan close behind. Privatization, together with licensed production, has contributed to the growing worldwide distribution of small arms production. More than 80 per cent of all small arms are produced in a handful of companies in thirteen countries. The total value of production, including both military and commercial outputs, is estimated at approximately US$2.8 billion, with ammunition accounting for an additional $4 billion.

As for the small arms trade, the line between the legal and the illicit is murky. Only 50 per cent of the global trade can be definitively documented through open sources and government export and customs reports. The illicit trade is estimated to be worth less than $1 billion (10-20 per cent of the total trade); preliminary research indicates that at least fifty-four countries have been involved in supplying arms in defiance of arms embargoes.

Table 1.1: Global distribution of producing countries, 2000 and 2001
Region Number of producing countries (2001) Percentage of global total
Europe/CIS 41 42
North/Central America 5 5
South America 11 11
Asia-Pacific 20 21
Middle East 11 11
Sub-Saharan Africa 10 10
Total 98 100
Table 1.2: Global distribution of small arms companies, 2001
Region Number (2001) Percentage
Europe/CIS 485 47
North/Central America 351 34
South America 37 4
Asia-Pacific 92 8
Middle East 46 4
Sub-Saharan Africa 31 3
Total 1,042 100

State-led production of small arms fell dramatically following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since these were, in general, unprofitable industries with low economic returns. The overall demand for small arms also slackened over the same period, as client states and proxy wars lost their financial backers in the USA and the Soviet bloc.

As a result, throughout the 1990s weapon producers and brokers increased their reliance on new clients in South-East Asia and Latin America. Producing states, particularly in Central And Eastern Europe, also sought to bolster sales by supplying arms to wars in Africa and Europe.

At the same time, older stockpiled weapons have cascaded into risk-prone areas. For example, military-style rifles, mostly AK-47s, G-3s and the Fusil Automatique Légère, are among the weapons most commonly used by armed combatants and criminals in Kenya, Sudan, and the Greater Horn of Africa. Handguns such as .32s and 9mm pistols, as well as grenades and explosives, are the most commonly used weapons in atrocities and common crime in Colombia, Brazil, and throughout South and Central America. Many of the small arms in circulation in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru originate from the stocks of opposing forces in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Following the cessation of hostilities in these countries, many of these weapons were either retained by their owners (in some cases to be sold later), or routed back to civil wars in Colombia and Peru. Rough estimates suggest that, for every 1,000 weapons collected from former combatants in Central America, another 100,000 remain in circulation and unaccounted for ( UNOG). In Southern Africa, weapons used in Mozambique's civil war, which ended in 1992, have found their way into clandestine markets in South Africa ( Institute for Strategic Studies). In the Balkans, protracted conflict has attracted a steady flow of weapons from Eastern Europe via Albania (

Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)
Centre for Civil Military Relations and Security
Centre for Defence Information
Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP)
International Institute for Strategic Studies
Institute for Strategic Studies
International Peace Information Service (IPIS)
Non-Violence International
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Small Arms Survey
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI
Viva Rio
NATO,Resolution on Small Arms Control. Resolution 303.Resolution on Small Arms Control. Resolution 303., 2000.
UNIDIR,Managing Arms in Peace Processes: Nicaragua and El Salvador, Disarmament and Conflict Resolution Project.Managing Arms in Peace Processes: Nicaragua and El Salvador, Disarmament and Conflict Resolution Project. Geneva: UNIDIR, 1997.

Human rights and humanitarian focus on small arms

Human rights and humanitarian focus on small arms

Supply-side humanitarian response

In brief, a supply-side approach seeks to strengthen supplier-country controls and end-user conditionality in order to prevent the export of small arms to regimes that are known to violate international humanitarian law and human rights. Its proponents stress that while Article 51 of the UN Charter recognizes the right of states to arm themselves in self-defence and to acquire weapons for military and police forces, Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions (1949) emphasizes their simultaneous obligation to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions states that 'the knowing provision of arms into situations where serious violations of international humanitarian law occur or are likely to occur should be considered a matter of grave concern'. In its strongest form, advocates of this approach contend that countries supplying weapons are accessories to the abuses committed with them - even genocide.

The supply-side approach aims to prevent small arms transfers to states likely to commit serious breaches of fundamental human rights and humanitarian law. Violations of humanitarian norms can range from torture and execution of prisoners of war to the protection of civilians in international or internal conflict. The prohibition of arms transfers might also apply to those governments who are unable to exercise control over their population.

Both the European Union's (EU) Code of Conduct on Arms Exports ( and the OSCE's Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons ( initially sought to ensure that recipient states would comply with international humanitarian law and human rights criteria prior to the granting of export licences. While the codes demand that human rights and international humanitarian law should be taken into account, there are no specific obligations with respect to the transfer of small arms to abusive regimes. Significant gaps remain - particularly with respect to issues of brokering and licensed production - which leave ample opportunity for evasion. With problems like this in mind, the Canadian government proposed a convention prohibiting the international transfer of small arms to non-state actors in 1998, but this proposal received little support at the time or at the 2001 UN Conference.

An international code of conduct has been proposed by a group of Nobel Peace laureates and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), led by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias ( Their Framework Convention on international arms transfers seeks to establish a legally binding text forcing the approval of arms exports to be contingent on principles of human rights, humanitarian law, sustainable development, and peace and stability. Consistent pressure on governments by advocates has yielded the adoption of codes at the national level - notably in South Africa and the United States. The US export control system is considered by many to be one of the world's best, and efforts have been made to reinforce it with a formal code of conduct. In Western Europe, both Germany and the UK have also recently undertaken to impose controls on the transfer of weapons to rights-abusing regimes - though, as yet, there is little evidence that it is currently working as envisioned.

Proponents of the supply-side approach call for increased accountability and government scrutiny of small arms transfers - from the point of production to end-use certification. Advocacy networks such as the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and the Humanitarian Coalition on Small Arms, as well as organizations such as UNHCR and Amnesty International, have called for stringent codes of conduct for the small arms trade. Such codes would aim to improve transparency on arms transfers, limit the list of permissible recipients, and strengthen post-transfer oversight.

Recognition of the limitations of a narrowly interpreted supply-side approach focusing only on the legitimate production and trade in small arms has spurred the development of a host of alternative strategies to reduce small arms transfers to abusive regimes and non-state actors. A prominent tool commonly invoked bilaterally by states and multilaterally by the UN is sanctions. To be sure, the record on sanctions and arms embargoes is patchy at best. One school prefers targeted or 'smart' sanctions to minimize the indirect effects on civilians. But there are many critics who insist that sanctions and embargoes are a substitute for more resolute action - excusing states from their legal and moral obligations actively to punish abusive regimes.

Other proponents of the supply-side approach have sought to 'name, blame, and shame' actors that are known to violate human rights. An Amnesty report released in 2001, entitled Human Rights Abuses with Small Arms , is one such example. The report illustrates the range of human rights abuses carried out with small arms. Violations described in the report include police brutality and torture, violence over land rights, massacres and extra-judicial killings, the excessive use of force, and electoral violence. Another example is the study carried out by Barbara Frey in 2002, on behalf of UNHCR's Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Mandated by Resolution 2001/120 in August 2001, the study appraises the extent to which the trade, possession, and use of small arms violate human rights and humanitarian norms. Studies such as these seek to embarrass violating parties, tarnish their image, and encourage changes in behaviour. Human Rights Watch has documented the relationship between illicit and licit arms acquisitions and civilian impacts in countries such as Angola, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Georgia, India, Israel, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Turkey.

Amnesty International
BASIC Codes Index
FAS Code of Conducts Page
Human Rights Watch
International Action Network on Small Arms
Arias Foundation
Ploughshares Canada
Small Arms Survey
UN High Commission on Human Rights
Amnesty International,Human Rights Abuses with Small Arms: Illustrative Cases from Amnesty International Reports 2000-2001.Human Rights Abuses with Small Arms: Illustrative Cases from Amnesty International Reports 2000-2001. London: Amnesty International, 2001.
DFID,Small Arms and Light Weapons: A UK Policy Briefing.Small Arms and Light Weapons: A UK Policy Briefing. London: CHAD, 2002
ECOWAS,Declaration of a Moratorium on Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons in West Africa.Declaration of a Moratorium on Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons in West Africa. Abuja, 31 October. UN A/53/763, 1998.
EU,EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. 8 June. UN A/CONF.192/PC/3, 1998.
Frey, B.,Draft Paper on Human Rights and Small Arms for the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Pursuant to Resolution 2001/120Draft Paper on Human Rights and Small Arms for the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Pursuant to Resolution 2001/120, 16 August 2001, 2002.
OSCE,OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons.OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons. 308th Plenary Meeting, 2000
HRW 2002.Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence and Human Rights in Kenya. New York: Human Rights Watch.Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence and Human Rights in Kenya. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch,'Bulgaria: Money Talks - Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers''Bulgaria: Money Talks - Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers'. Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 7, no. 7, 1999a.
Human Rights Watch,Arsenals on the Cheap: NATO Expansion and the Arms Cascade.Arsenals on the Cheap: NATO Expansion and the Arms Cascade. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999b.
Human Rights Watch,'South Africa: A Question of Principle: Arms Trade and Human Rights' 'South Africa: A Question of Principle: Arms Trade and Human Rights'. Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 5 (A), 2000.
UN,Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Violations of Security Council Sanctions Against Unita.Final Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Violations of Security Council Sanctions Against Unita. S/2000/203, 2000.

Human costs approach

A second approach, endorsed by operational arms of the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and major international relief agencies, seeks to heighten international and domestic awareness of the impacts of small arms-related violence on non-combatants and vulnerable groups. It aims to reorient attention away from technical concerns with supply, and towards more operational and demand-driven field activities focused on improving the protection of civilians against armed violence.

This approach arises from concerns over the legal and operational implications of civilian possession of small arms, and the strategic targeting of non-combatants in conflict. Proponents of this approach are particularly concerned that the accessibility of small arms, particularly to poorly trained and undisciplined soldiers, acts as a multiplier of violence and ultimately, forced displacement.

It is also grounded in a heightened awareness of persistent violations of international humanitarian law. The purpose of international humanitarian law is to impose limits on how conflicts are conducted, including how weapons are used in them, and to impose prohibitions on the use of certain weapons in war ( The principal sources of international humanitarian law that relate to small arms are the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868, the Hague Conventions of 1899, the four Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949, and the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1977. The four Geneva Conventions relate to: sick and wounded combatants in the field; sick, wounded and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea; the treatment of prisoners of war; and the protection of civilians in times of war. The Protocols relate to the protection of victims of international armed conflict, and the protection of victims of non-international armed conflict ( The Geneva Conventions also criminalize the act of genocide, though it has been estimated that there have been at least 150 episodes since it was adopted in 1948, totalling some 23 million deaths (Gellert 1995). Also included in the corpus of international humanitarian law are customary laws of war, and treaties prohibiting certain weapons, such as the 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the Anti-Personnel Land Mines Convention, the so-called 'Ottawa Treaty' (

The primary purpose of international law, including treaties and customary law, is to lay down rules prescribing the conduct of states, not to regulate the behaviour of individuals. Nonetheless, international humanitarian law has adapted to reflect the nature of contemporary internal conflicts, and is evolving to deal with individuals or non-state actors. According to Emanella-Chiara Gillard (2000: 45) , this shift was necessary since 'legal practice must adapt to the changing dynamics of conflict if it is to have any realistic expectations of protecting civilians'.

International humanitarian law does not aim to resolve the underlying causes of conflict, but it can help to minimize the humanitarian impacts of conflict, including those from the misuse of small arms. Supporters of the human impacts approach are adamant that, even where judicial systems are breaking down, there should not be a legal vacuum with respect to international law. On the contrary, although difficult to apply, it is argued that it is precisely in such situations where international humanitarian law is most urgently required.

To reduce the vulnerability of civilians, humanitarian agencies seek to disseminate information on, and educate warring parties in, humanitarian law in an attempt to influence their behaviour. The ICRC, which is mandated with this task, has recommended the education of armed forces about the basic precepts of international humanitarian law as a vital first step in reducing civilian casualties. Agencies have also sought better to apprehend the underlying causes of atrocities against civilians in order to improve their own interventions. Even as they acknowledge the complex motives underpinning conflict and small arms use, some agencies have initiated practical interventions, combining sensitization campaigns and development programmes with voluntary disarmament. While such interventions are conceptually innovative, the jury is still out on whether these latter measures, including weapons for development and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) are successful in practice (

Some agencies have gone so far as to publicize and advocate against instances of armed abuse; in November 2000, for instance, Médecins sans frontières (MSF) mounted a high-profile advocacy campaign in Angola to highlight abuse of international humanitarian law by the warring parties there ( This kind of approach is, however, too radical and controversial for some; publicizing atrocities can make it more difficult and dangerous to deliver assistance, and can compromise access to the very people that advocacy is seeking to protect.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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WHO - Violence and Injury Prevention Programme
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ICRC,Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict.Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Geneva: ICRC, 1999.

Threats to operational security

A third humanitarian perspective on small arms is referred to here as the operations approach. It is a reaction to the impact of arms availability on the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action. It stresses the need to improve security and protection for humanitarian operations within a deteriorating security environment. Rather than trying to reform the entire situation, it seeks a pragmatic field-based response to allow the work to go on.

Some aid agencies are moving quickly to improve their safety and security management ( There are a variety of initiatives and inter-agency projects under way, mostly related to incident reporting, research, training, advocacy, and improved efforts to coordinate and share information at field level ( While the majority of these initiatives are well conceived, many are ad hoc and improvised. In most cases, they do not build on problem analysis, evidence-based management, or a sophisticated advocacy strategy. As a result, there are critical weaknesses, confusions, and unnecessary duplication. The fact remains that in far too many aid agencies senior managers do not recognize the problem, or do not feel that they can usefully intervene.

Faced with the threat of armed attack, almost always with small arms, humanitarian agencies have in some cases resorted to armed protection, military guards, and private security companies to reduce their vulnerability and exposure. UN humanitarian convoys use military or armed escorts in under half of the twenty or so complex emergencies where the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is involved. NGOs use armed protection on a regular basis in four conflict-affected countries: northern Iraq, Somalia, Russia (Ingushetia/Chechnya), and northern Kenya. Agencies also occasionally use armed escorts on a case-by-case basis in volatile security situations that may require rapid assessments, for example in Rwanda, or if an escort is required at a border, as between Pakistan and Afghanistan (Barry and Jefferys, 2002). All of these actors are potentially uneasy collaborators for aid agencies.

At the request of the UN Deputy Secretary-General's Task Force on Security Policy, OCHA is preparing generic guidelines on the use of armed protection by aid agencies. However, disagreement reigns. Concerns arise in relation to the perceptions of other stakeholders, and the contribution of armed protection to the overall security environment. There is a vociferous debate within the humanitarian community about the circumstances in which such strategies should be acceptable, and to what degree.

Small Arms Survey
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The human impacts of small arms

The human impacts of small arms

There can be no doubt that the human impacts of small arms availability and use are considerable and far-reaching in all corners of the world. More than half a million people are fatally wounded as a direct result of small arms use every year, whether through intentional violence, such as homicide and suicide, or unintentionally, such as through accidental shootings. As noted in the Small Arms Survey (2001: 236), 'the gross estimate of global deaths from all forms of homicide, war and suicide in 1998 stood at 2,272,000 ... from war, the number totalled 588,000' ( It is estimated that at least 50 per cent of these conflict-related deaths are attributable directly to the intentional use of small arms and light weapons. Alarmingly, recent studies of battlefield statistics have indicated that the proportion of people wounded in combat by small-calibre ammunition (as opposed to other types of munitions) frequently rises above 70 per cent (Sellier and Kneubuehl 2001).

Arguably, the most commonly reported, if under-researched, impacts of small arms emerge from armed conflicts and societies struggling to recover from war. The media is saturated with a bewildering array of images depicting the militarization of despair. Headlines home in on child soldiers, traumatized refugees, and the apparent senselessness of contemporary war, with accompanying snapshots invariably portraying the familiar silhouette of an AK-47. The United Nations General Assembly (2000) has observed how virtually every department of the UN system is exposed to the consequences of armed conflicts, crime, social dislocation, displacement, and human suffering that are directly or indirectly related to the unregulated availability of small arms. In spite of widespread acknowledgement of the problem, humanitarian and relief agencies are only slowly developing an awareness of the specific impacts of small arms.

The range of impacts of firearm violence on relief and development is very diverse ( There is a virtually unlimited array of objective and subjective impacts related to small arms availability and use, most of which are under-appreciated. These often relate to fear - of death, injury, and long-term insecurity - and are difficult to quantify. A major reason why these impacts remain under-analysed is because they can be described only by affected people themselves. Methods aimed at revealing these vital perspectives, including victimization surveys and participatory research, are emerging (Banerjee and Muggah, 2002).

Table 3.1
Humanitarian impact Primary indicators
Firearm-related death and injury Firearm homicide rates
Firearm suicide rates
Firearm accident rates
Firearm injury rates
Disability rates
Psychosocial and psychological trauma
Violence induced displacement Number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)
Incidence of firearm related death and injury
Incidence of armed intimidation and assault
Arms availability in refugee/IDP camps
Child mortality rates (CMR)
Social and physical welfare of refugees/IDPs (rape, child soldiers, etc.)
Collapsing access to basic needs and declining social capital Social and physical welfare of women and children
Household access to basic needs
Community and customary cohesion
Declining access to public goods

Objective indicators of the humanitarian impacts of small arms stress health-related effects on civilian populations such as firearm-related death and injury, as well as long-term disability and psychological trauma. Also considered is the destruction of medical services and the vulnerability associated with deteriorating social welfare provision capacities. However severe the immediate human impacts attributed to small arms, it is important to recall that the larger burden of mortality experienced during episodes of armed violence is attributable to the secondary costs of war, such as death from malnutrition, disease, and preventable illness.

The fact that millions of people die each year, not from the direct acts of violence but because the various functions of armed violence deprive them of access to health services, is not a novel finding (Ghobarah et al. 2001; Leaning et al., 1999). It should be recalled, however, that small arms can also increase the scale and pace of killing, the likelihood of illness, and the possibility of violations of international humanitarian law. The case of Sierra Leone is indicative. Immediately following the invasion of the country's capital, Freetown, by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1999, a senior government pathologist reported that more than 7,330 people had been shot and killed in a single month - almost 1 per cent of the city's entire population. Thousands more suffered lacerations, mutilations, and firearm injuries. Additional surveys carried out in Sierra Leone recorded that almost 60 per cent of all war injuries were gunshot-related, that 11 per cent of all victims were under the age of 15, and that 43 per cent were women (Salama et al. 1999).

Another marker of the humanitarian impacts of small arms on civilians is violence-induced displacement. Depending on whether they have crossed an international border, displaced people can be counted as either internally displaced people (IDPs) or international refugees. It is possible to register the number of people forced to leave their homes at gunpoint. For example, 'spontaneous' internal displacement within Colombia is largely due to massacres involving handguns and assault rifles. Surveys administered in IDP and refugee camps in Albania, Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Georgia record systematic shootings, threats at gunpoint, firearm-related homicides, and other violations of human rights and humanitarian law involving military-style weapons. Refugee camp militarization is also of mounting concern. Finally, violence-induced displacement and relocation is associated with dramatic increases in the risk of illness and communicable disease. The threat and use of small arms, then, have long-term health consequences for displaced people.

Though more difficult to measure or attribute directly to small arms availability, civilian access to basic needs - including food, water, and shelter - are often eroded by the climate of fear generated by the threat and use of small arms. While men are particularly susceptible to firearm death and injury, women and children are also acutely vulnerable to a range of firearm-related insecurities including recruitment as soldiers, sexual violence, and pathological coping strategies during periods of extreme violence, all of which affects their access to basic needs ( Invariably, livelihoods are reshaped by arms-related insecurity: customary institutions such as pastoral migration patterns and dowry systems are undermined by threats associated with arms availability. For example, in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Uganda pastoral and agrarian communities are regularly terrorized by the presence of AK-47-wielding bandits and cattle-rustlers. Individual perceptions of armed violence can directly influence day-to-day decision making. These choices will have tangible implications for household health and well-being, including the decision to take up weapons in self-defence.

British Medical Journal
Journal of the American Medical Association
Overseas Development Insitute
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Collins, C.,Humanitarian Implications of Small Arms Proliferation: A Paper Prepared for OCHAHumanitarian Implications of Small Arms Proliferation: A Paper Prepared for OCHA (Draft). New York: OCHA, 1998.
Coupland, R.,'Clinical and Legal Significance of Fragmentation of Bullets in Relation to the Size of Wounds: A Retrospective Analysis''Clinical and Legal Significance of Fragmentation of Bullets in Relation to the Size of Wounds: A Retrospective Analysis'. British Medical Journal, vol. 319, August 1999/
Coupland, R.,Applying an Analytical Framework of Armed Violence to Small Arms.Applying an Analytical Framework of Armed Violence to Small Arms. Background Paper. Geneva: Small Arms Survey, 2001.
Coupland, R. and Meddings D.,'Mortality Associated with the Use of Weapons in Armed Conflicts, Wartime Atrocities and Civilian Mass Shootings: Literature Review''Mortality Associated with the Use of Weapons in Armed Conflicts, Wartime Atrocities and Civilian Mass Shootings: Literature Review'. British Medical Journal, vol. 319, August 1999.
Coupland, R. and Samnegaard, H.,'Effect of Type and Transfer of Conventional Weapons on Civilian Injuries: Retrospective Analysis of Prospective Data from Red Cross Hospitals''Effect of Type and Transfer of Conventional Weapons on Civilian Injuries: Retrospective Analysis of Prospective Data from Red Cross Hospitals'. British Medical Journal, vol. 319, August 1999.
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Muggah, R. and Batchelor, P.,Development Held Hostage.Development Held Hostage. New York: UNDP, 2002.
Muggah, R. and Berman, E.,Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms.Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms. New York: IASC, 2001.
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WHO,The Burden of Disease.The Burden of Disease. Geneva: WHO, 2001.

Displacement and small arms

Displacement and small arms

By the end of the 1990s, up to 40 million people had been violently forced to leave their homes, either by crossing a border and being officially documented as a refugee or, more likely, by being internally displaced within their own borders. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2001a) estimates the number of refugees at 12.8 million and the Representative of the Secretary General for Internally Displaced People estimates the number of IDPs at between 20 million and 25 million ( Millions more fled before they could be counted, eschewing, in some cases, assistance and protection for fear of violent recrimination and social or economic marginalization. To be sure, 'refugees are only the tip of the iceberg of human suffering - at least twice the number of refugees are typically either internally displaced or trapped at home' (Leaning et al. 1999: xvi).

Not only is almost 1 per cent of the world's population designated as either internally displaced or refugee, but small arms intimidation represents a critical factor inhibiting sustainable repatriation or resettlement. Most refugees and IDPs appreciate the persuasive power of a single weapon. Agencies such as UNHCR (2001a: 283) have also recently noted that 'armed conflict is now the driving force behind most refugee flows'. The UN (1999: 2) has repeatedly observed that 'in many recent and current internal armed conflicts, combatants deliberately intimidate, attack and displace local populations to further their pursuit of economic control over natural resources. In such cases combatants rely on, and indeed profit from, civilian displacement.'

Table 4.1: Far From Home: Escaping From Violence
Country International refugees by country of origin Internally displaced persons (idps) in country of origin
Afghanistan 3,500,000 (2001) 500,000 (November 2001)
Angola 350,600 (2000) 3,000,000 (Since 1998)
Azerbaijan 309,400 (2000) 570,000 (October 2001)
Bosnia & Herzegovina 448,700 (2000) 518,000 (May 2001)
Burundi 525,700 (2000) 633,000 (October 2001)
Colombia 2,500 (2000) 2,200,000 (Since 1985)
Democratic Republic of Congo 248,400 (2000) 2,045,000 (October 2001)
Former Yugoslavia 121,100 (2000) 510,000 (May 2001)
India 110 (2000) 507,090 (November 2001)
Iraq 572,500 (2000) 700,000 (June 2001)
Kenya 5,000 (2000) 100,000 (December 2001)
Myanmar 127.800 (2000) 1,000,000 (June 2001)
Russian Federation 16,300 (2000) 500,000 (October 2001)
Rwanda 85,500 (2000) 600,000 (May 2001)
Sierra Leone 487,200 (2000) 1,300,000 (August 2001)
Sri Lanka 93,200 (2000) 800,000 (June 2001)
Sudan 467,700 (2000) 4,000,000 (May 2001)

Source: UNHCR (2000b, refugee figures); NRC (2001, IDP figures)

For example, in 1999 widespread violations of human rights occurred against ethnic Albanian Kosovars in the course of mass deportations by the Serbian army, leading to NATO's 78-day air war. A survey carried out by Iacopino and Waldman (1999) notes that more than 30 per cent of all Kosovar households reported at least one of the following abuses among members: shooting, threat at gunpoint, firearm homicide, torture, beating, separation, disappearance, and sexual assault (

Similarly, as a result of the sheer scale and lethality of armed violence in Rwanda, between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the Rwandan population was displaced, and more than 500,000 refugees spilled across the country's borders following the genocide (Melvern 2000, Human Rights Watch 1994). The violence there has not stopped. In Rwanda, testimonial evidence documents how groups of armed men massacre civilian refugees in clinics and makeshift hospitals across the border in (the former) Zaire (

Indirect impacts of small arms on displaced people

From Srebrenica to Goma, some of the worst small arms-related violations against civilians have taken place against refugees and IDPs during transit or in safe-areas. This is largely because settlements populated by displaced people are highly insecure. They are typically close to an international border or located on desolate or isolated tracts of land. A large part of the humanitarian response to complex emergencies, such as those in Colombia, Sudan, and Sri Lanka, is devoted to ensuring the safety of displaced people who are frequently vulnerable to rampant crime and violence after they have temporarily resettled.

In Colombia, estimates of the IDP population range from 400,000 to 2.2 million (, see also Loughna 2002). Disputes over the actual number of IDPs reveal just how inadequate surveillance capacities can be, as well as the state's political reluctance to respond. A large proportion of Colombian displacement can be attributed to massacres; 90 per cent of atrocities committed by the military, paramilitary, or guerrilla actors are reportedly carried out with small arms ( IDPs continue to be targeted long after being displaced, often being coerced into precarious and arms-saturated settlements to face destitution, continued persecution, or a life of crime (

It is well-known that locating a refugee or IDP camp near a border conflict zone will never allow the settlement to be permanent and free of 'refugee warriors' or armed actors. The case of Kenya is illustrative. In both of Kenya's 'official' refugee camps - Dadaab and Kakuma - over 200,000 Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, and Central African refugees are subjected to armed violence on a daily basis. According to reports issued by the Integrated Regional Information Network (, there is a 'very strong possibility' that the camps are being used to traffic arms: 'there have been shooting incidents in the camps ... it is easy for people to move around with arms on that border [with Somalia] because there is no control [in Somalia]'.

A study commissioned by UNHCR observed that refugee women collecting firewood in refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma (in Kenya) are regularly raped at gunpoint by armed assailants ( In 2000, there were an estimated 72 reported rape cases compared with 142 in 1998. UNHCR has managed to reduce the number of rapes by having wood trucked into the camps. But only an estimated 30 per cent of firewood needs are being met. Women remain vulnerable to armed attack and more than 150 informal police reservists have been deployed to police the camp.

Table 4.2: Security incidents in a Kenyan refugee camp: 1996-2000*
Firearm deaths Armed assault Armed robbery Rape
1996 15 64 67 2
1997 12 61 73 2
1998 6 114 110 6
1999 11 110 104 0
2000 5 70 90 4

*The refugee population in Kakuma has remained relatively steady: between 70,000 and 72,000 refugees.

These risks, made possible by the sheer abundance of military-style weapons, hastened a shift in strategy by humanitarian and development agencies. Though many have refused to engage in military protection, others have felt no other solution was viable. For example, in response to increasing camp militarization, key interventions called for by UNHCR (2000: 1-2) include 'disarming exiled groups who have access to weapons and curtailing any flow of arms into refugee populated areas ... [and] disarming exiled soldiers and other armed elements, and ensuring their violently displaced people are prone to acute morbidity from disease such as measles, respiratory infections, and malaria. This is most severe among young children, as documented below. Nor are adults immune. A recent study of IDPs in Guinea Bissau discovered that patients with tuberculosis whose treatment was disrupted because of war were three times as likely to die as those who were fully treated in peacetime (Gustafson et al. 2001).

Other diseases often re-emerge as a result of arms-related violence. Sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) was thought to have been eliminated in the 1960s, but population displacement and the collapse of health systems as a result of civil wars have caused a resurgence of the disease. It is precisely those countries affected by protracted armed violence - southern Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the DRC - that are reported to be among the worst affected areas: more than 150,591 new cases of sleeping sickness have been detected during the past decade (Dobson 2001). Internal conflicts, such as those that have taken place in the Balkans and Angola, also threaten the eradication of poliomyelitis (Bush 2000, Ebersol 2000).

According to reports by UNICEF (2001), 'polio immunization campaigns have been hampered because of the conflict ... Records have been lost and people have been constantly on the move. The whole infrastructure is having to be replaced.' In Somalia, despite being selected according to clan loyalty, 650 vaccinators taking part in a WHO/UNICEF campaign failed to successfully immunize the population: 'in one area, the chief of the subsection said he would shoot any vaccinators who came because we hadn't recruited anyone from his sub-district' (IRIN 2000b). The introduction of 'humanitarian ceasefire' represents one innovative response undertaken by the UN to allow for increased immunization and vaccination of children in conflict.

Militarized refugee camps

The militarization of refugee camps presents a problem to the country of origin, to the country of asylum or temporary settlement, and to the international community. Particularly in refugee-hosting countries, the presence of small arms in refugee camps and the growing security burden has resulted in a decline in offers for asylum as 'hosting refugees is perceived to be a threat to state security'. At the very least, the use of small arms in camps raises concerns regarding the obligation of UNHCR and its implementing partners to protect refugees, and the extent to which it can intervene to control arms flows into and out of the temporary settlements.

Refugee camps located in or near conflicts are often vulnerable to armed insecurity threatening, on the one hand, displaced people and host communities and, on the other, humanitarian workers. Similarly, refugee camps have been targeted by domestic and foreign security forces - and used as 'training grounds' and recruiting bases for non-state actors. In some cases, host governments have supported the use of refugee camps for cross-border counter-insurgency activities - as in Ethiopian camps in Eastern Sudan, Afghan camps in Pakistan, Khmer camps in Thailand, and Salvadoran and Nicaraguan camps in Honduras.

For example, between August 1994 and August 1995 former Rwandan military and militia groups in Eastern DRC accumulated arms from both allied foreign governments and private sources in violation of a UN arms embargo. Refugee camps were used to supply and accommodate armed actors. Once these armed forces had regrouped and been trained, the camps became launching pads for cross-border military operations against adversaries back in Rwanda. With the failure of the international community to redress the problem of militarized camps - the Rwanda government and allied forces attacked the settlements - resulting in a new phase of regional conflict that persists to this day.

Camps become a 'security problem' when they lose their civilian nature or are controlled by armed actors. Countries adjacent to war zones serve as key trans-shipment points for recipients: examples include Kenya and Uganda for Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eastern Congo; Dar Es Salaam for Rwanda and Burundi; Zambia for Angola (UNITA); and Somalia for Eritrea and Ethiopia. But supplier countries also experience 'blowback' - as weapons earlier shipped to fuel wars in neighbouring countries are trafficked back into the country of shipment.

In Kenya, significant numbers of weapons that were once used in Sudan, Somalia, and Uganda are being trafficked back into the refugee camps and surrounding areas of Turkana (Kakuma) and the north-east (Dadaab's Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera). Widespread social violence in Northern Kenya is sustained by clan warfare and disputes over cattle, as well as political interests in the capital. In these camps, UNHCR reports indicate that 'security incidents involving death and injury take place on a daily basis' (see Austin 2002). Within the camps themselves, bullets and guns have become a form of convertible currency - part and parcel of a 'gun economy'. They've been absorbed into local customary livelihoods - a lethal addition to traditional conflicts over livestock, water, and grazing rights and inter-communal relations. Furthermore, clan-based militias and arms syndicates are gradually replacing clan elders as key units of political organization. A study carried out by the UN IASC also indicated alarming trends in Kakuma (

The UNHCR and its implementing partners have a stake in preventing instability that leads to forced displacement as well as armed insecurity in protracted refugee situations. The organization recognizes that curtailing the protection, sale, or transfer of small arms would contribute to greater stability and security - reducing the incentive of people to flee in the first place. In response to growing threats to refugees in camp situations, UNHCR has begun to deploy international police advisors to improve security and law enforcement capacities (e.g., to Kosovo Albanian camps as well as Burundian camps in Tanzania). In many cases, UNHCR has hired host-country soldiers to ensure security in the camps - or funded firewood collection programmes to reduce the risk of women to armed violence. It has also established a Permanent Working Group on Safety - as well as Camp Security Surveys.

American Bar Association Study on Killings and Displacement in Kosovo
Human Rights in Burma
Norwegian Refugee Council IDP Database
Small Arms Survey
United States Committee for Refugees
Austin, K., 2002.
Goose, S. and Smyth F.,'Arming Genocide in Rwanda''Arming Genocide in Rwanda'. Foreign Affairs, vol. 73, no. 5, 1994.
Muggah, R. and Berman, E.,Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms.Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms. New York: IASC, 2001.
Muggah, R. with Griffiths, M.,'Reconsidering the Tools of War: Small Arms and Humanitarian Action''Reconsidering the Tools of War: Small Arms and Humanitarian Action'. HPN Network Paper, 38. London: ODI, 2002.

New research on small arms and displacement

New research on small arms and displacement

Study of Security, Safety and Small Arms on Humanitarian Personnel and Civilians

Beginning in 2001, a five-year prospective study of humanitarian deaths will be coordinated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Small Arms Survey, together with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Refugees and Disaster Studies and the World Health Organization (WHO). It will review rates, profiles, and costs associated with death and injury among humanitarian workers, as well as the risks and behavioural responses of field staff. Exploring the situation of the Balkans and South-East Asia in detail, it will appraise perceptions of the impacts of small arms misuse on civilians - including displacement. Eight INGOs - including Care, World Vision, Médècin du Monde, Save the Children-UK, MSF-Spain, Concern, Oxfam-GB, and ActionAid, as well as the UNDP and UNHCR, will be participating in the first phase.

Small Arms Survey,

Switzerland Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue,

Switzerland Johns Hopkins University, USA

Participatory Research on Human Security and Small Arms in South Asia and South East Asia

This long-term research project began in 2001, and involves eight comparative participatory action research studies in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia (Aceh), and Cambodia. The studies focus on the broad range of human impacts associated with small arms - including the issue of forced internal and cross-border displacement (in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, particularly).

Small Arms Survey,

Switzerland Regional Centre for Strategic Studies,

Sri Lanka Non-Violence International, Thailand

Descriptive Epidemiology Surveillance and Research on the Causes and Effects of Small Arms-Related Violence: A Multi-Country Study

The year 2002 marked the first year of an international study on the impacts of small arms on health. The Small Arms Survey and the World Health Organization's Violence and Injury Prevention Project are collaborating on this three-year initiative. During this initial phase, the project will

consolidate institutional partnerships to conduct country-level surveys;

define the survey methodology;

elaborate two comparative national injury surveys in Brazil and Mozambique;

carry out evaluations of violence reduction initiatives and the impacts of armed violence on vulnerable groups such as displaced people;

disseminate findings via reports, seminars, and professional networks; and

build capacity with colleagues in surveyed countries in order to strengthen their ability to conduct public health research.

In the second phase (not covered as part of this proposal), the findings and methodology of the first year will used towards administering analogous national surveys in countries such as Cambodia, El Salvador, Kosovo, and South Africa.

Small Arms Survey

World Health Organization's Violence and Injury Prevention Unit

Last updated Aug 17, 2011