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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.

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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 (

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Last updated Aug 17, 2011