In-depth: Guns Out of Control: the continuing threat of small arms

Small arms: the real weapons of mass destruction

An arms merchant displays two old British revolvers, while modern Russian weapons hang on the wall of his shop
NAIROBI, 9 May 2006 (IRIN) - The subject of small arms and light weapons has been covered in great detail in numerous studies and is an issue of concern for the United Nations, as well as a wide range of international nongovernmental organisations, think-tanks and government agencies.

The aim of this In-Depth is thus not to attempt to challenge the wealth of material that is available, but rather to provide the reader an overview of the critical issues. It also includes 13 frontline reports from IRIN journalists, interviews with experts in the field and those who have directly experienced the human impact of small arms, and links to further information.

Please note that the terms ‘small arms', ‘guns', ‘weapon's and ‘firearms' are used interchangeably in this report.





(May 2006) Are small arms, as many describe them, the real weapons of mass destruction? Easily available and simple to use, small arms are the instruments of modern violence. The global trade in these weapons is scarcely regulated, and continues to fuel both armed conflict and violent crime. Until transfers of small arms are controlled, and limited, the human costs and the implications for long-term development will continue to be devastating.

Small arms have a disproportionate impact – while accounting for only one-fifth of the global arms trade, they maim and kill far more than any other conventional weapons. Small arms were the most commonly used weapons - and in some instances the only weapons - used in the 101 conflicts fought worldwide between 1989 and 1996. They are relatively inexpensive, portable and easy to use, and are effortlessly recycled from one conflict or violent community to the next. Their durability perpetuates their lethality. An assault rifle, for example, can be operational for 20 to 40 years with little maintenance.

All agencies involved in the fight against small arms agree that now is a critical time to curtail the further proliferation of small arms. A study commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization and the World Bank found that by 2020, the number of deaths and injuries resulting from war and violence would overtake the number of deaths caused by diseases such as measles and malaria. In addition, 2006 is a significant year with respect to efforts to control the global trade in small arms. A major UN conference to review the organisation’s process on small arms will take place in July, and it is possible a resolution will be proposed in the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and Security in October to begin negotiations for an arms-trade treaty. Perhaps the catalogue of despair associated with small arms will begin to be addressed on the world stage.

The big business of small arms

At the core of the problem is the global trade in small arms and light weapons, which is ever-burgeoning and fundamentally unregulated. Small arms continue to devastate while key producers and brokers rake in profits. In addition, the majority of small arms are produced in the most powerful countries in the world: according to the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva, the United States and the European Union combined account for about 75 percent of the total annual production.

The trade in small arms takes various forms. The majority of the 7 million to 8 million new guns produced every year form the legal trade in small arms, that is the trade authorised by governments. However, limited controls of this legal trade, and a failure to enforce them, means that many arms are diverted into the illegal sector. The thriving black market trade in small arms provides guns to people who cannot obtain them legally, even though the vast majority of these guns have origins in the legal sector. The failure by most states to consider fully the end use of the weapons they export means that small arms often fall into irresponsible hands.

While calls for an international arms trade treaty are supported by some major arms-exporting nations, such as Great Britain, the industry shows no sign of diminishing. Indeed, between 1960 and 1999, the Britain-based Omega Foundation found the number of companies manufacturing small arms had increased six-fold.


According to official records, almost all of the G8 countries have in recent years exported small arms to countries where there are major human rights concerns.
Credit: Brent Stirton/OCHA
Irresponsible exporting

The annual value of all authorised international exports of small arms, at approximately US$4 billion, may be only a fraction of the world trade, but it is an industry that causes disproportionate damage, with many guns ending up in irresponsible hands.

Although more than 90 countries can, or do, produce small arms, it is the world’s most powerful nations that lead the sector. The value of small arms exports from the US in 2001 stood at $741 million, while the value of small arms exports from all G8 countries for the same year totalled almost $1.5 billion. Other major exporters include Belgium, Brazil, Austria, Spain, China, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

The governments of key exporting countries may point to their stringent controls of small-arms exports, but many continue to transfer arms to irresponsible end users, that is, countries in which the weapons would likely be used to fuel armed violence or to contribute to human rights violations. The irresponsible exporting of small arms is made possible by an absence of export controls or a failure to enforce existing controls, or by loopholes in the law. “The issue of weapons is very close to governments and their national security priorities. Normal trade regulations cease to apply, and governments are reluctant to make compromises in this area,” explained Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s policy advisor on small arms.

Indeed, almost all the G8 countries have in recent years exported small arms to countries where there are major human rights concerns, including Algeria, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone. Some small-arms exports have been directly linked to human rights violations. Reports from Algeria, for example, suggested that sporting and hunting weapons were used by ‘death squads’ to massacre civilians in 1997. In 2003, a contingent of such weapons worth $1.7 million was shipped to Algeria by the Russian Federation.

The developing world also spends massively on small arms. While information collated by the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), a research coalition of nongovernmental organisations, suggested the majority of small arms exported by western European countries remains in the region or goes to North America, guns to the value of $200 million were exported to Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East in just one year, a value equivalent to hundreds of thousands of weapons. This figure also does not account for the weapons transferred to, and within, the developing world through black market trading.

An absence of global standards

There are currently no universally accepted, legally binding global standards that apply in every country to prevent irresponsible arms transfers. The duty to control small-arms transfers ultimately lies with governments, demanding both the will and capacity to act at the government level if effective legislation is to be enacted. National-level export regimes are often flawed by legislative loopholes that permit the transfer of small arms to irresponsible end users, or lack laws to prohibit arms brokering.

While the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, the result of a 2001 conference, defines measures the governments of member states should take to prevent and control black market arms transfers and brokering, it is not binding.

Equally, regional agreements covering the licensed arms trade, such as the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, only give recommendations to governments. The EU code of conduct may suggest admirable criteria for signatories to consider when granting export licences to arms manufacturers, but it has failed to prevent certain transfers that resulted in gross human rights abuses. Asking governments to notify all other members of licence denials certainly does not ensure notification; particularly as such nonbinding agreements can be interpreted differently by participants.

Such agreements are further weakened by omissions. The UN programme of action fails to address the licensed arms trade in any form, while regional agreements often address only specific aspects of the arms trade. In addition, existing regional and international agreements only request that governments act to curb future arms transfers, proposing little regarding the control of arms already in circulation. By focusing on simply controlling the supply of arms, these agreements also fail to recognise the significance of demand – as long as there is demand, arms production will continue, and, in the absence of stringent, universal controls, many of these arms will inevitably find themselves in the wrong hands. A critical aspect of controlling the illicit arms trade must therefore be the eradication, or at least the reduction, of demand.

Legislative failure at the national level

Without being legally bound by international agreements to control the trade in small arms, states by and large have demonstrated little inclination to implement effective laws.

Indeed, a 2005 independent review of progress of the UN Programme of Action, by Biting the Bullet – a joint project between International Alert, Saferworld and the University of Bradford – and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), documented a veritable absence of action by states. Laws governing arms transfers were found to be inadequate or out-of-date in many countries. The review noted that more than 100 states have failed to enact what is considered to be a minimum step towards implementation – that is, establishing governmental bodies to coordinate action on small arms at a national level ¬– while more than 120 countries have failed even to review their laws and regulations on small arms.

In instances where there are more comprehensive export-control regimes, legislative loopholes undermine their efficacy. By licensing production to another country – that is, outsourcing production, often to the purchasing country – labour costs are lowered and controls over arms transfers that may apply in some countries can be evaded. Research by the Omega Foundation suggested that companies in at least 15 countries, including the US, United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany and Switzerland, have established agreements permitting the production of arms in 45 other countries.

In addition, major producers have repeatedly shown a disregard for UN arms embargoes, continuing to export to countries plagued by conflict and insecurity. According to the Control Arms campaign, a global partnership between Amnesty International, Oxfam and IANSA, every one of the 13 embargoes imposed by the UN in the last 10 years has been repeatedly violated, with very few of the embargo breakers named in UN sanctions reports successfully prosecuted.

Arms embargoes are also rarely applied. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that between 1990 and 2001, there were 57 separate major armed conflicts, with only eight of them subject to UN arms embargoes. “Such embargoes are usually late and blunt instruments, and the UN sanctions committees, which oversee the embargoes, have to rely largely on member states to monitor and implement them,” SIPRI said. “Therefore, arms embargoes cannot be deployed effectively as an instrument by the UN to prevent illicit arms trafficking, without better national controls on international arms transfers. These controls are woefully inadequate.”


A Yemenite arms merchant shows his cache of weapons. Absence of control in the trade in small arms means that guns can be easily diverted into the black market.
Credit: Edward Parsons/IRIN
Diversion into the black market

Not only does the legal trade in small arms sometimes directly supply irresponsible end users, the absence of controls means guns can easily be diverted into the black market. Estimates suggest that 80 percent to 90 percent of the small arms traded on the black market originate in state-sanctioned trade.

While the value of the black market trade in small arms may be relatively small-scale – worth around $1 billion – it is almost impossible to control. In addition, the durability of small arms means they can easily be recycled from one conflict to another, or passed between the hands of different criminals. The recent conflicts in West Africa are but one arresting example of this, with guns passing from, and continuing to wreak devastation in, Sierra Leone to Liberia, and now most recently to Côte d’Ivoire.

Small arms move into the illegal arena in various ways. Governments at war, for example, may transfer weapons to sympathetic nonstate actors. Security forces and other authorised weapons users may supply and sell arms, while civilians, aided by inadequate regulation, can purchase firearms and then illegally sell them on, in a process known as the ‘ant trade’.

Weapons may be purchased or stolen from poorly guarded government stockpiles, or recovered from the battlefield following combat. In 2002, for example, arms collected in Albania were transferred to Rwanda, from where they were allegedly passed on to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In addition, disarmament programmes or changes of weaponry by armed forces can flood the black market with weapons, as was the case after former Warsaw Pact countries sold off the standard arms they had been using.

Arms brokers – effectively middlemen – also play a key role, and have been implicated in supplying some of the worst conflict zones and areas most notorious for human rights abuses, including Afghanistan, Angola, the DRC, Iraq, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Africa. As the arrangement of arms deals is an unregulated area, arms brokers can operate outside the law and traffic arms illegally on behalf of governments or private actors. Even where controls do exist at the national level – fewer than 40 countries were found in 2005 to have them – brokers either rely on a lack of political will to enforce such laws or simply move offshore.

Arms embargoes are also no barrier. Brokers find ways of either avoiding controls or colluding with authorities. Creating a complex supply chain involving many front companies and handling agents, using fraudulent or misleading paperwork, and routing deliveries through third countries that may not be subject to embargo restrictions are just some of the tactics deployed by brokers.

Progress – but not enough

Although the global trade in small arms may ultimately be unregulated, it is important to acknowledge the significant progress of recent years in establishing instruments and processes at the international, regional and national levels. The Control Arms campaign has worked extensively to bring the issue to the fore.

The UN process on small arms was launched with the first international conference on small arms in July 2001, which produced the aforementioned UN Programme of Action. While the document has been criticised for neglecting various key issues, notably those of civilian possession, transfers to nonstate actors and the misuse of arms by state forces, it served to put small arms on the agenda for many states. A final review conference on the effectiveness of this process is due in July of this year, following two biennial conferences in 2003 and 2005.

Also in 2003, Barbara Frey was appointed UN special rapporteur on the prevention of human rights violations committed with small arms and light weapons. According to Frey, “Small arms have a pervasive impact on human rights, and it is thus of vital importance to highlight this impact and to outline what legal obligations states may have to take steps against such abuses.”

In 2001, the UN also agreed on the Firearms Protocol, the first legally binding international agreement on small arms, amongst other things criminalising the illicit trafficking of firearms. It fails, however, to address some key issues or establish criteria to govern transfers, and only 49 states have signed and ratified the protocol.

A growing number of regional agreements have also been concluded, demonstrating the importance of regional cooperation, especially where borders are porous. While many are neither binding nor comprehensive, some go much further than the UN programme of action and are legally binding. This is true of the Southern African Development Community [SADC] Protocol and the Nairobi Protocol, which covers the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa. These also totally prohibit civilian possession and the use of all light weapons.

As discussed, legislation on small arms has been enacted in many countries. However, there relatively few countries with effective legislation, and global standards are ultimately vital. If neighbouring countries have weaker legislation, guns may simply leak across the border.

While all of these developments are steps in the right direction, the trade in small arms is unrelenting, and human costs are as patent as ever.


It is estimated that 60,000 to 90,000 are killed by small arms in conflict setting around the world each year. In many of these conflicts, civilian deaths outnumber those of combatants.
Credit: Brent Stirton/OCHA
Small arms – a disproportionate human impact

The less controlled the trade in small arms, the more devastating the human impact. From the direct effects of death and injury on the lives of individuals and their families to the broader implications for communities and long-term development, the need to prevent further unregulated proliferation of small arms has never been more apparent. It is in response to this urgent human need that numerous agencies have united to document these effects and to urge action to combat the trade in small arms.

Direct casualties

The Small Arms Survey estimated that 300,000 people are shot dead over the course of a year. Gun homicides account for around 200,000 of these deaths, the majority occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean, while 60,000 to 90,000 people are killed by small arms in conflict settings. In many contemporary conflicts, civilian deaths outnumber those of combatants.

Approximately 50,000 more deaths result from gun suicides. Over one million people are believed to suffer firearms-related injuries on an annual basis. While the accuracy of these figures can never be guaranteed, given that much data is inevitably incomplete, the magnitude is sobering.

While men are the primary perpetrators, and indeed victims, of armed violence, vulnerable groups are often disproportionately affected. Women and children are killed and injured in great numbers. Many are victims of sexual violence committed at gunpoint, and they usually constitute a large number of those forcibly displaced by armed violence. Gender is a critical factor in determining the nature of the impact of armed violence.[For more information, see small arms, gender and age]

Human rights violations

Numerous human rights violations are perpetrated with small arms – indeed the manifold abuses committed at gunpoint reflect the unparalleled coercive power of the gun. The threat of a firearm renders victims largely unable to run away or defend themselves. Atrocities ranging from torture and arbitrary arrest to abduction and the silencing of political opposition are all frequently ‘assisted’ by small arms. Guns have facilitated both systematic rape in war and intimate-partner violence in the home. Armed violence is also intrinsically linked to forced migration.

“It is hard to imagine a small group of people terrorising and forcibly evicting entire communities without weapons such as AK-47s,” argued Cate Buchanan, manager of the Human Security and Small Arms Programme at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. “It is often noted that although the majority of killings in the Rwandan genocide were committed with blades, guns were needed to round up the victims and keep them surrounded before killing them.”

Indirect deaths

Indirect deaths, in addition to tangible fatal and nonfatal injuries, are a critical human cost of small arms. Although ultimately unquantifiable, indirect deaths represent those who did not die from a bullet wound, but as a result of circumstances caused by armed violence. Be it through starvation or the withdrawal of aid, such excess mortality cannot, of course, be pinned wholly on firearms. However, despite many other influential factors, the consequences of armed violence, and conflict in particular, are severe and lasting.

“We have typically looked at the body count when assessing the impact of weapons, but it is misleading to look only at the direct deaths,” said Debbie Hillier of Oxfam. “In the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, large numbers of people have been killed directly, either in combat or in the crossfire. However, 95 percent of the deaths were caused not by bullets, but by malnutrition or preventable diseases such as malaria, which were contracted when people were forced out of their homes by the conflict.”

A gun may not ostensibly be culpable for the death of a malnourished child. This child, however, may have been forced to leave his home at gunpoint in a time of war, to flee from productive land and a nearby clinic to a locale so militarised that even the most hardened aid agencies have given up attempting to supply food and medical aid. The ultimate cause of death may be starvation, but the chaos and destruction perpetrated at the barrel of a gun lay the foundation of this tragic end, illustrating the indirect, destructive impact of guns in unregulated settings.

In countries at peace, the indirect effects of gun violence are also significant, if less multifarious. Victims and witnesses of such violence experience a decline in physical and mental health, resulting in inflated costs for society in terms of treatment for firearm-related injury and lost productivity through disability or premature death. A survey in the US estimated the annual cost of gun violence to be $80 million. While countries such as the US may be able to absorb such extra outlay relatively easily, the cost of armed violence of any form has serious implications for the long-term development prospects of more marginalised countries.

“It is clear that the gun business is simply not worth enough money to make tolerating gun violence worthwhile,” said IANSA’s Rebecca Peters. “A member of IANSA in El Salvador has calculated that the extra annual costs associated with dealing with gunshot injuries would equal the cost of a brand new hospital. … The sums just do not add up.”


Violence associated with the proliferation of small arms is increasingly recognized as having hugely detrimental effects on development goal and the stability of a country.
Credit: Brent Stirton/OCHA
Development derailed – the long-term costs of small arms

“There is no long-term security without development. There is no development without security.” – UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, January 2006

Development and a reduction of violence go hand in hand. The more rights that are guaranteed, and the more choices and opportunities people have, the less people will turn to violence. The less violence there is, the greater the likelihood of such advances. However, the converse is also true, and the violence associated with the proliferation of small arms is increasingly recognised as having hugely detrimental effects on development goals.

Small-arms availability places a significant strain on communities, and particularly those in the developing world, which are much more likely to experience civil conflict and violent crime. Excess mortality is just one manifestation of the suffering indirectly caused by small arms. The displacement of people, pronounced in areas of armed violence, disrupts access to healthcare facilities, to education, and to productive land and markets. The power of armed groups to requisition supplies and sexual services further taxes the civilian population, while firearm-related fatal and nonfatal injuries overextend healthcare facilities.

In the short term, secondary consequences of armed violence include malnutrition, the spread of preventable disease, the incapacitation of sections of the population due to psychiatric disorders, and an increase in child mortality. Effects in the longer term include the militarisation of society and damage to societal structure, infrastructure collapse, declining economic activity and diminished trade and investment, resource exploitation and environmental degradation, the reduction of development gains, and the decline of humanitarian assistance.

In addition, the continued availability of arms in post-conflict environments will fuel future violence, pushing the spiral of underdevelopment further downward. Analysis suggests that half of newly pacified countries will revert to war within a decade. The presence of small arms sustains insecurity – violence is legitimised and in the absence of a strong state, and civilians will turn to guns for protection. Violent crime becomes a viable means of survival, further destabilising already fragile communities and transferring violence to otherwise unaffected areas. In such a context, both emergency relief and long-term development programming do little more than act as palliatives.

As Debbie Hillier of Oxfam stated, “Development cannot happen in an insecure environment. Whether in conflict situations or in communities where there are large numbers of weapons, development is unlikely.” This vicious cycle of overarmament and underdevelopment is reflected by the fact that of the 34 countries at the bottom of the UN Development Programme’s 2000 Human Development Index, more than 20 were severely affected by conflict.

Assistance denied – small arms and humanitarian space

One impact of armed violence on long-term development that has recently attracted attention is the potential threat to humanitarian activity. The threat of such violence may cause the suspension of aid programmes or prompt a shift to the provision of aid by military forces. Ultimately, those in dire need of relief are the ones who suffer most.

Increasingly, humanitarian workers are not only caught in the crossfire but also directly targeted. More than 100 civilian UN and NGO workers were killed in the course of duty between July 2003 and July 2004. Figures from the US Department of State suggest the number of aid workers killed in 2003 eclipsed the number of deaths in previous years. The risk has not declined – 13 humanitarian workers were killed in Afghanistan during the first six months of 2004, while nine UN peacekeepers were murdered in the DRC in February 2005. Guns have played a significant role – of the 200 UN personnel killed between 1992 and 2000, 75 percent of these deaths involved firearms.

The ‘No Relief’ study of humanitarian workers, conducted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, found that many aid workers are explicitly threatened with criminal violence by civilians with guns. Such security threats can have potentially vast knock-on effects in terms of human suffering. In an insecure humanitarian space, relief workers often cannot access their beneficiaries. Money is diverted from relief operations – in many organisations, 5 percent to 30 percent of the operating budget is spent on security. Ultimately, and especially if personnel are being intentionally victimised, projects may be suspended. In the past two years, for example, attacks on relief workers have prompted withdrawals from Iraq, Darfur, southern Sudan and Afghanistan (by, amongst others, Médecins Sans Frontières, which had been operational there for 24 years). As Buchanan explained, “As these [aid operations] … are often the primary sources of assistance to populations in dire need, the impacts of a few armed attacks can be catastrophic for thousands.”

Increased insecurity has prompted a shift to the use of military forces for the delivery of aid. While this shift may be a necessary one, it has compromised the traditional separation of military and humanitarian operations. Not only has the blurring of this distinction placed humanitarian agencies at greater risk, it has also damaged the accepted political neutrality of aid.

A time to act

These multifarious, and generally devastating, effects of the unregulated proliferation of small arms highlight the urgency with which action must be taken. This need for action echoes the calls that have been made again and again in the past decade by both mainstream and specialist international NGOs, various UN agencies, individual activists and some states.

While progress has been made in recent years at the national, regional and international levels, global and universal standards, to which all countries are bound, are still needed. The call for such standards – to cover both legal and illegal transfers as well as control the brokering, licensing and transit of small arms – is part of the core recommendations from agencies working to address the problem. Although there will always be a demand for weapons, effective control of the trade would significantly curtail the supply of guns, which is an important first step.

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