Lethal Commerce: The Global Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons

Jeffrey Boutwell, Michael T. Klare, and Laura W. Reed
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American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Lethal Commerce: The Global Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons Book Cover Lethal Commerce

Edited by
Jeffrey Boutwell, Michael T. Klare, Laura W. Reed
(Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995)
Table of Contents


This volume addresses one of the most important and least studied international security problems of the post-Cold War era: the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in trouble spots around the globe. The vast abundance of light weapons is an endemic ingredient in conflicts from Bosnia to Cambodia, Somalia to Kashmir. The extensive use of such weapons as assault rifles, machine guns, land mines, light mortars and hand grenades has led to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths in a wide range of ethnic and nationalist conflicts. Many thousands more have died from disease and starvation induced by these conflicts, or have been forced to flee their homelands for precarious survival elsewhere. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons also dangerously complicates the job of UN peacekeeping forces and humanitarian aid workers in numerous conflict areas around the world.

From well-publicized cases like Bosnia and Rwanda to less well-known conflicts such as those in Sri Lanka and Tadzhikistan, light weapons are the overwhelming cause of both civilian and combat deaths. In Angola and Cambodia, for example, land mines continue to exact a deadly toll on civilians, while the AK-47 assault rifle and hand grenades have killed many thousands in Kashmir and Nagorno Karabakh. Despite the scarcity of hard data about the exact numbers and transfers of small arms, there is little doubt that the ubiquitous presence of these weapons can have devastating consequences. Even a relatively small quantity of light weapons can cause large-scale destruction and suffering when used to undermine a fragile state or to terrorize a defenseless population. On the eve of civil violence in Rwanda, for instance, the Rwandan Army spent a mere $6 million to purchase 70 light mortars, 10,000 high-explosive mortar shells, 2,000 RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, 450 Egyptian-made AK-47 assault rifles, and three million rounds of ammunition, all of which were undoubtedly used by government forces and government-backed militias in mass slayings of civilians.

Increasingly since the end of the Cold War, as sectarian militias, insurgent groups, and beleaguered governments gird themselves for armed conflict, the global trade in light weapons has expanded. Some of the evidence of this is relatively well-publicized: the various militias in Bosnia, for instance, are reportedly spending $2 billion per year on imported weapons despite the United Nations' embargo on arms transfers to the former Yugoslavia. Narcotics traffickers in South and Central America are known to have amassed large stockpiles of light weapons from black-market sources in Europe, Israel, and the United States. Other cases, though, have received less attention in the international press. The various Kurdish insurgent forces, for example, have acquired a large supply of light weapons for their struggle with the Turkish Army. In another little-known case, the Burmese government has purchased an estimated $1 billion in low-tech weaponry from China to support its military operations against the Karens and other autonomy-seeking minorities.

The growing worldwide availability of small arms and light weapons has enormous implications for international security in the current, post-Cold War era. Without a doubt, this lethal commerce is contributing to the intensity and duration of the internal and ethnic conflicts that have erupted over the past few years. Although these conflicts invariably have deep roots, the global proliferation of light weapons has enabled the parties involved - including both state and nonstate actors - to sustain intense combat even in the face of UN embargoes or other efforts at conflict control. The resulting carnage has overwhelmed the world's humanitarian aid resources, produced millions of new refugees, and exhausted the UN's peacemaking capabilities.

Despite the scale and severity of the threat posed by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, however, there have been few attempts to subject these weapons to any form of arms control or limitation. With the exception of the international campaign against antipersonnel land mines, which fall within the purview of the United Nations convention on inhumane and "indiscriminate" weapons, the global trade in small arms and light weapons not only continues unimpeded, but is supported by a wide array of governments, private arms companies, intelligence services, black market traders, narcotics traffickers, and paramilitary organizations. To date, little scholarly attention has been paid to the trade in light weapons, especially in comparison to research on the global trade in major weapons systems (such as fighter aircraft, tanks, and ships). If noticed at all, light weapons have historically been assumed to follow the same trade patterns as heavy weapons. Yet this assumption has proved to be increasingly erroneous in the post-Cold War era, as small arms trafficking has surged despite a depressed market for major weapons systems.

Consequently, little is known about the relationship of the proliferation in light weapons to current conflicts. To what extent is the ready availability of such weapons on the world market a contributing factor in the outbreak of ethnic, religious, sectarian, and nationalist conflicts around the world? What are the possibilities for reducing the levels of violence and speeding the resolution of these conflicts? And how can we account for the dearth of public and governmental attention to the dangers posed by the ever-increasing lethality of, and expanding trade in, such weapons?

This volume represents work-in-progress by its contributors that attempts to assess our current understanding of the global trade in small anus and light weapons with the aim of identifying fruitful avenues for further study and possible approaches for controlling this lethal commerce. Among the authors, a clear point of consensus is the pressing need for future research on the relationship between light weapons trafficking and the proliferation of ethnic, sectarian, and national conflicts. Similarly, they share a strong belief in the need to recast current governmental efforts at arms control to include small arms and light weapons.

This volume is divided into three sections. Part One highlights the scope of the problem and the need for an expanded approach to the entire arms trade. As Aaron Karp notes in his introductory essay, "Violence around the world is fed not by major arms but by small and light weapons." To Karp, the prominence of small arms and light weapons marks a revolution that is only beginning to receive the recognition it deserves. Tackling some difficult definitional issues, Karp chastises scholars for using outdated and often inappropriate approaches to this trade that derive from the study of major conventional weapons.

Michael T. Klare examines a constellation of systemic forces to explain the recent growth in the global trade in small arms and light weapons. Klare identifies factors including: the break-up of the Soviet Union into fifteen multi-ethnic republics (some with severe internal stresses), a post-Cold War rise in ethnic and religious conflict, the existence of surplus stocks of small arms deriving from excess production capabilities, and the growing importance of nonstate actors in the weapons trade, notably insurgent groups, separatist movements, tribal and religious communities, and criminal organizations.

As Klare explains, the trade in light weapons occurs through a variety of international channels, ranging from government-to-government transfers to clandestine and black-market sales. The importance of these black-market channels is underscored in R.T. Naylor's essay, "The Structure and Operation of the Modem Arms Black Market." Naylor draws upon a broader economic understanding of clandestine commerce to illuminate the black-market arms trade and its relationship to other illegal contraband such as narcotics, oil, and precious gems. Naylor also examines the difficulties of enacting and enforcing strong international controls on the illegal weapons trade, especially when domestic gun control legislation is so contentious in countries like the United States.

In Part Two, contributors with markedly different approaches examine the role played by small arms and light weapons in regional conflicts in South Asia, Angola, the former Soviet Union, and Colombia. Taken together, these four essays offer a rare wealth of detail that illuminates the multifaceted nature of the small arms trade and its relationship to both civil strife and local cultural norms of violence. In his essay "Light Weapons and Ethnic Conflict in South Asia," Chris Smith draws upon years of firsthand investigation to analyze how the proliferation of small arms stemming from the war in Afghanistan has heightened communal polarization and the level of violence in the region. Smith chronicles the "arms pipeline" established by the CIA in Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting flood of light weapons into regional arms markets. In Smiths view, the root cause of the increased violence in Pakistan, Kashmir, and India is weak governance: nonetheless, the proliferation of modem weapons has, he argues, worsened an already volatile situation.

Lucy Mathiak focuses on the impact of external involvement on the decades-old conflict in Angola, particularly the role of the United States and South Africa in supporting the FNLA and UNITA rebel groups. Along with supplying mercenaries and military training, the provision of arms and ammunition to rebel forces provided the means to sustain the civil conflict for two decades. In conjunction with direct military intervention by South African security forces, US-supplied materiel helped prolong the conflict, increase the number of civilian casualties, and foil various efforts to carry out a peace settlement. Notwithstanding the peace overtures in late 1994, Mathiak shows that, even today, Angola remains locked in a violent stalemate sustained largely by the massive infusion of arms and ammunition to combatants during the Cold War.

In contrast to Angola, conflict and violence in Colombia is almost entirely the result of internal dynamics. Daniel García-Pea Jaramillo's focus on political factors and cultural mores in Colombia illuminates the multiple sources of civil strife that plague this heavily armed nation. Similar to Smith's analysis of South Asia, García-Peña points to the importance of a weak central government and acute internal divisions. While much international attention focuses on the violence associated with Colombia's drug trade, this essay documents that, in fact, many different internal conflicts have given rise to what García-Peña calls "a culture of violence" and one of the world's highest homicide rates. Among the sources of this violence are officially condoned army death squads, drug-related bloodshed, and clashes between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas. The problems Colombia faces in tackling the widespread availability of small arms and its culture of violence illuminate the difficulties to be found in other regions.

Turning to Russia and the former Soviet Union, Ksenia Gonchar and Peter Lock highlight several alarming trends in a region marked by increasing exports of small arms, swiftly growing domestic arms markets, and political instability and civil strife. As they document, Russian arms manufacturers are actively promoting their wares in international markets as newly privatized companies struggle to save jobs, raise cash, and compensate for a decline in government arms purchases. The growth in arms exports from Russia - still the major producer of arms in the region - to those neighboring countries it terms the "near abroad" has important ramifications for tensions in the region, as illustrated by the continuing conflicts in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in the Transcaucasus region and Central Asia. A growing trade in black market arms is also symptomatic of an ominous rise in domestic violence and organized crime, especially within Russia.

Part Three of this volume offers a preliminary assessment of various avenues for controlling the trade in small arms and light weapons. Jo Husbands argues that, rather than trying to control broad categories of weapons, more effective mechanisms could be those tied directly to specific types of conflicts. According to Husbands, different kinds of controls - such as arms embargoes and negotiated provisions for disarmament could be applied at different stages in the process of a conflict. In particular, Husbands suggests that the disarmament provisions included in peace accords can be crucial to preventing the breakdown of peaceful settlements and further bloodshed.

In the concluding essay, Edward Laurance states that "policy makers need to be constantly shown, case after case, how accumulations and misuse of light weapons can have serious negative consequences." Laurance addresses the fact that policy makers tend to ignore or diminish the dangers of the global trade in small arms, and he reviews the prospect of making this lethal commerce more "transparent," for example by expanding the United Nations' Register of Conventional Arms to include light weapons. Despite the limited success of the UN Register thus far, Laurance contends that greater transparency is a needed first step in order to establish new norms against the light weapons trade.

As all these contributors attest, stopping the flow of arms will not address the root causes of violence - a prospect that would require the redress of long-standing grievances and the elimination of gross social, economic, and political injustices. But all would undoubtedly agree that it will be very difficult for the world community to reduce the level of global violence so long as potential belligerents - including nonstate actors can arm themselves with ease. Hence, efforts to alleviate ethnic and sectarian warfare must be accompanied by efforts to curb the trade in small arms and light weapons.

Controlling the light weapons traffic will not be easy. At present, there are no international controls on the trade in such munitions, and most governments view them as legitimate trade items. However, as policy makers and ordinary citizens become more aware of the dangers arising from unregulated weapons sales (whether at home or abroad), it should be easier to adopt new national and multilateral restraints on such trafficking. A very significant precedent for such efforts was set in 1993 when the US Congress voted a three-year ban on the export of antipersonnel land mines. Although the United States is not the leading supplier of such munitions, US action in this regard demonstrated the possibility of establishing such restraints, and put pressure on other suppliers to curb their own sales of land mines. Indeed, an international coalition of human rights groups and humanitarian organizations, including the International Red Cross, has been established to promote a permanent, international ban on land mine production and sales.

The enormous scale and high stakes of this lethal commerce provide the needed pressure and incentive for conceited international action. The lessons of Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti are clear. Ultimately, a new international control regime is needed to regulate the trade in light and medium weapons: a regime of a scope comparable to existing regimes for the control of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Success need not be measured in terms of full compliance with such a regime, but rather by the significant reduction in the flow of arms and ammunition to areas of conflict that could ensue. In so doing, potential belligerent parties will find it more difficult to stockpile sufficient arms that allow them to pursue military, rather than political, outcomes to their respective grievances.

Table of Contents

Introduction (available online)
Jeffrey Boutwell, Michael T. Klare, and Laura W. Reed

Part I: The New Prominence of Small Arms and Light Weapons

  • Small Arms – The New Major Weapons
    Aaron Karp
  • The Global Trade in Light Weapons and the International System in the Post-Cold War Era
    Michael T. Klare
  • The Structure and Operation of the Modern Arms Black Market
    R.T. Naylor

Part II: Small Arms and Regional Conflicts

  • Light Weapons and Ethnic Conflict in South Asia
    Chris Smit
  • Light Weapons and Internal Conflict in Angola
    Lucy Mathiak
  • Light Weapons and Internal Conflict in Columbia
    Daniel García-Peña Jaramillo
  • Small Arms and Light Weapons: Russia and the Former Soviet Union
    Ksenia Gonchar and Peter Lock

Part III: Controlling the Global Trade in Small Arms

  • Controlling Transfers of Light Arms: Linkages to Conflict Processes and Conflict Resolution Strategies
    Jo L. Husbands
  • Addressing the Negative Consequences of Light Weapons Trafficking: Opportunities for Transparency
    Edward J. Laurance