The recent spate of mass shootings focuses needed attention on the importance of gun control in the United States, but the global trade in cheap small arms is also changing the nature of armed conflict around the world, contributing to an alarming rise in civilian casualties.
Almost every country has ratified the Geneva Conventions - the "laws of war" that, after the shocking numbers of civilian deaths in World War II, were drafted to include protection for non-combatants. Tragically, however, warriors fighting both for and against governments often break these laws. The violations appear to have worsened dramatically in the 1990s.
The International Committee of the Red Cross - the body charged with ensuring combatants uphold the laws of war - said in a July report that the proliferation of small arms is a "major factor" in the new disregard for the rules of war.
"Civilians have paid an appalling price for the widespread availability of weapons and ammunition in recent conflicts," noted the ICRC.
High-speed assault rifles and grenades, in particular, are widely considered responsible for the bulk of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in this decade.
The ICRC, with staff in conflict zones around the world, estimates that on average, half of those killed in "combat" in recent years are civilians. That guns kill is not news, but the report identifies several trends that have dramatically changed the nature of combat. More people - within government security forces and in death squads, militias, or other nongovernmental forces - have easy access to highly lethal weaponry. Newly opened borders, post-cold-war arms surpluses, and the rapid expansion of free trade have contributed to arms availability. These weapons increasingly fall into the hands of all types of fighters, including children, who are unconstrained by international humanitarian law.
A study of a hospital in northern Cambodia, ICRC confirmed assault rifles and fragmentation weapons were the leading cause of wounds to noncombatants. In another study, researchers were surprised that arms-related casualties had dropped only 30 percent in a "post-conflict" area of Afghanistan.
The ICRC isn't alone in its concern. Governments and international organizations have begun focusing on the humanitarian and criminal impact of light weapons. The Organization of American States recently approved a convention on the illicit trade in firearms, and it is the model for a global treaty being negotiated by the UN.
Many nations are considering initiatives to limit small-arms transfers. Most of these efforts focus on illegal trade in such weapons, without sufficient attention to legal trade in surplus guns and grenades. Data collected by the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers suggests that some of the same states expressing concern about the negative impact of the illicit trade on civilians, business people, and aid workers continue to produce and authorize the export of these weapons into conflict zones. This is the case with the US.
Efforts to gather data and hold states accountable for their small-arms shipments are part of an emerging global trend. For example, the International Action Network on Small Arms - launched in May by 165 non-governmental organizations from around the world - works to lessen the flow of arms through both supply and demand.
The ICRC's report documents the devastating human costs of small arms and makes a compelling case for governments to take strong action to reduce surplus production and traffic in these weapons. Let's hope leaders are listening.
*Lora Lumpe, based in Oslo, directs research for the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers, a coalition of Norwegian nongovernmental groups, including the Norwegian Red Cross. NISAT is part of the International Action Network on Small Arms.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society