Up in arms

As international small-weapons market grows, calls for stricter regulation increase.

They were billed as "key chains," "fountain pens," and "first-aid kits" on the export documents. About the only clue to their real identity was the curious notation: "electrical volt unit." When US Customs officials opened the packages to look inside, they found stun weapons and powerful liquid pepper sprays on their way to Russia.

That 1996 illegal arms shipment eventually led to convictions. It also highlighted what officials around the world know all too well: Millions of illegal arms are streaming through a shadowy network of traders and brokers to equip rogue armies, independence movements, and anyone else who can pay top dollar.

And these guns and grenadeskill far more civilians, more indiscriminately,than the high-profile, big-ticket missiles, planes, and tanks that usually make the headlines. By shining a bright light on this illicit small-arms market, activists hope to reform a system that has spun out of control. Some want to spark a morality debate over exports of larger weapons. Slowly, the world begining to listen.

In the small-arms arena, "there's absolutely no debate about these weapons," says Ed Laurance, director of the program for security and development at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterrey, Calif. "These are weapons that aren't necessarily controlled by governments. It's a profitmaking situation."

Some observers blame the West for the current state of affairs. "There is no excuse for the disregard for human life and dignity that allows leading democracies such as the United States, France, and Great Britain to fuel bloody conflicts by supplying warring factions with armaments," says Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. "The world expects the US to ... be a moral superpower."

US has half of world market

And yet, the US remains the largest arms exporter with half of the world market. In 1997, Mr. Arias says, US arms were used in 39 of the world's 42 ethnic and territorial conflicts. Other experts blame the growth in the illegal gun trade on the end of the cold war.

Inan ironic twist, the end of that nuclear standoff of weapons has only made part of the world safer.Overall, arms exports have fallen by a third, andthe developed world, where the missiles were pointed, can breathe a sigh of relief. But at the same time, the number ofsmall conventional arms in thedeveloping world -everything from rifles to grenades to portable surface-to-air missiles - has gone up.

During the cold war, the superpowers equipped organized armies that fought other organized armies. Now, those weapons are landing in the hands of gangs, individuals, even children, who are much more likely to kill civilians.

"During the 1990s, millions have died in armed conflicts and in their immediate aftermath," write Brian Wood and Johan Peleman in their 1999 book, "The Arms Fixers" (NISAT). "Most of the victims have been civilians. And most of them have been killed by small arms such as automatic rifles, submachine guns, grenades, and other weapons that a single person can easily carry and use."

Without large governments overseeing these exports any more, control has passed to a shadowy network of private, freelance arms brokers whose main aim is sales.

"It's a free-flowing market with more concern for profits than the impact it will have on the people in their recipient countries," says Tamar Gabelnick, director of the arms-sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Theinflux of free-market armshas made life hard for ordinary citizens, particularly in Central Africa. In 1996, the World Bank estimated that armed conflict in Africa was responsible for poverty of at least 250 million people there - nearly half the continent's population. Just last month, a United Nations Security Council delegation sharply criticized Liberia's presidentfor interfering in his war-torn neighbor, Sierra Leone. According to allegations, Liberia is supplying guns to Sierra Leone's rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, in exchange for diamonds dealt by the renegades.

"Suppliers are not reluctant to re-supply parties located in areas of, or even involved in, conflicts, whether allies, friends, or old or new customers," concludes the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Project, a nonpartisan monitoring group in Sweden.

The weapons come from all over: the US, Russia, the European Community, China, Israel, South Africa, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries, whose arms exports represent one of their few sources of desperately needed hard currency. Sometimes the governments know what's going on, arms-control experts say. Often, they don't.

Consider the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. According to the authors of "The Arms Fixers," the main foreign brokers and shippers who brought in the weapons were based in Britain, France, and South Africa. They employed networks of collaborators in places such as Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Egypt, Italy, and the Seychelles.

"The dealers evaded the inadequate national arms control laws in their home countries and disguised the routes of their deliveries, choosing to operate where there were shaky customs, transport, and financial regulations so as to make their activities as 'legal' as possible," the authors conclude.

To its credit, the US has tight restrictions on who can broker arms. But in Europe, by and large, dealers come under little scrutiny as long as the arms they deal don't actually cross the country's borders. Thus, many arms brokers live in Europe and don't run afoul of the laws.

New weapons don't represent the largest challenge;used models do - ones left over from wars or stockpiled because of reduced threats, says Mr. Laurance. Many of the weapons are so durable, they keep popping up in new wars decades after their manufacture.

In 1997, for example, American agents intercepted the largest illicit arms shipment ever found en route from the US to Mexico. The shipment included M-2 automatic rifles originally left behind in Vietnam by American forces. They had traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore to Bremerhaven in Germany to Long Beach, Calif., on their way to Mexico. Thus, one of the big issues countries have to tackle is how to systematically destroy their stockpiles of small arms.

Next July, the United Nations will host its first-ever conference on the subject - a meeting that has raised hopes that an international consensus is growing.

While an international agreement on small-arms exports looks possible next year, the prospects of similar restrictions on big-ticket arms exports remain murky. Concerned that the Clinton administration reversed a ban on Latin American arms sales that had been in place since President Carter, Arias three years ago proposed an international code of conduct on arms transfers. He got 18 other Nobel Peace laureates to endorse it, but so far nothing has come of it.

Since late last year, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations has beenreworking the document to make it more acceptable to the countries that might sign it. Under the agreement, arms-exporting nations would agree to stop selling arms to undemocratic regimes and those responsible for gross human rights violations or armed aggression that violates international law.

Unilateral restraint?

Still, the movement faces an uphill battle because competition for arms sales has grown fierce and no country wants to take steps that would cut sales. "If you can do anything multilaterally, we don't have a problem doing that," says Joel Johnson, vice president for international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group. But "we tend to think any multilateral agreement you could reach probably wouldn't go as far as our own unilateral restraints."

Nevertheless, regional groups including the Organization of American States and the European Union have hammered out some guidelines for arms sales. Twice a year, the 35 states that participate in the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls meet to share information about arms sales they've made. And the US is broaching the idea with allies of a broader set of arms-export principles.

In some ways, activists hope to build a grassroots campaign similar to the one that eventually pushed through the international ban on land mines. "We're trying to seize on that momentum," says Greg Puley, human rights and arms-control project coordinator for the Arias Foundation, based in San Jose, Costa Rica. "But this is much more challenging."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.