September 19, 2006

(Small) Arms and Influence

Weapons of mass destruction are, of course, bad things. The name is a dead giveaway. But over on the Guardian's new blog, Richard Wilson writes about what's probably an even more important arms control issue: the unregulated global trade in small arms. The prevalence of cheap light weapons—assault rifles, submachine guns, grenades and the like—around the world has been responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 people per year. Here's Wilson:
"It's the white people supplying the weapons in Africa - now you're going to feel what it's like," my sister Charlotte was told, shortly before being gunned down by members of the Forces pour la Liberation Nationale (FNL) armed group in war-torn Burundi. The UK post-mortem found that she had been shot seven times in the back with an eastern European semi-automatic rifle. Her killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag peasant army, but they knew where the guns were coming from. ...

More than 300,000 people - mostly civilians - have died in Burundi's bloody conflict since 1993. In the wider region - Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo - the death toll runs into the millions. The financial cost, too, is devastating. Across Africa, $15bn is lost every year through the impact of war, cruelly undermining prospects for economic development. Poverty, inter-ethnic rivalries, and a culture of impunity all play a part in fuelling the violence. But without the ready and abundant supply of guns and ammunition, these conflicts would be far less deadly.
That's an appropriately dark take, I think. When it comes to gun control here in the United States, I'm sometimes swayed by anti-gun-control arguments. Sometimes. Abroad, though, that whole "guns don't kill people" slogan sounds cheap and risible. Without easy access to cheap weapons, armed militias would rarely have the means to, say, try to take over a state—as Charles Taylor's gang did in Liberia, and as the Taylor-backed RUF did in Angola. Without a global surfeit of guns that cost less than the price of a live chicken, people couldn't afford to arm child soldiers, or drag civil wars out for decades. The small arms trade really is the root of much evil.

But global gun control is a tricky matter. Amnesty International recently looked at the increasingly sophisticated black market in small arms, which has been supported by states that employ private contractors to broker arms deals and deliver the guns. Basically, governments are nurturing a complex network of private intermediaries—arms brokers, logistics firms, transport companies—who then turn around and use those same networks to traffic illegally in small arms. It's all highly unregulated. It's all a mess.

One would think that the UN would be an ideal forum for clamping down on the global small arms trade. But the United States, spurred on by the NRA, has been implacably opposed to global arms control. John Bolton made that clear in 2001, in a stunning anti-arms control speech to the UN. China and Russia have also staunchly opposed sensible regulations, such as creating a global registry to track arms and ammunition, so that trafficking networks can be uprooted more easily. (Russian arms manufacturers still depend heavily on the global arms trade, especially since the end of the Cold War.)

Then there's the fact that arms control will inevitably founder so long as the supply of guns continues to expand. In 2001, Bolton said the U.S. would oppose "measures that would constrain the legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms and light weapons." Seems fair, no? What's wrong with "legal"—government to government—arms deals? Well, for one, as AI pointed out, the "legal" trade has helped bolster the black market. Second, arms sold to governments—say, assault rifles sold to Algeria by Italy—often end up in private hands due to "leakage". Sixty percent of the 639 million small arms in existence are now privately owned. Most didn't start that way.

Now the "war on terror" has given G-8 governments a new excuse to ramp up their sales small arms to "friendly" governments. In the U.S., Congress seems less eager nowadays to restrict weapons sales to repressive countries such as, say, Egypt and Pakistan—countries notorious for "losing" weapons that end up in arms bazaars and private hands. Granted, regulating these sorts of deals wouldn't be enough to stop the trade in light weapons—after all, hundreds of millions of privately-owned small arms are still floating around, and they can always migrate from conflict to conflict even if the U.S. never sold another gun to anyone—but it would be a start.

So... it's a complex issue. I certainly don't know how one would go about fixing things, although a lot of smart people no doubt do. But on the offchance that, say, a leading superpower were concerned about creating a liberal world order and preventing the sharp rise in the number of failed states, it might seem appropriate to take a keen interest in the small-arms trade. But that would mean taking on arms manufacturers and, inevitably, the NRA. It's also sort of a dull issue—less exciting than confronting evildoers and gearing up for war, that's for sure—so that's a bit of a problem.
-- Brad Plumer 1:11 AM || ||