PRIO Network

Gathering the Facts on the Small Arms Trade


A Proposal from the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) in Conjunction with the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT)

Project Leader: Lora Lumpe, Senior Associate
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Institute Director: Dan Smith
June 2000

Proposal Summary

The Problem  A lack of hard data on the legal and illegal small arms trade reduces the ability of activist organizations and governments to target their actions most effectively to curb this trade.

The Response  PRIO will develop a comprehensive Internet-accessible database of worldwide small arms production and transfers. Our goals are:

· to help fill the existing information gaps and present the data in a contextualized, structured way;
· to better inform the work of governments, humanitarian NGOs and activist groups;
· to promote and highlight indigenous research on small arms issues;
· to encourage more openness on the part of governments, through example; and
· to improve policy analysis and focus political will through our own publications based on the data.

Specific Activities and Outputs  We developed the architecture for this on-line database and piloted a methodology for this project in 1999-2000. Work in 2000-2001 will focus on:

     ·  gathering, translating and posting government export data for supplier states;
·  commissioning and/or preparing profiles of small arms production, laws and policies and exports for at least 50 countries during the two-year period;
·  maintaining and updating news archives on black-market arms trafficking for all countries; and

·        marketing the database to a broad circle of users.

Assessing our Progress  Our goal in developing this resource is to fill in 25 country profiles in each of the next two years. The project’s impact will be measured by numbers of hits the web database receives, links to other Internet sites, citations of the database as a source, and contacts from users.

Issue Background

In late 1997, following the Oslo conference that drafted the treaty against anti-personnel landmines, many NGOs and governments began pressing for more public attention to the devastation wrought by the worldwide sale and distribution of light arms–weapons that can be carried by a person–such as assault rifles, mortars, and grenades.[1] Such arms are believed to be responsible for the vast majority of combat deaths, including many tens of thousands of civilian deaths annually. Even after conflicts end, demobilization and reconciliation efforts are frustrated by the over-supply of these inexpensive weapons, which often flow into criminal hands.

Among the governmental and non-governmental initiatives at the time, in late December 1997, on the first anniversary of the murder of Red Cross/Red Crescent workers in Chechnya, PRIO and three other organizations in Oslo–Norwegian Red Cross, Norwegian Church Aid and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs–banded together to form the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT). The database proposal here is a central part of NISAT’s activities.

Need for the Project

In the past few years, the European Union, OSCE, Organization of American States, Organization of African Unity, Economic Community of West African States, and the South African Development Community all took up some aspect of small arms control.  Almost every part of the UN engaged the topic, including—increasingly—the Security Council.  Modeled on a 1997 OAS treaty, the UN in Vienna began negotiation of a global protocol against firearms trafficking in 1999.  In addition, the UN General Assembly voted in 1999 to hold a United Nations conference in 2001 on the illicit arms trade “in all its dimensions.” 

Despite this high level of engagement by governments and NGOs, the knowledge base on which these efforts rest is extremely thin. There are enormous gaps in the factual record on arms production and transfers. The lack of focused research in this area leaves open fundamental questions such as whether the legal or the illegal arms trade is the leading source of supply, and which states are the largest legal exporters of small arms.[2]

Approximately 70 states produce small arms and/or ammunition. Some production enterprises are state-owned (usually military armories), and some are private companies. From the existing reference works,

·        it is not difficult to know what types of small arms the major producer states manufacture;

·        it is much harder to determine production quantities; and

·        it is nearly impossible to know where weapons are being exported.

The standard sources of data on the international arms trade–SIPRI, the UN Register of Conventional Arms, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers–do not include information on small arms shipments.

Few governments provide information to their parliaments on major weapons exports they have approved, and even fewer on their small arms trade. An exception to the prevailing pattern of secrecy is the US government. Since 1997, the United States openly reports in a highly specific manner all of its small arms shipments and export license approvals (with the notable exception of covert government-run arms supply, like the Iran-contra operation). Other states that have recently begun to provide more detailed public reports on their arms exports (including small arms shipments) are Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These are the eight leaders in transparency, on which the database will first concentrate in 2000-2001.

Despite this improvement in transparency, there is a need to organize the newly available data. In the above eight and other countries, the relevant information is scattered across many agencies and departments–in shipping documents at customs offices, judicial records, police records, and documents in the foreign, defense and trade ministries. No one is currently pulling this information together systematically, translating it, or presenting it to the international community in a readily useable format. That is what the database project will do.

The Need for Transparency

The information included in the database will serve as a template for the kind of governmental transparency that we will encourage the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to press for through its diplomatic contacts and on the international stage.[3] In addition, we hope the database itself will encourage greater openness on the part of some governments, when they see the amount and types of information that the United States and – to a lesser degree – some others already make public without adverse effect.

Increased transparency and organization of the available data will also improve the ability of governments to verify the appropriate end-uses and end-users of weapons exports they are authorizing. It will allow the non-governmental community, as well as national legislatures, to play an important role in aiding governments’ efforts to curb diversion of these arms by providing oversight through research, questioning and reporting. Such information is also important for the safety of aid and relief workers operating in a region where a sudden influx of guns has occurred or is anticipated.

Increased openness about weapons shipments could serve as a confidence building measure among forces within a state, or states in a region, potentially heading off some purchases spurred by ‘fear of the unknown’. Finally, such information will greatly facilitate formal disarmament activities, by providing some baseline information about arms stocks and supply in the state or region.

How the Project Addresses These Needs

The centerpiece of this proposal is an on-line database of small arms production and transfers. The database addresses the need for better information on three levels:

·        it provides a composite picture of the small arms trade by collecting, translating and organizing the hard-to-find data;

·        it interlinks policy-relevant information so as to provide both governments and activist organizations a stronger base for argumentation, strategy and agreement on common norms; and

·        it demonstrates the positive aspects of transparency.

The database will eventually contain information on virtually every country of the world. It will be a public resource, accessible to all Internet users.

We believe that the database will yield substantial results within one year of full funding, and if so we are committed to further developing and sustaining the initiative for as long as small arms control measures are required. As more governments provide public information about their light weapons shipments, the resource will grow in value (in terms of providing a fuller picture of the dynamics of the arms market).

Content and Structure of the Database

The information will be layered and arranged in a graphically attractive manner. It will be hyperlinked to relevant external sources of information on the Internet. However, only the PRIO/NISAT project will be able to post information, thus ensuring that quality control remains our responsibility.

The database will be built to allow easy on-line searches using several types of variables. For example, someone using the database should be able to retrieve a list of all enterprises around the world manufacturing M16 (or AK-47) assault rifles.

American English is the working language of the database, although links to web sites and government documents in the native language are included as well. Monetary values are converted into US dollars for the relevant year, to allow for comparison in the magnitude of exports and imports by various states.

For each country, the database will provide a concise overview of the “small arms issues” for that particular country. The main page of each country will five types of information:

Small Arms Production  The information focuses on military small arms producers, including location of production plants and output quantities (when possible). Links are provided to the web pages of the military small arms manufacturers in order to help investigators research the various weapons. Also included are one-page profiles of the various weapons, written in plain English (as opposed to gun jargon).

Small Arms Export Laws and Policies   This section contains links to the laws and regulations in force in each state concerning small arms production, imports or exports. The texts of recent official speeches or pronouncements on small arms control and disarmament are posted, as well as a survey of the existing data sources for the particular country.

Authorized Small Arms Imports  For each country, links are provided to all its sources of small arms supply, going back to 1996.

Authorized Small Arms Exports  For each country, the database shows the destination, value and quantity of small arms sent to other countries through legal arms export procedures. These data go back to 1996.

Unauthorized (Illegal) Small Arms Imports and Exports   This section links to news clips on illegal imports intercepted and other incidents of arms trafficking reported in the press, in court documents, or through national investigations.

The database’s many internal hyperlinks allow a user to assemble the fullest picture possible of arms flows to a particular country. For example, data on the US page showing arms shipped to Israel will be linked to Israel’s arms import page, where all known imports by Israel show up.

Each country page will also be linked to other data sources that focus on related information on a country-by-country basis, for example SaferNet (on domestic firearm casualty rates); Amnesty International (on the human rights situation); and relevant chronologies of small arms use (generally focusing on massacres) maintained by the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

To obtain all of the above information for all countries is of course impossible, as most governments do not release any information to the public domain. But we are certain that for every country of the world, we could today provide some information.

Development, Testing and Audience to Date

As of June 2000, with seed money from NISAT partner organizations and from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, we have developed an initial database template (see This prototype already displays a significant quantity of organized information, including some 3,000 articles and reports describing black market gun trafficking incidents, organized by country. In addition, four country profiles are completed and several others are nearing completion, with official trade data entered, as well as summaries of laws, policies and small arms production. The information here has also been cross-linked to external sources, as described above. Entering this initial data has allowed us to refine the design and search functions to make the database more useful and the interface more user-friendly.

The database already attracts a few hundred verified readers per week, accounting for about 5000 ‘hits’ in the same time period. Slightly more than one half of the readers are currently from North America, 10 percent are from Norway and the rest are distributed among various Western countries.

Focus of Efforts in 2000-2001

PRIO’s project team will concentrate its efforts in several areas, in the following priority:

1)    Researching, developing and entering more country profiles into the database.

2)    Identifying and contracting researchers to provide high quality information for profiles on their country or region.

3)    Developing and implementing a marketing strategy to ensure that the universe of interested government policy makers, journalists, non-governmental activists and academics are aware of our resource.

4)    Continuing to archive incidents into the black market file collection.

5)    Continually evaluating, extending and improving the usability and information value of the database structure and interface.

The data-collection methodology is summarized in detail in the appendix.

Project Output

The on-line database is the main product of this project. It will facilitate the preparation of many research products by many analysts in various countries around the world. Three other, published outputs are planned.

A Policy Memo on Transparency  This memo is intended to assist and encourage the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in pressing for greater transparency about state-sanctioned small arms transfers through its bilateral contacts and through multilateral fora. The study will address obstacles raised by governments to greater transparency and provide rebuttal. It will also survey which governments currently make their exports transparent, and which do not. Finally, it will assess the various proposals that have been made for greater transparency (for instance, inclusion of information on small arms in the UN Register of Conventional Arms, or within the Wassenaar Arrangement) and make realistic recommendations for an inter-governmental as well as a public transparency agenda.

Project Coordinator Lora Lumpe and Researcher Stig Aga Aandstad are scheduled to complete this manuscript by July 2001. It will be distributed widely to governments and activist NGOs at the UN conference on arms trafficking in July 2001.

Edited Book on the Black Market  The UN began negotiation of a global protocol on illicit arms trafficking in January 1999. This treaty is slated to be finalized in late 2000.  In addition, the United Nations will host a global conference on the illegal arms trade in June/July 2001. Lora Lumpe has just completed editing a book on today’s black market in arms, based on commissioned papers and a round-table workshop for the authors and other experts. The volume will be published by Zed Books in summer 2000. We are not seeking funding for this work, but we mention it to note that the project is taking a holistic approach–focusing on both legal and illegal small arms proliferation, between which there are many linkages.

Campaign Materials  As the database evolves, project staff will also produce conference papers, magazine articles and op-eds and campaign materials derived from its information.  These products will be posted on the web page, as well as distributed at conferences, on e-mail list servers and in newspapers. Among the topics of fact sheets which might be derived from the database are:

·      sources of supply: who manufactures what?

·      country-specific surveys (e.g., where do Colombian combatants get their arms?)

·     transparency: which governments refuse to make available information about their exports?

These publications serve a dual purpose: presenting information on small arms via another medium and to a variety of audiences, but also advertising the existence of the database.

Anticipated Problems

The main problem will be uneven access to data, and the greatly differing quality and content of the data.  We have built the on-line database with a great deal of flexibility, allowing entry of both highly specific and also more generalized data, depending on what various governments make available.

Related Efforts and Partner Organizations

In Autumn 1998 PRIO surveyed relevant small arms data collection efforts under way and planned for the near future (available upon request). The PRIO/NISAT database project is unique. There are, however, three initiatives that come closest to ours.

Project PrepCom supports a web page[4] devoted to the preparation of a global campaign on small arms. The page contains background and contact information about other organizations working on small arms, a schedule of past and upcoming events, some press reports and official documents (voluminous). It does not include systematic data on arms production and/or supply.

The International Action Network for Small Arms (IANSA),[5] a coordinating body currently based in London, will work to facilitate non-governmental and governmental actions to control small arms availability. The network maintains a web site, which it uses to link its various members. IANSA also posts official documents, but it does not search out or arrange the kind of data we are proposing to make available. NISAT is a founding member of IANSA, and we view the production and maintenance of this weapons production and transfers database as our primary contribution to the network.

Professor Keith Krause, of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, with the support of the Swiss and other governments, is developing an annual yearbook on small arms issues. The first book will be published in 2001. This yearbook will feature analysis of many areas relating to small arms, and the authors will rely in part on data collected and organized in the PRIO/NISAT database. We have agreed to maintain close communication with each other, so as to avoid redundancy. We see these two initiatives as mutually reinforcing.

Another consideration is the possibility that governments will do what we are proposing to do. In a speech at the UN Security Council in September 1998, US Secretary of State Albright called for the creation of an “international center” for the exchange of information on small arms transfers. Neither Secretary Albright nor the State Department has subsequently elaborated on this statement. According to US government officials, there is little clarity about what this center would be, and there is some opposition to the idea within the Pentagon. It seems highly unlikely that this idea will advance.

Similarly, it is often proposed by analysts and some governments that the UN Register of Conventional Weapons be expanded to include imports and exports of small arms. (It currently covers only seven categories of major weapons imports and exports.) However, opposition by several governments to expanding the register make this recommendation unlikely to be realized.

Evaluation of Effectiveness

On data input, the goal for late 2001 is to have updated information on legal arms transfers in all the database categories (production, law/policy, exports, imports) for the countries assuming ‘leadership’ with regard to transparency on this issue (that is, the US, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa and the UK).  In addition, we will complete profiles (small arms production, law/policy) for at least 42 other countries that do not currently release export data.  These countries will be chosen based on their salience to small arms proliferation concerns. For all countries, by the end of 2001 we will have a summary of the small arms issues of relevance and an archive of black-market transfer incidents in that particular country.

On the use of the data, as with all Internet-based projects, we are able to track the number of hits, visits and readers the site receives. These figures can be further broken down into how we reach our target groups, what kinds of information the visitors read, and whether readers tend to find what they want quickly or end up “wandering” around the site. A system is already in place for detailed analysis of visitor statistics.

Other indicators of the project’s growing reach are the number of links on other web sites to ours, as well as the visibility of the web site to public on-line audiences.

Further indicators of the project’s impact are citations in news articles and scholarly publications on small arms themes. Ultimately the value of the project can be measured by increased levels of transparency around small arms shipments and other responsible changes in arms export licensing policies.

Project Expertise and Staffing

In August 1998 PRIO hired a full-time senior researcher with a strong background in conventional arms control to lead this project. This researcher, Lora Lumpe, gained ten years of experience in disarmament research and policy advocacy directing the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project in Washington, DC (see After 14 months in Oslo developing this and other projects, she has returned to Washington, DC. Given that this project is Internet-based, she is well able to ensure quality control from overseas.

Lumpe is well connected to the international community of scholars and investigators working on the gun trade, and she is currently identifying relevant researchers and research organizations to enlist to write up various country case-studies and methodologies. PRIO’s in-house regional expertise will further assist in identifying potential field researchers.

Stig Aga Aandstad is a researcher with the project, and serves as the database coordinator and technical expert in Oslo. He is educated as an international historian (M.Phil equivalent), and has more than five years professional experience working with major Norwegian web projects, as well as formal training in web and information management. Aandstad has been working full time on the project since October 1999.

From April 2000, Martin Langvandslien was hired as the second full-time junior researcher. Langvandslien, a graduate student in history, worked for the project during 1999 in his capacity as a conscientious objector from the military based at PRIO.

The project anticipates hiring computer consultants and translators as needed, and commissioned research is a key part of the methodology to be employed in filling in the database.

PRIO/NISAT Comparative Advantage

Over 40 years old, PRIO is one of the world’s leading centers of peace research. It currently has on staff more than a dozen senior researchers, most of whom have particular regional expertise that will contribute to the success of this project by aiding in the identification of potential small arms researchers. Further supporting this project, PRIO has an excellent library of relevant resources, very strong in-house computer support (necessary for this project), and sufficient office infrastructure to accommodate the small team of researchers needed for the plan of work.

As one of the four partners in the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), PRIO is also able to count on the cooperation of the other Norwegian partners in this research project. NISAT’s close relationship with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry further enhances our effectiveness, by allowing us to work synergistically. And finally, Norway’s positive reputation in the areas of peace and development assistance gains us some good will in our efforts to enlist cooperation from overseas partners in our project.


The total annual budget for the PRIO/NISAT small arms database project is estimated at $208,000. Funds have been solicited from several private foundations, as well as from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[1] The project takes its definitions of “small arms” and “light weapons” from the UN Secretary-General’s August 1997 report. See UN document A/52/298, paragraph 26.

[2] A survey by PRIO in late 1998 of past and on-going research into small arms production, trafficking and effects (see appendix) serves as the starting point for the database project.

[3] NISAT operates independently of, but in tandem with, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, which has provided financial support during the organization’s initial work phase.

[4] See

[5] Launched in May 1999 in the Hague. See

June 2000 - NISAT