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Presentation to Diplomats at UN Prep Com

Luncheon Briefing for Diplomats at the January 2001 Prep Com meeting for the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects

9 January 2001

by Lora Lumpe


I would like to begin by thanking Cora Weiss and Felicity Hill for bringing us together today.  And I congratulate Ambassador dos Santos [the Prep Com Chairman] on a very comprehensive and strong working document.

I represent NISAT—the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers—a coalition of the Norwegian Red Cross, Norwegian Church Aid and the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo. As Mr. Dhanapala just said, we have recently published a book aimed very much at this negotiation, called Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms.  Copies are available at the table where you registered.

In my few minutes I was asked to talk about the nature of the arms trade and its connection to war and human suffering through war.  This is an easy connection to draw.

Given that Government resources are universally limited – even in the richest countries – weapons purchase and importation nearly always represents a diversion of resources away from social needs – from good schools, affordable and adequate medical care, cultural development, etc.  This tragic tradeoff occurs in both the developing and developed worlds. 

Worse yet, however, the weapons trade is also directly killing people. 

There is a long-running political science and unfortunate diplomatic debate about whether weapons accumulation causes warfare or not.  But it is indisputable that the international weapons trade--in both its licit and illicit dimensions--directly enables and sustains fighting. 

In all major armed conflicts of the 1990s, few combatants produced any let alone all of their own munitions.  In the 30 or so wars currently raging around the world, combatants rely on external suppliers for their arms.

In particular, it is the abundant trade in cheap, small arms and light weaponry – in particular automatic rifles and grenade launchers -- which sustains these wars.  A study of 101 conflicts fought between 1989 and 1996 revealed that small arms and light weapons were generally the weapons of preference or even the only weapon used.[i] 

The low cost and portability of these weapons mean they are used by combatants of all sides—state militaries, militias, and insurgents alike.  And their sheer availability and ease of use make it likely that these weapons would be used in a high proportion of the killing around the world. They are believed responsible for as much as 90 percent of combat-related deaths. 

But it is not only combatants—soldiers—who fall victim to these weapons.

In its July 1999 study, "Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) researchers estimated that, in general, more than 50 percent of war casualties—one out of every two in the 1990s—are civilians.  In some recent conflicts, of course, the civilian mortality rate has been much higher. 

The humanitarian impact of this broader category of weaponry greatly exceeds that of anti-personnel landmines.

The vast supply of light military arms, while perhaps not causing conflicts, can encourage the resort to warfare.  And the easy availability of arms lengthens the duration and lethality of wars, causing not only immense civilian casualties, but also creating massive refugee flows.

Even when wars end, they often leave a legacy of an armed and insecure society, with resultant high levels of small arms mortality.  In Central America, South Africa, Afghanistan, Cambodia and countless other places, armed violence remains commonplace after civil wars have concluded.  In a survey conducted in one recently-warring state, the ICRC found that due to the continued widespread availability of weapons, the number of light weapons injuries declined by only a small margin -- less than 30 percent -- in the “post-conflict” phase.

In addition, the light weight and small size of these weapons has made it possible for combatants to compel children to become soldiers.  This practice has become all too commonplace in several of the bloodiest and most protracted conflicts.

In its excellent report, the ICRC made the case substantially and compellingly that the global trade in cheap small arms is contributing to an alarming rise in civilian casualties during this decade.  Newly opened borders, post-cold-war arms surpluses and the rapid expansion of free trade have contributed to arms availability. 

The book that we have prepared—Running Guns— focuses almost exclusively on the supply side of the black market trade in arms.  It does not attempt to address the important issue of the causes of demand—insecurity, injustice, poverty, hunger, opportunism, warlordism, etc. The absence of such a focus is not meant to imply that fundamental attention to these areas is not key. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that in many cases eradicating these root causes is even more difficult than diminishing the supply of the tools of mass violence.  Moreover, progress on reducing demand is, we believe, integrally linked to progress on reducing the availability of arms.  That is to say, without small arms control, development strategies that are necessary to alleviate demand will not succeed.

We undertook production of Running Guns for three reasons:

First, to define and give meaning to the term "illicit arms trade."

Second, to analyze the meaning and methods of the black arms market—its magnitude, how it works and, most importantly, to identify levers for control.

Third, to produce a book of essays that would help policymakers and non governmental activists prioritize their efforts, and encourage them to push for the most effective and far-reaching measures possible in this and other venues.

One thing became clear in working on this book:  Virtually all illicit small arms begin as legal weapons—whether in the hands of state armies, police or civilians.  Quite few weapons are produced illegally. And most weapons that end up in illegal circulation were originally exported legally. 

As your working document notes:  Secrecy in the legal arms trade exacerbates the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

One of the most important initiatives governments concerned about the humanitarian and criminal impact of small arms proliferation could undertake is to provide greater transparency around the small arms exports that they are authorizing.

Such information is important to aid and relief workers, who might be working in a region where a sudden influx of guns has occurred or is anticipated. 

Fuller information about the magnitude and destination of current and future small arms shipments is also a necessary prerequisite for development of sound policy recommendations.

Transparency would also facilitate and improve the ability of governments to ensure end-use verification of weapons exports they are authorizing. If such information were made public, increased transparency would 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. 

Increased transparency is possible at the global, regional and national levels. The United Nations and regional security organizations can help facilitate the former two, but such initiatives are, of course, predicated on willingness by governments to engage in greater openness.

Concerned states need not wait for some complicated global agreement. They can and should become transparent unilaterally, by providing publicly available reports on the weapons shipments they are authorizing, as a handful of states currently do. 

A second area of advocacy concerns the vital need for all states to incorporate UN Security Council-mandated arms embargoes fully and clearly into their national laws and regulations. All members of the United Nations are bound by Security Council embargoes, and yet enforcement in recent cases has been extremely weak. Since embargoes are usually levied in only the most extreme cases of conflict –usually involving massive humanitarian suffering, and therefore necessitating Red Cross response—the global Red Cross movement would be well served by assurances that Security Council mandated arms embargoes are fully and aggressively adhered to.

A third area needing attention concerns laws and regulations controlling the activities of arms brokers and transport agents. UN documents, national investigations, court records and press reports have all shown that arms brokering agents have been responsible for many recent arms shipments into conflict zones—in particular in violation of UN Security Council mandated arms embargoes.

Brokers typically locate the source of arms supply, set up the financing for the transaction, and arrange delivery. For the latter brokers usually contract transport agents who physically make the delivery.

Arms brokering often takes place in the gray area between legal and illegal arms dealing. Exploiting the absence of standard laws and practices, brokers base their activities in states with more lax rules. Despite the increasingly prominent role of private actors in brokering dangerous—if not illegal—arms shipments, controls on the activities of arms brokering agents in many countries are poor or even non-existent. And governments which have taken steps to control arms brokering in their own territory often see their efforts undermined when brokering agents move freely into a neighboring state where controls are less stringent or absent.

We encourage states to adopt adequate national law regulating brokering of arms deals and shipping of weapons by its citizens and by all persons subject to its laws. Such laws should require all brokers and transport agents to register with their home and local  governments. To be most effective, these laws and regulations should require prior license approval for each deal. And of course any decision to authorize such a license should be in strict conformity with all international legal obligations of governments (e.g., International Humanitarian Law and UN Security Council mandated arms embargoes).

In closing, I would just reiterate that small arms control—and controlling the illegal traffic in these arms, in particular—is not a theoretical exercise, but a humanitarian emergency. 

We hope that this book will be of service to you in your efforts to tackle this awful and important problem that plagues so many of your constituents—in pushing for the most effective and far reaching actions.  We wish you every success and good speed in your vital work.

Thank you.

[i] P. Wallensteen and M. Sollenberg, “Armed Conflicts, Conflict Termination and Peace Agreements, 1989-1996,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 34 no. 3