Dr. Peter Lock
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Dr. Peter Lock
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Small Arms: A Challenge to World Peace
Policy Paper 17 of the Development and Peace Foundation
I. Small Arms: A Challenge to World Peace
Since the end of the Cold War, the topic of small arms has been amongst leading items on the international agenda. In the media, not a week goes by without there being reports of armed conflicts or gunmen running amok somewhere in the world. Pictures of such events always feature small arms, mostly automatic rifles, or the immediate effects of their use. Children maimed by mines, women and children fleeing, and child soldiers are favoured subjects for photographs from far-off theatres of armed conflict.
The conclusion is obvious: armed internal social conflicts are currently the most prevalent form of war. The robbing, maiming, raping, and murdering that goes on in them is carried out mostly with small arms, and almost invariably with great cruelty. These 'new' wars are generally heralded by a long phase in which the state's monopoly on force gradually collapses and economic cycles are informalized and criminalized. They are therefore mostly open processes, without a clear beginning or end. The demarcation between combatants and the civilian population generally remains blurred. The civilian population is at once instrument and victim.
In such a scenario, the existing instruments used by the international community to settle disputes no longer work, because, from the point of view of international law, key conflict-actors have ceased to exist. In conflicts of this kind, humanitarian law is routinely ignored by the actors involved. In the area of humanitarian aid, there is a constant threat that aid will be appropriated as booty and that aid-workers will be taken hostage. As a result, we are increasingly seeing a situation in which no kind of humanitarian aid at all can be given, or can only be given at the cost of indirectly taking sides.
The real nub of the problem, however, is the illegal circulation of small arms. Easy illegal access to small arms, together with a reliable source of ammunition, is an essential precondition for the whole spectrum of manifestations of armed violence. At the present time, these conditions seem to be satisfied in almost every corner of the world. Control on the movement of small arms is therefore being increasingly hotly debated at the most diverse political levels.
What Are 'Small Arms'?
In general parlance, the term 'small arms' has become accepted as an umbrella-word. But a number of distinctions have established themselves in the course of the various international negotiations in this area.
General Characteristics of Small Arms
II. Political Initiatives against the Abuse of Small Arms
By the end of the Cold War, civil society had already responded to the ineffectiveness of international instruments and to the ignorance which non-affected governments showed in regard to the Holocaust-like humanitarian crises, by setting up a whole host of relief organizations. These organizations denounced the failures in question and in some cases deliberately ignored the bodies of rules governing inter-state relations, in order to be able to provide relief. Their names were often tantamount to political programmes: 'Médecins sans Frontières', 'terre des hommes'. However, having become involved in conflict regions, they came to the bitter realization that even after open hostilities had ceased, reconstruction and economic self-reliance had to contend the obstacle of the millions of landmines that had been laid, mostly in arbitrary fashion, over the territories in question. Anti-personnel mines were used by the million, not least because they were the cheapest form of weapon. The peculiar insidiousness of this type of small arm lies in the fact that it works outside the time-frame of actual hostilities. Their impact on the civilian population—who do not have the resources needed to free themselves from this scourge of war—therefore inevitably continues for many years. Because of this, since the end of the Cold War, numerous non-governmental organizations, mostly in the Western industrial countries and in a few particularly severely affected developing countries, have been vociferous and unrelenting in their call for a general ban on these types of mines.
The concern of broad swathes of civil society put international disarmament-diplomacy under pressure to extend humanitarian law to include a ban on anti-personnel mines. However, the attempts by the relevant Geneva-based UN Disarmament Committee to draft an appropriate binding resolution failed because of the procedural requirement that such a resolution should command the support of all the members, currently numbering 66. In many countries, the armed forces still insist that anti-personnel mines are indispensable.
In response to this, a number of states particularly affected by this issue got together, under the leadership of Canada and Norway and with the committed support of Germany, and decided on a step that represented a new departure in international law. Working outside the United Nations, they began by drawing up an agreement providing for a comprehensive ban on anti-personnel mines, and this was opened for signature in Ottawa in 1997. As early as March 1999, the convention came into effect in international law, having been signed by the requisite number of states. Up to now, however, quite a number of states, among them none other than three members of the Security Council—Russia, the United States, and the People's Republic of China—have failed accede to the convention.
In addition to all this, the uncontrolled spread of small arms has destroyed any hope that, following the end of the Cold War, the UN would finally be able to fulfil the peacekeeping and peacebuilding tasks laid down for it in its Charter. Given the ease with which high-performance small arms can be obtained illegally, the risks of such missions have become too great and too unpredictable for a sufficient number of governments to be prepared to supply the UN with the contingents needed for peacekeeping operations. Only very recently, several hundred blue-helmet troops were ambushed and held hostage in Sierra Leone.
IIn contrast to the situation with anti-personnel mines, in the case of small arms, there is no possibility of securing agreement on a comprehensive worldwide ban. The numbers that circulate illegally and get into the wrong hands make up only a small proportion of total stocks. The aspect—the only one—that does matter, however, is the illegal availability of small arms. And that availability, moreover, only becomes critical where there is a latent or acute danger of the arms being utilized to wield power. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that a weapon is only of use in combination with the right ammunition. Small arms have a long life, it is true; ammunition, on the other hand, is a non-durable good. Strategies designed to contain the spread of small arms should therefore devote particular attention to ammunition.
Notwithstanding the continuing problems, the success of this extra-UN initiative against anti-personnel mines has helped bring about a situation in which, despite fundamental reservations on the part of many states, the United Nations has now instituted negotiations, in various sub-bodies, aimed at securing measures, or an actual convention, restricting the illegal availability and proliferation of all types of small arms. Outside the United Nations, practical steps have also been instituted by the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The UN disarmament section, for its part, has identified a need for the various activities to be co-ordinated and has established a UN agency named CASA (Co-ordinating Action on Small Arms).
The two most important internal UN procedures for achieving a binding restraint on the illegal availability of small arms worldwide are:
In addition, UN bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have elaborated various activities relating to small arms. Reflection in most cases centres on the problem of how the mass spread of small arms out of the legal sphere and into illegal transborder circulation can be prevented through improved control/monitoring of international flows of trade.
Working in parallel with the initiatives launched by international organizations is the 'International Action Network against Small Arms' (IANSA), set up by non-governmental organizations. Its aim is to combat the abuse and illegal spread of small arms, and it sees itself as a champion of global civil-society interests. So far, however, the press and lobby work done by IANSA—some of it extremely professional—has not been able to disguise the fact that the network is a long way from being as broadly anchored within society as was the campaign against landmines. In 1997, the campaign and its initiator were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
III. The Pressure of Supply
Despite the naturally high transaction-costs involved in illegal supplies of small arms, large quantities of pristine, high-performance weapons of this kind are on offer cheaply all over the world. Various generations of decommissioned weapons are already circulating on the black markets, and it is likely that weapons and, in particular, ammunition, are continuing to make their way out of current production-circuits and into illegal circulation.
Amongst the older generations of weapons illegally roaming the world are huge stocks left behind by the USA in Vietnam and later sold offshore. Much larger still is the contingent of weapons which the USA and Soviet Union supplied to their respective allies in so-called wars of liberation prior to 1989. Thus, the Soviet Union pumped a number of African states full of small arms, whilst the CIA alone is reputed to have infiltrated approximately 400,000 Soviet-style automatic rifles into Pakistan, for onward dispatch to the Mujahadeen. Nowadays these weapons find their way, as surely as do rivers to the sea, to any illegal customer with 'greenbacks' (US dollars) to offer.
The arsenals of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were stuffed full with light infantry weapons. Up to now, however, the only weapons in the small-arms domain to have been disposed of through destruction are anti-personnel mines. In the case of other excess stocks, an attempt has been made to eliminate these 'legally' by selling them off at throwaway prices or by giving them away, but this move has had only limited success. At the same time, in many transforming countries in the east, the ministerial bureaucracies and armed forces were often poorly remunerated. As a result, in the wars in the Caucasus, for example, only a modest input of criminal effort was needed to secure access to those items in the arsenals that were in demand in exchange for dollars on international black markets. The oversized arms- and ammunitions-factories in Bulgaria also figure as a major source of illegal supplies of small arms in investigative reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch. In the Warsaw Pact set-up, which was based on the principle of the division of labour, Bulgaria had specialized in the production of small arms and infantry equipment, inter alia for export to the Third World. The country is evidently continuing to supply the international black markets in those areas.
Most of the highly risky logistics involved in large-scale illegal transfers of weapons are managed by airline companies registered as accommodation addresses in a few small states of dubious repute. The aircraft involved usually comes from Soviet military stocks and had made its way into these companies' possession by some shady route. The maintenance crews and flight staff are recruited from amongst discharged military personnel from states in the former Soviet Union, particularly the Ukraine. In addition, small arms are infiltrated into conflict regions through petty trade. For traders operating between regions, it can be very profitable to include a few pistols and some ammunition amongst the civilian goods they have on offer. There are, for example, reports of West African women market-traders carrying on this kind of 'Ameisenhandel' ('ant-trade') between Monrovia and Freetown.
It is not known how many small arms there are in the world. A large proportion of existing stocks are held by state bodies, on the basis that they will be used to fulfil tasks such as ensuring external security and maintaining the legitimate monopoly on force. Others are in private ownership, with national regulations in this area showing wide divergences. In Britain, private ownership of firearms was severely curtailed following an incident a few years ago in which a gunman ran amok. In most states in the USA, on the other hand, the acquisition of firearms involves only minimal conditions. It is estimated that about half of all small arms in the world are privately owned by American citizens.
Unfortunately, there are currently few solid indications of any reduction in the pressure of supply. The pool of potential helpers whom criminal players can persuade to carry out the necessary logistical services will remain inexhaustible for the foreseeable future. Again, the older stocks of weapons and ammunition which criminal energies can tap into all over the world, together with current output in low-wage countries, are likely to continue to outstrip illegal demand for a long time to come. The price of the small arms currently produced in high-wage countries—relatively high by comparison—will probably prevent these arms making their way into illegal circulation. Only a marked increase in prices on the black markets would indicate that the situation was beginning to change.
IV. The Social Causes for the Demand
Demand for illegal small arms can only develop where the state's monopoly on force is ineffective. Areas such as this exist in every society, often only as small niches. Where the state is weak and corrupt, or where social polarization has assumed extreme proportions, areas in which there is gang-based territoriality and a system of violent arbitrary rule very often turn into zones of all-out violence, in which the acquisition of arms by private individuals inevitably takes on a dynamic of its own. Economic activities ultimately slide completely into informal or criminal spheres. Spirals of state collapse such as this are constantly in danger of escalating into armed internal social conflict. Against this background, a more precise account is needed of the economic cycle within which the demand for illegal small arms takes shape.
In trying to locate the causes of the demand for illegal weapons, the child soldier is a useful point from which to begin rolling up the thread. The tools of his trade—an automatic rifle and cartridge-belt—are worth at least the average annual per capita income in the society which he terrorizes with them. The purchase of the weapon is not financed from his own wages or that of his family. This piece of equipment represents an investment by a third party who reckons to earn a greater return from placing the weapon in the child-soldier's hand than from investing his capital elsewhere.
Because weapons-transactions on the black market are only conducted in hard currency, the purchase or import of the automatic rifle must be preceded by some sort of export-transaction that brings in foreign currency. It must therefore be possible to identify the point of entry, into the global economic cycle, of goods or services that produce the kinds of returns that actually make the demand for illegal small arms on the globally intermeshed black market possible in the first place. In seeking out that point, attention must be focused on the particular black economy concerned or on the international stolen-goods network through which items are infiltrated into normal economic channels.
If we remove the masks, often of an ethno-political nature, from the behind-the-scenes operators—essentially barons of war—it becomes clear that their motive in investing in violence is to safeguard and extend the black economy. The core element of this economy is often violent robbery, with the result that many armed internal social conflicts give the impression of being permanent states and of having modes of production regulated by violence. The globally intermeshed black economies can be assumed to prosper accordingly. International embargoes generally have little effect, because, of their very nature, they remain confined to normal trade. When a country has been, quite literally, plundered by the barons of war, or indeed even before this stage, humanitarian aid also falls into the firing-line of their processes of reproduction, culminating in the kidnapping of aid-workers for the purposes of extracting ransom-money.
V. Globalization and Neoliberal Economic Policy
The reports of the various, currently neoliberal-oriented, agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, whose task is to regulate economic globalization, cannot obscure the fact that at present, in large sections of the world, globalization is marked simultaneously by economic growth and state collapse, coupled with social polarization within societies and between states. In a situation of tension such as this, armed conflicts and zones of all-out violence begin to take shape within societies. A wave then goes out from these zones to the globally intermeshed black market for small arms.
It has long been a matter of controversy within the social sciences whether the violent escalation of conflicts into internal social wars is attributable to social inequities or to the greed and grievances of a handful of actors. The answer to this question determines what measures the international community, and also aid organizations, might reasonably take in order to counter the armed violence.
In fact, however, globalization is made up of three interconnecting spheres:
These three areas are each linked to the others, so that an actor in the criminal sphere is able, through the intermediary of fences, to introduce his products into the normal goods-cycles, with appropriate discounts. Conversely, legally produced small arms make their way into criminal circulation. The medium of exchange in each case is the dollar. It is illusory to suppose that the informal and criminal spheres are largely confined to particular regions. In fact, they spread out unstoppably, like mist, infiltrating what appear to be fully regulated economies. In the areas of drugs, illegal labour, human traffic, smuggling, and money-laundering alone, there is ample proof of the global dimensions of the networks involved.
It is wrong to view the problem of small arms primarily as a development issue simply because most internal wars are located in the Third World. The ongoing illegal proliferation of small arms reflects the dangerous dynamic of 'parallel' globalization processes. One precondition for developing effective strategies to counter the uncontrolled spread of small arms is to acknowledge that the current processes of globalization have an inherent tendency to exclude large sections of the population from the normal economy. This economic apartheid in its turn unleashes destructive energies.
VI. Social Exclusion and Violence
In many transforming countries and a good number of developing countries, the economy is dominated by informal sectors and criminal actors. This goes hand in hand with the implosion of state structures. Those who form part of the state apparatus become highway-robbers to civil society. Their greed stifles any entrepreneurial initiative aimed at self-help. If a society has got itself into a situation where the façade of state authority, appropriated by the forces of economic criminality, and the protagonists of that authority, produce a feeling of generalized insecurity, the regulatory systems of civil society dissolve and are replaced by structures based on self-defence. Rival militant identities take shape, mostly based on the notion of the exclusion of others. They are the cause of recurrent conflict within the internal political process.
Mass flight and emigration—generally by the most productive individuals—are the rule in such situations, and they further blight the chances of overcoming the all-enveloping informalization and criminalization of economic activity. The diaspora that quickly takes shape in the wake of crises, and which initially lives mainly in illegal conditions, ensures survival in the crisis regions by providing support. Examples of this are: the Lebanon (all groups), Kosovo (Albanians), Sri Lanka (Tamils), Chechnia (Chechens). At the same time, however, the diaspora provides a human infrastructure for lucrative illegal transactions of every kind. It is the diaspora that regularly fills the war-chest in cases of armed conflict. This is the case, for example, in Northern Ireland (Catholics) and in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenians).
All over the world, crises and civil wars have led to the formation of transnational human-resource networks, some of which have already achieved global scope. In each case, only a tiny élite secures legal status in the diaspora. The total number of people involved is difficult to estimate. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees gives the total number of displaced persons and refugees in the world as approximately 50 million. But the number of people living illegally in foreign countries, hoping to secure survival or a better life, is much greater than this. The total very probably runs into the hundreds of millions. These people constitute an important blackmailable resource for managing the grey or criminal spheres of the globalization process—spheres that have long since ceased to be confined to traffic in drugs and human beings. Even in states governed by the rule of law, these people often live in the shadows, beyond the scope of the law. In most cases, their precarious existence is dominated by hierarchies underpinned by violence. The state monopoly on force operating in the host country has no impact on their sphere of existence. Economically, they form a solid part of the relevant national economy, but they are excluded from political participation.
Whether it be ghettos of socially dependent minorities in the metropolises of the industrial nations, the huge poverty-stricken zones that surround every large city in the Third World, or abandoned industrial centres in the former Soviet Union: the experience which the inhabitants of these places have of state authority is essentially that of living in a collapsed state. In these 'exclaves of economic and social apartheid', parallel social structures take shape. The monopoly on force is held by territorially organized gangs, which—like nation-states—settle border disputes by armed force. Protection money replaces taxes. Silence vis-à-vis the prosecuting authorities mirrors the loyalty of the citizen in 'normal' society. For these people, the core community 'outside' is the diaspora. These 'internal' migrants play the same role here as was described above. They contribute to the survival of their family in the 'exclave'. But at the same time, they are a resource for, amongst other things, arms and drugs trafficking and other risky activities in demand in the black economy. Anyone who is poor has no choice and accepts criminal risks.
Historically, the present time will probably be described as an age of mass youth unemployment. The economic (dis-) order that is currently unfolding in line with the neoliberal paradigm has nothing to offer the majority of the world's young people when they reach working age. There is no role for them, either in the present-day 'regular' economy or in traditional rural structures. These latter are in the process of disintegrating all over the world. The modern sector cannot absorb the up-and-coming generations into the labour force: it is part of the logic of global competition that rationalized, capital-intensive production-methods and marketing strategies should ultimately triumph on the markets.
All over the world, a large part of the rising generation of workers is thus being involuntarily driven into the no man's land of informal economies and is thereby becoming an inexhaustible resource for any and every kind of (economic) criminal. A clear example of this dilemma is provided by the present situation in Algeria. Algerian society, like many societies in the Third World, is a very youthful one. About half the population is less than 15 years old. It is estimated that at present about 60 per cent of those looking to enter the job market for the first time are unemployed. There is no prospect of any improvement. The young people in question (if male) are known as hitistes ('those who prop up/lean on the wall'). They are always on the look-out for a chance to do a good deal on the trabendo circuit—casual smuggling, mostly with France—or to bolster their identity, and thus also their existence, by some other means, mostly within the grey area of the informal economy or through services to criminal circles.
In many countries, more than half of all young people belong to this excluded group. In situations such as this, devoid of any prospects, having the use of instruments of force such as an automatic rifle becomes an extremely attractive proposition: with a weapon in his hand, for the first time in his life a young man has the experience of being respected by others—even if the sentiment in question is actually sheer terror on the part of the person under threat, perceived as respect. Force exerted through an automatic rifle becomes the means of resisting social exclusion. Force promises access to the world of industrial mass consumption—to which there is constant media exposure, even in the furthest corners of the world.
Political wheeler-dealers with criminal economic interests who operate in civil-war scenarios make cynical use of the impulsive urge of young men to take up arms to defend themselves against exclusion from the legal production-sphere and from society. Hence, at bottom the phenomenon of the child soldier in the Third World has more in common with youth-gangs in highly industrialized states than the mostly separate discussion of these two social pathologies would suggest.
The never-ending civil wars are fuelled, amongst other things, by the total exclusion of the rising generations in the context of state collapse and of whatever economic catastrophes underlie the particular situation. The best way young men can participate in society is as 'soldiers'. Moreover, the chances of survival are probably much greater than in the chaos of the civil societies paralysed by the war. Working as a 'soldier' is therefore not just highly attractive to rootless young men; in the jargon proper to the economistical point of view, it is also a 'rational choice'. And in the background there is always a dealer in violence, who is hoping to derive some profit for himself by equipping children and young people with efficient instruments of violence such as automatic rifles. In order to counter the disastrous dynamic of mutual interlinkage and reinforcement between the individual aspects described, a broad spectrum of far-reaching, simultaneous political steps are needed.
VII. Restricting the Illegal Availability of Small Arms: Elements of a Political Agenda
The efforts being made at various intergovernmental levels to ensure comprehensive control on procedures relating to inter-state trade in small arms have reached quite an advanced stage. This being so, only one further measure relating to export controls is proposed here. The remainder concern other aspects.
We therefore suggest the following:
The response of the international community to armed conflicts should be aimed at an immediate reduction in violence. This requires a radical rethink. We should not, for example, see a repetition of the situation where young men are prevented from fleeing from a war-zone. This was what happened at the start of the war in Bosnia, when young men at the border in Austria were fetched out of the refugee trains and sent back into the war. Armed violence results from the combined activity of man and weapon. And yet, in current armed internal social conflicts, it is precisely in the task of halting illegal flows of weapons that the international community fails. The only immediate measure available, is therefore the option of enticing young men engaged in fighting away from the war-zone by offering them an alternative blueprint for life, and of offering protagonists in the violence the prospect of a safe life and job training. This approach focuses on building up a post-war civilian society; it operates with the same rationale as that underlying in-country opt-out programmes for individuals from the hard-right scene. In practice it means immediate asylum for all 'deserters'. Such asylum should be organized and financed by the international community, even within the region concerned. Implementing such an approach may be difficult, but to prove it is possible would at all events be easier than proving the contrary: young men who return to fragmenting/fragmented societies with no such alternative life in view, will routinely gear their personal chances of advancement to the war economy—in other words, they will be forced to participate in it again. This is the vicious circle that has to be broken.
© Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden, May 2001
Selected Policy Paper titles (Published both English and German unless otherwise stated. Current issue price DM 5.00)
16 Multilateralism vs. Unilateralism. Cooperation vs. Hegemony in Transatlantic Relations. By Franz Nuscheler, January 2001
15 Conflict Transformation. How International Assistance Can Contribute. By Mary B. Anderson and Angelika Spelten, December 2000 (only in English)
14 The World Conferences and German Politics. A Contribution to Global Governance? By Brigitte Hamm and Thomas Fues, November 2000
13 Towards a Paradigm of Embedded Financial Liberalization. Interlocking the Wheels of Private and Public Finance. By Inge Kaul, December 1999 (only in English)
The views presented are not necessarily those of the publisher.