Lethal commerce: the global trade in small arms & light weapons

Jeffrey N Boutwell, Michael T Klare, Laura W Read (eds)

By Bob Baxter (reviewer) | 1996-03-01 12:00:00

This is a collection of nine essays by 10 scholars, five from the U.S.A. and one each from Canada, Colombia, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. They are presented under three headings: the new prominence of small arms and light weapons; small arms and regional conflicts; and controlling the global trade in small arms.

Small arms are rifles and hand guns. Light weapons can be roughly defined as weapons that can be carried by an individual or by a small truck over bad roads and do not require a professional army for their use and maintenance. In addition to small arms they include antipersonnel mines, light mortars, various types of antitank and surface-to-air missiles and the like. Such weapons are especially useful for guerrilla fighters and other irregular troops.

I read this book with a kind of fascinated horror, and it haunted my dreams afterwards. The fascination arose from the fact that the book opens a window onto a world of total madness that I had scarcely believed existed outside the minds of some of the more imaginative contemporary novelists. The arms business, R.T. Naylor writes, is inherently dirty. Even open, legal transactions within a country are likely to be associated with bid-rigging and fraud, and legal international transactions commonly involve pay-offs to procurement officials. It is therefore not to be wondered at that clandestine and illegal transactions occur in a milieu of forged cargo manifests and end-user certificates, of arms shipments concealed in seemingly innocent cargoes, of arms exchanged directly or indirectly for drugs, for rubies and diamonds, for teak. In this deranged world, arms shipments may change hands as many as fifteen times before they reach their intended recipients, with some leaking away at each transfer; security forces capture arms from militant insurgents and sell them back to them; the Kalashnikov arms factory designs a rifle for the use of women. This is the world of traffickers in contraband of all kinds, of ethnic extremists of every description, of right-wing terror squads, of paramilitary organizations and militias, of mercenaries and the gun culture and the sick romanticism of Soldier of Fortune magazine. It is only too clear that nothing one may hear about the arms trade can be dismissed as too far-fetched or too wicked to be given credence.

The horror comes from the realization that this world does exist, and brings untold suffering to countless innocent people. It is made worse by the realization that behind the shadowy and sinister figures of smugglers and gunrunners stand respected and supposedly honorable men in many countries who have permitted and facilitated the movement of arms throughout the world. This has been done with a seemingly total disregard of the immediate effects and long-term consequences of their actions.

During the Cold War both super-powers and their allies provided both light and heavy weapons to their clients. Thus during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Americans covertly shipped large quantities of arms, especially Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifles, to the Mujahideen through Pakistan. The operation was coordinated by the CIA and carried out by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). Large quantities of other weapons followed, from a variety of sources. The CIA exercised little or no control over the disposition of these weapons once they had been turned over to the ISI. Following the Soviet withdrawal the whole region was flooded with these arms which found their way to armed groups throughout the whole sub-continent. Something similar has happened in Colombia. Here weapons sent to Central America in support of various insurgencies and counter-insurgencies have made their way into the hands of the drug lords, various guerrilla groups, and with even more deadly consequences for the people of Colombia, common criminals and people who amuse themselves by driving around in lower class neighborhoods shooting individuals whom they see as socially undesirable.

Even worse was what happened in Angola during the civil war, which broke out when the country became independent of Portugal in 1975. Here the United States and the Soviet Union fought what amounted to a proxy war, providing arms and training to the different factions. Official military aid by the United States was legally discontinued from 1976 to 1986, but supplies continued to be sent by private agencies during this period. It is hard to see that either side could have hoped to gain any very significant political or strategic advantage from this; indeed the Americans at least aimed less to achieve a victory for their own clients than to exhaust the resources of the other side. Probably the Soviet Union was similarly motivated. In any case they kept the war going for years with both light weapons and conventional heavy weapons. The toll in human life was appalling; as many as half a million people were killed in the period from late 1992 to early 1994 alone, and some 40% of the survivors have been left crippled. If fighting should break out again there are enough arms to continue the war for years.

When the Cold War ended, and even more after the GulfWar, traffic in heavy weapons decreased, and efforts were made to subject it to international control. No significant effort was made, however, to control the distribution of light weapons, except for anti-personnel mines, yet these are the chief instruments of deliberate violent death at the present time. Indeed, the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia provided particularly favorable conditions for the traffic in light arms. The ethnic conflicts that broke out among several of the former members of the two federations were of a type for which these weapons are highly suitable. At the same time, arms manufacturers in the former Soviet Union, unwilling for political and military reasons to close arms factories, continued production. With the weakening of controls on the traffic in arms, it was easy for these weapons to make their way to practically anyone who was prepared to pay for them. No doubt arms from other countries also entered the black market.

Can anything be done to limit this lethal commerce? It is true that as long as gross economic disparities exist throughout the world, people will resort to violent means to rectify them. Moreover, countries need small arms for protection against external attack and the maintenance of internal order, which most of us would regard as perfectly legitimate activities, so the manufacture and sale of these weapons can never be abolished entirely. It is also true that in some parts of the world, South Asia in particular, control of traffic in light arms will have little effect on the level of conflict because countries there already have all the light weapons they can absorb. These will not wear out or break down for a long time, so an attempt to control the flow of spare parts would be equally useless. (Ammunition is another matter, so this is a possible area of control.)

This said, it remains true that limiting the flow of light weapons must be one part of any plan to reduce the amount of violent conflict throughout the world. The current concern about anti-personnel landmines indicates that this is not impossible. Arms embargoes to areas of threatened or actual conflict, and negotiated disarmament as part of peace settlements seem feasible if policy makers can be shown the dreadful consequences of unregulated trade in light weapons. The inclusion of light weapons in the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms might contribute to this. This scholarly and disturbing book deserves to be widely read, pondered, and acted upon.

Reviewed by R. M. Baxter, a retired research scientist living in Burlington.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1996

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1996, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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