Spring 1998 Update

Progress begins on controlling trade in light arms

In an article in the Fall 1995 Issues (“Stemming the Lethal Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons”), I urged that increased international attention be given to the problem of unregulated trafficking in small arms and light weapons. This trade, I argued, had assumed increased significance in recent years because of its insidious role in fueling ethnic, sectarian, and religious conflict. Although heavy weapons are occasionally employed in such conflict, most of the fighting is conducted with assault rifles, machine guns, land mines, and other light weapons. Hence, efforts to control the epidemic of civil conflict will require multilateral curbs on the trade in these weapons.

Although I was optimistic that this problem would gain increased attention in the years to come, I assumed that this would be a long-term process. In recent months, however, the issue has gained considerable international visibility, and a number of concrete steps have been taken to bring it under control.

Several factors account for this rise in visibility. Although a number of major conflicts have been brought under control in recent years, the level of human slaughter produced by ethnic and sectarian violence has shown no sign of abatement. Recent massacres in Algeria and Chiapas have demonstrated, once again, how much damage can be inflicted with ordinary guns and grenades. Efforts to contain the violence, moreover,

have been stymied by recurring attacks on UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers.

Recognizing that international efforts to address the threat of ethnic and internal conflict have been undermined by the spread of guns, a number of governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have begun to advocate tough new measures for curbing this trade. Most dramatic has been the campaign to ban antipersonnel land mines, which reached partial fulfillment in December 1997 with the signing of an international treaty to prohibit the production and use of such weapons. (The United States was among the handful of key countries that refused to sign the accord.)

Progress has also been made in curbing the illicit trade in firearms. In November 1997, President Clinton signed a treaty devised by the Organization of American States (OAS) to criminalize unauthorized gun trafficking within the Western Hemisphere and to require OAS members to establish effective national controls on the import and export of arms. A similar, if less exacting measure, was adopted by the European Union (EU) in June 1997, and tougher measures will be considered at the G-8 summit this summer.

Further steps were outlined in a report on small arms released by the UN in September 1997. The result of a year-long study by a panel of governmental experts, the report calls on member states to crack down on illicit arms trafficking within their territory and to cooperate at the regional and international level in regulating the licit trade in weapons.

No one doubts that serious obstacles stand in the way of further progress on this issue. Many states continue to produce light weapons of all types and are unlikely to favor strict curbs on their exports. But the perception that such curbs are desperately needed is growing.

The priority, at this point, is to identify a reasonable but significant set of objectives for such efforts. Unlike the situation regarding land mines, a total ban on the production and sale of light weapons is neither appropriate nor realistic, as most states believe that they have a legitimate right to arm themselves for external defense and domestic order. Rather, the task should be to distinguish illicit from licit arms sales and to clamp down on the former while establishing internationally recognized rules for the latter. Such rules should include a ban on sales to any government that engages in genocide, massacres, or indiscriminate violence against civilians; uses firearms to resist democratic change or silence dissidence; or cannot safeguard the weapons in its possession. And, to provide confidence in the effectiveness of these efforts, the UN should enhance transparency in the arms business by including light weapons in its Register of Conventional Weapons.

Michael Klare

Cite this Article

Issues, . “Spring 1998 Update.” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 3 (Spring 1998).

Vol. XIV, No. 3, Spring 1998