Stemming the Lethal Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons

By Klare, Michael T. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Stemming the Lethal Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons


Klare, Michael T., Issues in Science and Technology


The world must regulate trade in light mortars, machine guns, and other light munitions that are fueling the destructiveness of today's wars.

Since the end of World War II, arms control negotiations have focused almost exclusively on major weapons systems. Fears of nuclear war or a clash between the superpowers spurred agreements restraining the production of weapons of mass destruction and reducing stockpiles of major conventional weapons - tanks, aircraft, warships, and the like. There has been little effort, however, to control the weapons that represent the principal means of violence in most wars being fought today: small arms, landmines, mortars, and other light munitions.

The demand for light weapons is soaring as the nature of warfare changes. According to the 1994 Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, all 34 of the major armed conflicts under way in 1993 were intrastate conflicts, involving combat between state security forces and antigovernment insurgents or among competing ethnic, religious, and tribal militias. These conflicts produced hundreds of thousands of casualties, and even higher numbers were recorded in 1994. Rather than being fought by organized military forces equipped and trained for large-scale international combat, these kinds of wars are usually conducted by paramilitary units, ethnic militias, and other irregular forces that are normally equipped with whatever arms they can carry with them or transport into an area using pack animals or light aircraft and vehicles.

Arms control experts have only recently begun to stress the need for new controls on the trade in small arms and light weapons. In a January 1995 report to the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali announced his intention to concentrate on "micro-disarmament," which he defined as "practical disarmament in the context of the conflicts the United Nations is actually dealing with and of the weapons, most of them light weapons, that are actually killing people in the hundreds of thousands." Controlling or limiting access to light weapons, although difficult, is an essential step toward reducing armed conflict and global insecurity in the post-Cold War era.

Different kind of war

It has long been assumed that light weapons play a relatively minor role in combat, with the decisive role accorded to major weapons systems. This was certainly the case in World War II and in more recent clashes between the major powers, such as the successive Arab-Israeli wars and the Persian Gulf conflict of 1991. But interstate conflicts of this sort have become rare, whereas there has been a marked increase in insurgent, separatist, and sectarian conflict. Major weapons systems have played a relatively limited role in these conflicts; instead, light weaponry has often determined the outcome of battle.

In Somalia, General Aidid's forces prevailed over UN peacekeepers with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades; in Kashmir, Muslim separatists with AK-47s have fought the Indian Army to a standstill; in Sri Lanka, the similarly equipped Tamil Tigers have driven off numerous government offensives. So long as they can obtain adequate supplies of ammunition (an AK-47 can use up huge quantifies of bullets), irregular forces armed with light weapons can seize and hold large pieces of territory, expel despised ethnic groups, and dictate the terms of any long-term political settlement.

The fact that light weapons have played such a key role in recent conflicts does not mean, of course, that the presence of these weapons was the cause of war. The ethnic and sectarian conflicts of the post-Cold War era have their roots in historical disputes over the division of land and other resources, in the legacies of colonialism, and in tangled issues of statehood and governance. But the sheer abundance of arms now in circulation, coupled with the formation in many societies (including, now, the United States) of paramilitary organizations and armed militias with extremist ideological, ethnic, and religious affiliations, has greatly facilitated the initiation of armed hostilities in areas of tension and the perpetuation of violence once hostilities have broken out. …

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