Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Small Arms, Many Hands

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Small Arms, Many Hands

Article excerpt

An unusual mix of groups and governments braves a political minefield to curb the spread of light weapons

Lying in a hospital bed with chest and shoulder wounds, a sergeant in the Soviet Army began designing in 1941 what is now the world's most widely used weapon. Michael T. Kalashnikov had a simple objective: he wanted a sturdy gun that would combine the rapid rate of fire of a machine pistol with the greater accuracy of a rifle. And perhaps most important, he wanted a gun that could be mass produced to spare his compatriots the suffering he experienced in defending the homeland. Six years later, Kalashnikov's brainchild arrived in the form of the AK-47. With 16 parts that even a child can assemble, the gun has such notable look alikes as the Israeli Galil and the Western made M-16. The Kalashnikov family counts about 70 million guns, most of which are still in operation.

From Yemen to Sri Lanka, the world is awash in small arms and light weapons which are generally defined as those that can be carried by an individual or fired by a small crew. Small arms range from revolvers to sub-machine guns while light weapons include small mortars, hand-held or mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns and portable launchers of anti-tank and aircraft missiles.

500 million light weapons in circulation

Easy to conceal, these arms travel. Looting in Albania unleashed a wave of about three-quarters of a million weapons, the bulk of which has gone to Kosovo, according to Chris Smith, a light weapons specialist at King's College in London. Along the Namibia-Angola border, he has found an unusual group of gun traffickers, Xhosa women who buy AK-47s for about eight dollars each from impoverished Unita soldiers. They resell the merchandise in a chain of buyers reaching South Africa's Western Cape where the guns can be bought for as little as $20, down from the several hundreds they cost about four years ago. Meanwhile, Russia is "haemorrhaging" with weapons flowing throughout Europe. Further east, the Tamil Tigers have their own shipping fleet to assure supply from Burma and transit ports like Singapore, says Smith. And Kashmir and Karachi are reeling, he says, from the effects of the Afghan "pipeline" set up in the 1980s by the CIA to pump guns, missiles and ammunition to mujahideen battling the Soviet army.

An estimated 500 million light weapons are now in circulation world-wide. And another injection is likely, as states joining Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) are obligated to buy advanced weapons systems to meet the organization's military standards. Many are expected to pay for these purchases by selling off their old systems which include light weapons.

Light weapons have been largely ignored during disarmament talks. While major political powers have hammered out treaties concerning nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons, they have not even agreed on international standards for classifying or registering small arms and light weapons, let alone a UN convention concerning their transfer. And yet, they are the primary or sole tools of violence in virtually all the armed conflicts currently dealt with by the United Nations, according to Jayantha Dhanapala, UN Under Secretary General for Disarmament. Over 90 per cent of the victims of small arms are civilians, with women and children accounting for 80 per cent of casualties.

However, the political tides may be changing. An international campaign is now underway with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of all stripes and colours - disarmament and gun control groups along with development and human rights associations in the North and South - building common ground with the active support of governments like Mali, Canada, Norway and Japan. Buoyed by success in banning landmines, they are setting their sights on small arms and light weapons, despite the major differences between them. The networks for producing and procuring light weapons are far more diverse and widespread than that for landmines. …

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