Magazine article New Internationalist

Small Arms, Big Trouble

Magazine article New Internationalist

Small Arms, Big Trouble

Article excerpt

NEWSPAPER headlines sometimes pass you by. I remember reading something a few weeks ago and thinking 'how odd'. But I didn't give it more attention than that until suddenly the news began to fill the pages of all our local newspapers.

The story was about scrap dealers in Delhi and elsewhere in whose yards bits of scrap metal suddenly started exploding - in one place the explosions actually killed a few workers. As the mystery unravelled it became clear that the scrap had come from Iran and Iraq and was actually the leftovers of war - metal shells, spent bullets, bits of shrapnel and so on. Not surprisingly it included some live ammunition.

The first explosion took place in a scrapyard, the second in a rubbish dump. The men who died were not even remotely connected with the wars from where these leavings came. They were poor workers, struggling to keep their lives together by earning a meagre wage. When death came, it left their families defenceless, resourceless and hungry. Who would have thought the long arm of war could extend so far?

But it does. Wars are no longer confined to those places where they are fought or to people who actually fight them. They cross boundaries, infiltrate people's private lives, create fear and insecurity. And then people look for ways to feel more secure - some go out and buy guns, others hire security companies. And some, who cannot afford either of those, make up self-styled militias, using whatever weapons come to hand.

About the same time that I read those newspaper stories, I found myself browsing through The Small Arms Survey of 2004, a recently published document which reveals some startling statistics. Today there are at least 1,259 companies in more than 90 countries manufacturing small arms and light weapons. As production increases, managing stockpiles of small arms becomes a major problem and theft is rampant. The Small Arms Survey estimates that every year around the world at least a million firearms are stolen or lost from government armouries and from private homes. When wars end or well-armed governments collapse, these figures shoot up dramatically - as in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi people were said to possess between seven and eight million small arms.

But it's not only that small arms are bought and sold. It's also that when there's excess, as after the US attack on Iraq, countries in the South provide convenient dumping grounds. Weapons find their way to us through legal and illegal routes and end up fuelling small wars and insurgencies. …

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