Bonfire of the Armouries

By Poulton, Robin-Edward | The World Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Bonfire of the Armouries


Poulton, Robin-Edward, The World Today


It is not an easy task to rid former conflict zones of small arms and light weapons. They can't be bought because that encourages a market, so why not offer development programmes as incentives? If schools and water supplies follow weapons bonfires, who can deny that peace is on the agenda?

THE COLD WAR CREATED STOCKPILES OF SMALL arms which fuel wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Surplus stocks from the former Soviet Union are flooding the illegal arms market. The issue dominates the European Union internal security agenda, as heavily armed mafia groups from Serbia, Croatia and Albania move into northern Europe.

But the illegal trade also supports traffic in drugs and gems, women, children, human organs, and political corruption. These activities spawn transfers of real and counterfeit money in such vast quantities, that they threaten to undermine democracy and the world's financial systems. The lowest money laundering estimate for 1996 - of $590 billion - is equivalent to the total output of an economy the size of Spain.

Small arms and light weapons are loosely defined as `firearms and explosives which can be carried by one or two people (or on a mule) and which require little maintenance: They are cheap to buy, simple to transport, easy to conceal. Since World War Two, seventy million Kalashnikov rifles have been manufactured in fourteen different countries. They will be with us forever: there are only sixteen moving parts in a `Kalash: They say you can replace the firing pin with a two-inch nail, although a nail will not allow the AK-74 - the 1974 version of the original AK-47 - to fire at the advertised 650 rounds a minute!

The destructive power of the Kalash - or the American M16, the Belgian FN FAL, the Israeli Uzi and their terrible cousins - explains the colossal casualties reported by organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross. 3.2 million people are estimated to have been victims of such weapons between 1990 and 1995; up to eighty-five percent were civilians, compared to fifteen percent of World War One casualties. Very many of them were women or children.

The majority of armed conflicts in the 1990s took place not between nations states, but between armed groups fighting within - or across - national frontiers.

The awesome firepower of modern military weapons, and their easy availability, turns a handful of hoodlums into a terrorist threat. It is this, as much as political changes since the end of the Cold War, which has transformed the nature of armed conflicts and made the task of peacekeeping so much harder.

NO PEACE TO KEEP

UN peacekeeping operations were designed to keep enemies apart and those enemies were usually nations. Often there was great success, with tension reduced between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Israelis and Syrians in South Lebanon, Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir. But recently the UN has been summoned to intervene where there are no dividing lines, and no peace.

Fighters in Sierra Leone, for example, move haphazardly around the bush and cross the Liberian and Guinean forest frontiers where their cousins live and farm. Opposing factions embrace gunmen from the same villages. There is no clear dividing line. Peacebuilders in such circumstances must address the causes of conflict, among which there is always illegal arms brokers and easy access to firearms and ammunition. Such was the situation during the armed conflict in northern Mali in the first half of the 1990s. which few remember because the country avoided civil war, and it disappeared from the western press.

An armed rebellion was launched by Tuareg exiles, against a western-supported corrupt military regime. The dictator fell and democratic elections brought a more competent and less corrupt government to power. The peace agreement was negotiated by leaders of civil society. It led to political and economic decentralisation, and a regional moratorium on the trade in small arms. …

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