N.C.C.D. Disarmament Times

An occasional newsletter on disarmament progress in New Zealand and abroad, published by


Volume 1, No. 2, January 1999

" The world is awash with cheap and deadly Small Arms"

Madeline Albright, Nov. 1998

The Problem

1. There are one million unregistered AK47 assault rifles in Mozambique; in Rwanda three years ago the price was one chicken each; in cities in Africa and SE Asia you can hire them by the hour.

2. There was only one international war in 1998 (US/UK against Iraq). BUT in the 40 internal wars 90% of deaths and injuries are estimated to have been from small arms.

3. Small arms (light weapons) include: revolvers, pistols, sub-machine guns, rifles, assault-rifles (those AK-47s) machine guns, grenades and mortars, fuel-air explosives such as Molotov cocktails and napalm, shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, and light anti-aircraft missiles. Small arms are portable and need no major maintenance.

Where do they come from?

4. From so-called legitimate supply by governments; and by manufacturers who are given permission, or even encouraged to export, by their governments.

5. Often when a peace is negotiated many arms are kept, instead of being handed in. (This happened on a large scale in Angola, as NZ peacekeepers know.) Many are stolen from police forces and armies which do not destroy old stocks. Many are bought in village markets. Small arms are traded without documents; they usually carry registration numbers but no national registration is maintained. They are easily carried across borders: trade routes and suppliers established during the cold war have continued unchanged. How many are there? The numbers are next to impossible to calculate: there are about two million AK-47s in Mozambique; 700 (US) Stinger surface-to-surface missiles were supplied to Afghanistan; 10 million land-mines in the ground world-wide... Who makes them?

6. 300 companies in 50 countries make small arms. This is a 25% expansion in 10 years. China with 16 factories is the largest manufacturer. The technology for making them is now commonplace and there is no chance of controlling small arms by restricting supplies of materials or restricting the transfer of technology as can be done with nuclear weapons and missiles.

7. Arms manufacturers know small arms are the weapons of the present. They also expect them to be the weapons of the future and are developing new types. Small arms need not have more than 300 metre range. Because both target and shooter are constantly moving high rates of fire may be better than accuracy. Light weight is important, so is low recoil. New projectiles effective against body armour are being developed. Manufacturers are designing affordable, rugged, simple, interchange-able, modular-construction weapons. Arms manufacturers, in recession after the end of the cold war, have turned from big weapons (sold to governments) to small weapons (sold to dealers). Eastern Europe, suffering economic hardship after the cold-war, has been selling small arms at bargain prices and redundant defence personnel have become arms traders.

What do small arms do?

8. Most casualties in internal wars are civilians, up to 90% in the 1990s.

9. In conflicts inside countries, the more heavily armed faction is not certain to win; it often loses. In Ethiopia the government had planes and tanks but was defeated by the Eritrians who had only small arms. Most clashes are not over territory but over values, relationships and identities. Contending factions often split and the conflict can be between 6 or more groups (e.g., in Liberia). The upheavals often lead to migrations across borders as people flee the violence (e.g., Rwandans who fled to Zaire only a year later had to flee again, many to Tanzania). Cross-cultural conflicts spread across borders. Political and territorial victories are not permanent and spawn more warring. Internal conflicts are easier to start than to stop.

10.The indirect consequences outweigh the direct casualties. 20 people are displaced or uprooted for every person directly hit. Refugees. In 1997 the UN was looking after 20 million refugees, 4 million from Afghanistan alone, 5 million from African conflicts. Two thirds of the Somali people became dependent on food aid because of fighting in 2% of its territory. In Nicaragua 22,000 people were killed but one quarter of a million were displaced. Economic havoc. By 1987, when Latin America‘s peace process began, one third of all people were out of work, and trade was down to one third of its 1980 level with prices and exports still declining.

'Political‘ Problems

11. On-going internal wars usually involve small arms, irregular fighting, lack of clear military objectives, and no pre-set time frame for getting victory. The average age of the fighter is getting younger. The weapons are getting more efficient‘ ˜ a Stinger can bring down a Boeing 747 at take-off or landing. There are now private armies attached to the drug trade on borders impossible to monitor. In many countries small arms are a hedge against poverty since they can be easily traded for food, shelter, or transport. Rebels seldom look for non-violent solutions to problems because small arms are so easy to obtain, so cheap, so easy to hide, so intimidating, and need so little training (and no political skills) to use.

12. In more than half the internal conflicts the UN has been involved behind the scenes or up front. The most difficult peacemaking/keeping is where the country is politically and economically weak ˜ where there are few structures for peaceful resolution of tensions. There are often outside pressures: illicit help given to minorities, commodity price drops, or debt burdens. Virtually every modern state is multi-ethnic, there are 5000 ethnic groups in 185 nation states.

13. Of the measures traditionally associated with arms control, none work with small arms. Treaties, bans, legal process, cutting off raw materials, withholding technology, monitoring, and inspection teams are little use against the emotions engendered by bad government, injustice, fundamentalism... aided by a supply/demand philosophy and open borders. There is also the problem that law enforcement uses the same small arms as the rebels.

What can be done?

14. There are occasions when the UN has been able to intervene inside a country: the Central American states asked for monitoring to stabilise a peace; Mali had the UN check small arms there; the UN oversaw the destruction of arms by both sides in Angola, (NZ troops helped in the first attempts). There have been treaties, for example, there is one on Excessively Injurious Weapons which recently banned blinding weapons. Another success is the treaty banning landmines. The New Zealand Government has joined in a resolution for a UN conference on small arms in 1999 or 2000.

15. Some individual countries have taken action to get small arms under control; arms manufacturers say they are keen to help stop illicit arms sales; unilateral bans have been made on the export of certain arms (the USA has banned the export of landmines, although it has not agreed to stop using mines itself); supplies have been shut off to countries with internal fighting (e.g., Australia stopped arms shipments to PNG whilst the Bougainville fighting continued); the USA will not export small arms to Europe whilst the EU cannot guarantee where the arms are winding up; outside help has been requested for decommissioning and collecting weapons, and for de-mining by Angola, Cambodia and Laos. Better protection against theft from police and army stores, and better gun registration laws, are being attempted.

16. Politically, the critical issue in each country is to get small arms back under the authority of the state. This works particularly well when the state is functioning as a democratic government which enjoys broad public support. But it is slow, even when public support is strong, as in Ireland. Only then can the millions of small arms in the world be turned over to village blacksmiths to be beaten into plough-shares.

New Zealand

We must never allow surplus small arms to be exported without knowing where they will wind up (as we did in 1994). We must license each gun in New Zealand for a particular purpose, rabbits, deer, clay pigeons, or whatever, and see that the owners control their use.

Notes: Most of the factual material on small arms is from a UN Research paper called Small Arms and Intra-State Conflicts, Research Paper No. 34 of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. This booklet contains, as well, an Annex of small arms manufacturers named by company name, and the countries involved in manufacture.

Recent figures on conflicts and refugees are from Peace Movement Aotearoa, which has good resources for finding further facts and figures.

A good contact for the New Zealand situation is Philip Alpers, Box 90-227, Auckland; e-mail: alpers@ibm.net

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