Conflict & Justice

Q & A: Small arms not a black-and-white issue


The dead person lies on the ground after a clash between gangs in Guadalajara, Mexico, Sept. 18, 2012.


Hector Guerrero

Experts say the growing proliferation of small arms around the world is making ongoing conflicts more fatal and contributing to human rights violations. The value of authorized international transfers of small arms and light weapons reached $8.5 billion last year, according to one study — more than double the estimate from 2006. Many believe violence on the ground is getting worse as a result. Or is it? Keith Krause, program director for the Small Arms Survey, which conducted the study, says the answer isn't so simple.

GlobalPost: What's changing in the proliferation of small arms?

Keith Krause: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a surplus of loose weapons, particularly from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe where countries were reducing their militariesbut also from Western Europe. Many of these weapons were making their way to conflict zones in Africa. This caused a lot of concern and led states to think about dealing with this issue in a multilateral way. The fear was that if we didn’t take some steps to deal with this issue it would lead to uncontrolled proliferation.

Now many of these countries have good control systems in place. There is a tighter regulatory system, if not a set of global norms. The concern has shifted to weapons that are already in circulation like stockpile security and security of military and civilian stock in the global south — sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America — which is now probably the biggest source of leaked weapons to armed groups and terrorists.

Which are the areas of greatest concern?

It’s clear, for example, that arms from China and ammunition from Iran flows into conflict zones in East Africa. We know this from weapons that are seized and found when a conflict ends. What we don’t see is a lot of new weapons flowing into these areas, so it’s clearly weapons that come from surplus stocks that may have been demobilized several years ago and were kept in warehouses and are now sold legally or otherwise in the global south. We’re seeing a recirculation of these weapons.

In West Africa, one conflict will end and then you’ll discover that the weapons show up in individual combatants, sometimes en masse in a neighboring country that has tensions and the conflict will flare up there. That happened in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire. It was only a year ago that Cote d’Ivoire had a significant amount of violence.

Has anything surprised you about trends in small arms proliferation?

The actual loads of weapons are diminishing. I’d use the metaphor of water flowing through a municipal pipe system. There were several leaks in the system which are slowly being closed off. So, overall this is better.

But it doesn’t take very many weapons to create a lot of problems. Consider a rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that may have signed a peace deal but wasn’t happy with the terms. You may have between 2,000 and 10,000 armed soldiers. That’s not a lot of weapons, globally, when most states have arsenals that are in the hundreds of thousands or millions. But the paradox is that small numbers of weapons in the wrong hands can be enough to start a civil war.

Are you optimistic matters are heading in the right direction?

Yes, I think so. The international instrument that focuses on small arms is called the UN Program of Action, it looks at trafficking and small arms. Over the last 10 or 12 years, we’ve seen a lot of improvements. Countries in Eastern Europe — like Ukraine, for example — that have large surpluses of weapons used to try to find customers for them as soon as possible. After all, they have a value. Now they’re getting international assistance to destroy hundreds of thousands if not a couple of million of these. Some of that assistance is coming from NATO. If I had said 15 years ago, ‘You know, NATO will be involved in destroying surplus weapons in the Ukraine,' people would have laughed.

Some countries in Africa have realized that one of the biggest sources of insecurity is weapons leaking from their own stocks. So they’re getting international assistance to do very simple inventory control and stockpile management, so that 100 percent of their weapons stay where they belong. This makes a difference.

It’s not a problem that needs a global approach necessarily because in each particular case you can come up with some measures that will minimize the risk of diversion to the wrong hands and over the past decade we’ve seen literally dozens if not hundreds of those kind of steps.

But according to the 2012 Small Arms Survey, the value of the small arms and light weapons trade has more than doubled to $8.5 billion. Surely that's not an encouraging sign.

I know lots of journalists and others say 'the problem is getting worse' and in some areas perhaps it is. But the overall picture is better, and very seldom does one write about the places that were very violent 10 years ago, but are much less so now. Most of West Africa is relatively peaceful. The Democratic Republic of Congo is having troubles, but the violence is localized compared to 5 or 6 years ago. Even Sudan is considerably less violent than, say, in 2002. So overall, things are improving, and regulation of small arms and light weapons proliferation is one part of the puzzle. But there's still much to be done to reduce the future risk of conflict and large-scale violence.

What other big concerns do you have?

Some of the more violent places in the world that also happen to have the highest rates of gun death are in Central America, Central and South America. They’re more dangerous than most war zones. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador.

Right now, Central America has some of the highest levels of violence around the world, but there aren't that many weapons. What there are, though, are drug gangs that use violence to achieve their goals and to do so quite ruthlessly. In that respect, there’s clearly a problem and I don’t think that’s one you can tackle only by dealing with the issue of small arms. You have to deal with drug-trafficking organizations and you have to make sure you have proper and adequate police forces.