//Small arms: the global trade in life and death

Small arms: the global trade in life and death

By Jeremy Lovell, Tue Jun 20, 2006 8:26am ET10

LONDON (Reuters) – From Africa to Bosnia, back to Africa and on to the Middle East — the often secretive flow of guns and bullets follows the world's cycle of wars.

In the middle are the faceless brokers who have facilitated the multibillion-dollar trade since the 1950s and 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union used go-betweens to arm their allies to fight the Cold War by proxy.

"Small arms in Europe are not as cheap as they used to be at the end of the 1990s … partly because the initial flood of weapons from former East Bloc armories has slowed down," said one European arms broker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from his small, tight-knit community.

"But there are still ample supplies left around. For AK-47s particularly all the old East Bloc countries still have some surplus new weapons and, of course, there are lots of used ones," he told Reuters.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, unleashed not only a flood of cheap arms but also the giant aircraft needed to carry them to wars in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

From the steamy jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the dangerous streets of Baghdad and the drug-ruled favelas of Rio de Janeiro, guns acquired illegally spread terror, contribute to poverty and halt development.

Ahead of a United Nations meeting in New York from June 26 to July 7 to discuss this global trade, calls are growing for tighter regulations — especially on the activities of brokers.

"Arms supply networks are increasingly sub-contracted and increasingly opaque and out of control," small arms trade expert Brian Wood told Reuters.  

"Some of the drivers of the international arms trade today are individuals with laptops, mobile phones, air tickets and shell companies. They travel around," he said.


The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a group of agencies including Amnesty International and Oxfam, estimates the global gun trade is worth around $4 billion a year, of which up to $1 billion may be illicit.

Prices for guns vary enormously from the $350-$400 per new Kalashnikov with three magazines, quoted as an example by the broker, to anecdotal stories of the same rifles changing hands for a tenth of that price in African war zones.

And if guns are available, they will be used.

"In places like northern Kenya, we are seeing pastoralists using AK-47s to dispute access to the diminishing number of watering holes, whereas in the past they might have talked it out or at least used less lethal means," said Anthea Lawson, a spokeswoman for IANSA.

"It used to be said that the main victims of gun violence were women and children. That is not true. It is young men who are both the victims and the perpetrators," she said.

IANSA wants countries to draw up global standards to regulate the international transfer of weapons and gun possession among civilians. It also wants to incorporate armed violence prevention into development projects and funding.

"All guns start as legal weapons … what happens after that (is) where the trouble begins," said Lawson, adding that 60 percent of guns were in civilian hands.

"Less than 40 countries have any laws regulating arms brokers — and most laws exclude extraterritoriality. That allows the brokers to operate with impunity because they rarely touch or take ownership of the arms," she said.


In a May report, Wood said weapons were increasingly either destined for or diverted to countries under arms embargoes or to insurgent and criminal groups. Complicating the picture, governments are cutting their armed forces and relying on private suppliers to transport their weapons with few controls.

This movement tracks mayhem.

"At the outset of the Bosnian civil war, the first flow of weapons was from Lebanon — where the fighting had slowed — to the Bosnian Muslims facing a well-armed Serbian army," the European arms broker said.

In his May report, Wood said that after the war some 200,000 of those guns were shipped on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense to Iraq for the new army, with at least one shipment going astray, probably ending up with insurgents.

"Iraq and Afghanistan are sucking in arms. The Middle East is a big problem," the arms broker said. "Sudan is very active too — but they have also built up their own production."

The United States is the biggest exporter of guns followed by Italy, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Russia, China, Britain, Austria and Japan, according to IANSA.

But then there is a vast gray area, not only with nations or their proxies trading third-party weapons but with others subcontracting production elsewhere in the world.

"A country like China can argue it doesn't need to control arms because all its production is for domestic use. But it licenses manufacture in countries like Zimbabwe and those guns are then sold across the continent," said Lawson.

Wood said the United States also had "a loose interpretation of what they think are ethical transfers of arms."

"They are basically out to get former Eastern bloc — Warsaw Pact — equipment as cheap as possible to the people they regard as their allies," he said.

"Sometimes they are armed opposition groups like the Northern Alliance (in Afghanistan) and so on, and they have been using over the last decade or more the cheap surpluses in the Balkans — Albania, Bosnia, Serbia — and they have used other people in the region to move it," he said.

The United States says it is committed to stemming the flow of illicit arms. Earlier this month, the State Department said the United States had demonstrated this commitment through national practices and diplomatic engagement around the world.

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