Small Arms in Intractable Conflicts

In the age of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the vast majority of all warfare continues to be conducted using conventional weapons: machine rifles, grenades, landmines, explosives, and light rockets. These small arms, and the ability to obtain them, are the operational means of warfare. The much-touted efficiency of "high-tech" warfare based on computer-guided rockets and remote-controlled war machinery has been generally successful only as bombardment[1] in advance of ground-based attack which ultimately depends on soldiers wielding hand-held weapons. Thus, even when blessed with unlimited war capability and unlimited weaponry options, militaries such as those of the United States and Russia depend on small arms to subdue populations and control territory. So do guerilla revolutionaries and those defending themselves against their own violently abusive governments.

This essay will consider the issue of the global trade in small arms, examining its scope, its global economic underpinnings, its relationships to the economies of conflict- plagued countries, its particular connections to the current war in Sudan, and finally possible initiatives for reform of the global small arms trade.

The Scope of the Problem

As recently as World War II, the ability to prosecute war depended on developing the industrial capacity to produce these "small arms." During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union provided conventional weapons for their respective client states fighting "proxy" wars. The high-geared military-industrial economies of the two leviathans have stimulated France, China, Germany, the UK, Italy, Ukraine, and Israel to compete in the lucrative worldwide business of weapons export. In 2002 these nine weapons-selling countries exported $14.8 billion in conventional weapons to the rest of the world. Forty percent of this staggering volume of weapons flows from Russia; 27% is shipped from the USA.[2] The USA, UK, and France earned more in small arms sales to developing countries in 1998-2001 than they gave in aid.[3]

The gigantism of this industry renders it a force in national economic policies. It is in the national interest of these nations, to some degree, to promote violent conflict and war around the world. As is apparent in the case of Sudan, the economic leverage of the weapons industry, including the small arms industry, may determine whether major first-world nations support or impede peace processes in war-torn countries. This positive self-interest that weapons-supplying first-world nations have in the negative interest -- the active destruction and resulting impoverishment -- of third-world nations is a very dark side of the economic colonialism that typifies neo-liberal economic globalization.[4]

Classic game-theory analyses of arms race determinants assume arms development and production to come at the expense of a nation's economic well-being.[5] While that may actually be true in terms of benefit to an entire nation's economy, it is always true that war yields positive economic benefit to national military industries, and that military industries hold disproportionate power over their governments' decision-making processes.

In result, the world is flooded with weapons, and the potential to pursue violence is immediately and endlessly available to all. As Mary Kaldor notes, "violence is increasingly privatized both as a result of growing organized crime and the emergence of paramilitary groups."[6] There are reported to be more than 639 million small arms in the world today; in the case of South Asia, 80% are in civilian (non-governmental) hands.[7]

The availability of small arms is further assured through the worldwide financial deregulation that is a cornerstone of neo-liberal economic globalization.[8] The deregulation of financial transactions has effectively rendered the financing of war exempt from national or international governance. Arms merchants and, significantly, diaspora supporters of civil conflicts are easily able to move funds instantly and covertly behind the screens of small states specializing in such banking services, thanks to the blessings of deregulated economic globalization.[9] Weapons procurers are similarly enabled to operate with impunity, even when supplying arms illegally to the perpetrators of humanitarian crimes and genocides. Even when legal "controls" are in effect, sales and movement of small weapons to parties in conflict can proceed unabated. The illegal arms trade is estimated at more than (perhaps much more than) $1 billion per year.[10] Conflict entrepreneurs -- weapons manufacturers, gun-runners, merchant middle-men, and the weapons users themselves-- profit both from the supply of weapons and from their use in protracted conflict.

During the Cold War massive supplies of conventional and more sophisticated weapons systems were pumped into client states by the Cold War powers, providing vast stores of machinery for ensuing post-Cold War wars. Weapons fed into the Afghanistan and Cambodian conflicts have been the foundation of supply for current South Asian violence. Massive supplies of weapons supplied to the Congo and Angola wars provided the stockpile for succeeding West African wars. [11] The killing lives of such weapons may last many years. During the Cold War, the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) operated as the Western self-regulation of which weapons and technologies were to be restricted. By 1989, however, the appeal of economic gains effectively overwhelmed security concerns. CoCom was disbanded in 1994,[12] and first-world weapons producers have since fed arms to parties in conflict with unrestricted, free-market eagerness.

The Social and Economic Impact of Small Arms in Warring Nations

Small arms trade plays a prominent role in the economies of nations at war, and particularly in intrastate conflicts. The availability of small arms makes war possible, and their continuing availability fuels the protraction of war.[13] War economies require continuing violence for sustenance.[14] In many protracted civil wars, the availability of weapons exceeds that of soldiers, leading to the mushrooming prevalence of child-soldier "recruitment" by kidnapping (Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere).

Thus, the small arms market helps to drive the diverse disabling economic and social effects of war. Wars fed by small arms supply divert economic investment and energy from normal productivity, and suck up resources otherwise available for domestic services and infrastructure[15] (education, health care, social welfare, and productivity-related infrastructure like roads, energy provision, and water supply). "War interrupts, and indeed reverses, economic development."[16] War destroys physical and social capital, and erodes what Sen calls the "capacities" and "entitlements" of people's lives.[17]

Small arms warfare is intimately connected to poverty and arrested economic development in conflict-affected areas. Agriculture suffers both from the loss of opportunity to work in fields and from the weapons themselves, especially land mines. Looting and the ruination of croplands are common tactics. Commerce suffers as well; necessary safety, reliable transportation, and open communication become extremely difficult in areas infused with small arms. Industry and international trade suffer for all these reasons, plus the increased risks of loss to combatants. The stability of government and policy, required for the smooth function of economies, suffers in the presence of active violence. When war concludes, conflict-damaged societies must then face the economic burdens of both weapons disarmament and disposal and the education and employment of habituated combatants

The ready availability of small arms enables conflict economies of robbery and looting, extortion systems, and kidnapping. Lives lost to small arms violence are a major economic loss to societies torn by conflict, with long-reaching adverse effects on the economic function of families and communities. Small arms violence results in major dislocations of refugees and internally-displaced persons, who are rendered both severely needy and unable to be productive. And the supply of small arms stimulates drug-running and other smuggling economies. Finally, when active warfare abates, the presence of abundant small arms and abundant ex-soldiers fosters the escalation of crime rates and the development of organized crime that has been a virtually constant sequel to recent wars.

Even the ability of outside humanitarian donors to ease the suffering of people in conflict-infected regions risks being hijacked for economic gain by warring groups empowered by small arms. In many situations, armed independent gangs or unofficial militias derive significant funding from regular looting or "taxation" of humanitarian aid providers.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999).