The Christian Science Monitor
Headline: Up in arms
Byline: Laurent Belsie
They were billed as "key chains," "fountain pens," and "first-aid kits"
on the export documents. About the only clue to their real identity was
the curious notation: "electrical volt unit." When US Customs officials
opened the packages to look inside, they found stun weapons and
powerful liquid pepper sprays on their way to Russia.
That 1996 illegal arms shipment eventually led to convictions. It also
highlighted what officials around the world know all too well: Millions
of illegal arms are streaming through a shadowy network of traders and
brokers to equip rogue armies, independence movements, and anyone else
who can pay top dollar.
And these guns and grenadeskill far more civilians, more
indiscriminately,than the high-profile, big-ticket missiles, planes,
and tanks that usually make the headlines. By shining a bright light on
this illicit small-arms market, activists hope to reform a system that
has spun out of control. Some want to spark a morality debate over
exports of larger weapons. Slowly, the world begining to listen.
In the small-arms arena, "there's absolutely no debate about these
weapons," says Ed Laurance, director of the program for security and
development at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in
Monterrey, Calif. "These are weapons that aren't necessarily controlled
by governments. It's a profitmaking situation."
Some observers blame the West for the current state of affairs. "There
is no excuse for the disregard for human life and dignity that allows
leading democracies such as the United States, France, and Great
Britain to fuel bloody conflicts by supplying warring factions with
armaments," says Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica
and winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. "The world expects the US to
... be a moral superpower."
US has half of world market
And yet, the US remains the largest arms exporter with half of the
world market. In 1997, Mr. Arias says, US arms were used in 39 of the
world's 42 ethnic and territorial conflicts. Other experts blame the
growth in the illegal gun trade on the end of the cold war.
Inan ironic twist, the end of that nuclear standoff of weapons has only
made part of the world safer.Overall, arms exports have fallen by a
third, andthe developed world, where the missiles were pointed, can
breathe a sigh of relief. But at the same time, the number ofsmall
conventional arms in thedeveloping world -everything from rifles to
grenades to portable surface-to-air missiles - has gone up.
During the cold war, the superpowers equipped organized armies that
fought other organized armies. Now, those weapons are landing in the
hands of gangs, individuals, even children, who are much more likely to
"During the 1990s, millions have died in armed conflicts and in their
immediate aftermath," write Brian Wood and Johan Peleman in their 1999
book, "The Arms Fixers" (NISAT). "Most of the victims have been
civilians. And most of them have been killed by small arms such as
automatic rifles, submachine guns, grenades, and other weapons that a
single person can easily carry and use."
Without large governments overseeing these exports any more, control
has passed to a shadowy network of private, freelance arms brokers
whose main aim is sales.
"It's a free-flowing market with more concern for profits than the
impact it will have on the people in their recipient countries," says
Tamar Gabelnick, director of the arms-sales monitoring project at the
Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Theinflux of free-market armshas made life hard for ordinary citizens,
particularly in Central Africa. In 1996, the World Bank estimated that
armed conflict in Africa was responsible for poverty of at least 250
million people there - nearly half the continent's population. Just
last month, a United Nations Security Council delegation sharply
criticized Liberia's presidentfor interfering in his war-torn neighbor,
Sierra Leone. According to allegations, Liberia is supplying guns to
Sierra Leone's rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, in exchange
for diamonds dealt by the renegades.
"Suppliers are not reluctant to re-supply parties located in areas of,
or even involved in, conflicts, whether allies, friends, or old or new
customers," concludes the Military Expenditure and Arms Production
Project, a nonpartisan monitoring group in Sweden.
The weapons come from all over: the US, Russia, the European Community,
China, Israel, South Africa, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries,
whose arms exports represent one of their few sources of desperately
needed hard currency. Sometimes the governments know what's going on,
arms-control experts say. Often, they don't.
Consider the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. According to the authors of "The
Arms Fixers," the main foreign brokers and shippers who brought in the
weapons were based in Britain, France, and South Africa. They employed
networks of collaborators in places such as Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria,
Egypt, Italy, and the Seychelles.
"The dealers evaded the inadequate national arms control laws in their
home countries and disguised the routes of their deliveries, choosing
to operate where there were shaky customs, transport, and financial
regulations so as to make their activities as 'legal' as possible," the
To its credit, the US has tight restrictions on who can broker arms.
But in Europe, by and large, dealers come under little scrutiny as long
as the arms they deal don't actually cross the country's borders. Thus,
many arms brokers live in Europe and don't run afoul of the laws.
New weapons don't represent the largest challenge;used models do - ones
left over from wars or stockpiled because of reduced threats, says Mr.
Laurance. Many of the weapons are so durable, they keep popping up in
new wars decades after their manufacture.
In 1997, for example, American agents intercepted the largest illicit
arms shipment ever found en route from the US to Mexico. The shipment
included M-2 automatic rifles originally left behind in Vietnam by
American forces. They had traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore
to Bremerhaven in Germany to Long Beach, Calif., on their way to
Mexico. Thus, one of the big issues countries have to tackle is how to
systematically destroy their stockpiles of small arms.
Next July, the United Nations will host its first-ever conference on
the subject - a meeting that has raised hopes that an international
consensus is growing.
While an international agreement on small-arms exports looks possible
next year, the prospects of similar restrictions on big-ticket arms
exports remain murky. Concerned that the Clinton administration
reversed a ban on Latin American arms sales that had been in place
since President Carter, Arias three years ago proposed an international
code of conduct on arms transfers. He got 18 other Nobel Peace
laureates to endorse it, but so far nothing has come of it.
Since late last year, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations has
beenreworking the document to make it more acceptable to the countries
that might sign it. Under the agreement, arms-exporting nations would
agree to stop selling arms to undemocratic regimes and those
responsible for gross human rights violations or armed aggression that
violates international law.
Still, the movement faces an uphill battle because competition for arms
sales has grown fierce and no country wants to take steps that would
cut sales. "If you can do anything multilaterally, we don't have a
problem doing that," says Joel Johnson, vice president for
international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, a
Washington, D.C., trade group. But "we tend to think any multilateral
agreement you could reach probably wouldn't go as far as our own
Nevertheless, regional groups including the Organization of American
States and the European Union have hammered out some guidelines for
arms sales. Twice a year, the 35 states that participate in the
Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls meet to share information
about arms sales they've made. And the US is broaching the idea with
allies of a broader set of arms-export principles.
In some ways, activists hope to build a grassroots campaign similar to
the one that eventually pushed through the international ban on land
mines. "We're trying to seize on that momentum," says Greg Puley, human
rights and arms-control project coordinator for the Arias Foundation,
based in San Jose, Costa Rica. "But this is much more challenging."
(c) Copyright 2000 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.
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