The Christian Science Monitor

Headline:  Up in arms

Byline:  Laurent Belsie

Date: 12/07/2000

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

kill civilians.

"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

authors conclude.

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.

Unilateral restraint?

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

unilateral restraints."

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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