Small Arms & Light Weapons: A challenge to the churches

Comprehensive Introduction to the Issues
A background document

Small arms and light weapons are not only ubiquitous but are also an old feature of international relations. The novelty in analysing small arms and light weapons is that their increasingly unrestricted availability constitutes a disturbing trend that is directly connected to a significant rise in urban violence and criminality as well as to the changed nature of contemporary conflicts especially in the last decade. The end of Cold War created the opportunity for research into possibilities of controlling small arms. These arms are not strategic and do not require a large amount of investment in maintenance, production, and stockpiling, as do weapons of mass destruction. These weapons were a priority for the international arms control community during the Cold War.

Document section titles
Evolution of the issue on the inter'l agenda
Necessity of inter'l consensus
Reasons the world is awash with small arms
Nowadays, they are overshadowed by the weapons that are in vogue in contemporary warfare and in carrying crime and violence throughout the world: from machetes and hand guns to sub-machine-guns and shoulder-fired surface-to-air (anti-aircraft) missiles. The current pace of the current arms transfers and the weapons already in existence call for urgent measures to be undertaken by the international community.1 This background document shows the reasons why the control of small arms and light weapons has become an issue in the international arms control agenda becoming one of the most pressing problems to be dealt with by the international community today.

Small arms and light weapons are those that can be carried by single combatants or by a small crew.

Small Arms:

  • Revolvers and self-loading pistols
  • Rifles and carbines
  • Submachine guns
  • Assault rifles
  • Machine-guns
  • Ammunition for the above mentioned weapons
Light Weapons:
  • Hand-held under barrel and mounted grenade launchers
  • Portable anti-aircraft guns
  • Portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles
  • Mortars of calibre up to 82 mm inclusively
  • Ammunition for the above mentioned weapons
  • Portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems, including missiles
  • Portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems, including missiles
  • Mobile containers with missiles or shells for single action anti-aircraft and anti-tank
  • Anti-personnel and anti-tank hand grenades
  • Anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.
The accumulation of small arms may contribute to destabilising internal situations leading either to the exacerbation of crime and urban violence (as in most parts of Latin America, in some parts of the United States and in South Africa) or to a blurring of the distinction between crime and warfare (as in the Horn of Africa, West Africa, and other parts of the world).

The Evolution of the Issue on the International Agenda
The evolution of the issue of small arms and light weapons on the international agenda was mainly promoted by the success of the world campaign against landmines. In addition, the process of awareness-raising towards the small arms issue has gradually been built after the publishing of the Supplement of an Agenda for Peace, calling for the urgent need for "micro-disarmament" i.e. practical disarmament in the context of the aftermath of civil wars to which the United Nations has sent peace-keeping operations to deal with "light weapons that are actually killing people in the hundreds of thousands" (United Nations former Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, in January 1995) as well as in armed conflict and violent societies throughout the world.

The supplement of An Agenda for Peace has raised concern for the least studied of the international security themes. At that moment, in 1995, and to a certain extent until nowadays, the absence of consensus regarding the nature of the problem reflected its greatest difficulty: its multifaceted nature. Whether it was a humanitarian concern, an infringement of basic human rights, or an obstruction of international efforts towards the development of certain regions, or whether it is criminality and urban armed violence problem were among the many categories that constitute the debate of the small arms issue.

Since 1995, the international community has been gradually acknowledging the necessity of shifting attention from weapons of mass destruction to small arms and light weapons.

Weapons of mass destruction are under considerable international regulation because, among other reasons, their use threatens the survival of nations. Hence, they are considered "strategic weapons" whose management came to be necessary under international agreements. During the Cold War, an extensive legal and strategic apparatus was constructed in order to address the dangers of possible use of those arms. This reality was defined by the existent ideological and political framework of bipolarity between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The dismantling of this bipolar political and ideological framework resulted in a new set of international relations where the possibility of controlling non-strategic weapons emerged. Since then, there has been a growing awareness that the weapons that are responsible for most of the killings not only in the most recent civil wars but also generally in the rising criminality in most parts of the world, are small arms rather than weapons of mass destruction, which have scarcely been used.

"For 40 years, military planning, doctrine, and force structure were dominated by the twin perceived threats of massive ground assault in Europe and deliberate, conceivably extended nuclear exchange between the two major nuclear-armed alliances. There is no coherent strategic doctrine to replace the verities of the Cold War. But it is already becoming clear that any such doctrine will have to rely heavily on extended cooperation among all or most of the principle military actors." 2
Among the several consequences of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of bipolarity has been the uncovering of latent conflicts that before were, to a certain extent, concealed under the American or the Soviet nuclear umbrellas. Therefore, it is largely acknowledged that there has been a substantial rise in the worldwide levels of criminality and urban violence as well as a change in the nature of conflict from strategic-military to ethnic-religious disputes. In both scenarios, crime or war, the weapons of choice are mostly (or only) small arms and light weapons because they are less costly, easy to transport, and use requiring little or no maintenance. Another consequence of the dissolution of the Cold War is the massive availability of "surplus" stocks which are no longer necessary to cope with the high levels of readiness created by Cold War requirements.3 This phenomenon has heightened awareness regarding the indiscriminate use of small arms and light weapons as a result of the sudden availability of weapons.

"Ironically, these surplus arms are the by-product not only of reduced military budgets and forces in the industrialised countries but also of successful arms control agreements that have required members of NATO (North American Treaty Organisation) and the former Warsaw Pact to eliminate hundreds of thousands of weapons from their inventories. This flow of surplus arms is not likely to end soon - unless preventive action is taken without delay. In the coming five to ten years a new wave of surplus weapons and ammunition into developing countries can be expected to result from the need for funds in some States of the former Soviet Union and the modernisation of arsenals in countries slated to join NATO or those aspiring to do so." 4

This means that the primary strategic motivation for arms availability that existed during the Cold War has disappeared to be replaced almost entirely by economic motivations in the international arms trade. In addition, there is a conspicuous lack of coherence in conversion from military capacities and arsenals to civilian uses among the northern industrialised countries whose irresponsible policies of direct transfer of obsolete and surplus military material is made as gifts and subsidies without any consideration to humanitarian standards.5

"The Cold War competition between two strategic alliances, in which arms were made available primarily for global political and strategic purposes, has largely disappeared. Major weapons transfers by the principal exporting States are now often motivated primarily by economic and employment benefits. Military, strategic and political factors have become secondary considerations in many instances and are sometimes completely ignored. The human costs of arms transfers have, until recently, been considered of little importance." 6

Due to the strategic concerns at stake during the Cold War, the only focus of attention was on how to control the use of nuclear weapons. Political action was constructed in response to a policy problem: to counter the danger of nuclear annihilation. The end of the Cold War did not end the nuclear danger. At the same time, numerous others concerns and uncertainties were brought to light with respect to strategic thinking and it became clear that it was necessary to enlarge the restrict concept of security that had existed during the Cold War.

"The development of weapons of mass destruction poses a real and present danger to us all, but most of the casualties resulting from conflict in the last decade or so have resulted from conventional warfare. Recent conflicts, almost regardless of where they occurred, have shared a number of similarities." 7
The weapons used in internal conflicts fall under a sensitive category, even more sensitive (though not strategic) than weapons of mass destruction due to the legitimate use of small arms and light weapons by states under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.8 Under this article, States are entitled to an inherent right of individual and collective self-defence. Moreover, the very existence and proper functioning of the State relies on the monopoly of the use of force that logically requires the possession of arms to counter internal and external threats to the existence of the State. Herein lies the main challenge in controlling small arms and light weapons: blending the necessity of curtailing the unrestricted availability of those arms within societies by controlling their transfer, while at the same time not jeopardising the security of individuals and states.

"The Security Council emphasises that the right of individual and collective self-defence recognised in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations and the legitimate security demands of all countries should be fully taken into account. The Council recognises that small arms are traded globally for legitimate security and commercial considerations. Bearing in mind the considerable volume of this trade, the Council underlines the vital importance of effective national regulations and controls of small arms transfers." 9

The Necessity of International Consensus
Today, reasonable international consensus has been already reached within the international community regarding the multifaceted nature of the small arms problem. Whether it is humanitarian concern, an infringement of basic human rights, or an obstruction of international efforts towards the development of certain regions, or whether it is criminality and urban armed violence problem, are among the many categories that constitute the debate of the small arms issue. Therefore, the problem is generally acknowledged as pertaining to the following categories:

  • Illicit trade of arms in all its aspects: manufacture, acquisition, selling, transfer, export, import, possession, use, licensing, commercial, and transportation agents, identification, and tracing, marking and registration, safe storage, confiscation and collection, destruction;
  • Urban armed violence and criminality;
  • Violation of human rights and humanitarian law;
  • Obstruction of the processes of development; Regional destabilisation and subsequent threat to international peace and security and its relationship to the changed nature of conflict.
The task of controlling small arms and light weapons is associated with the emergence of a new framework of multilateral diplomacy that will necessarily involve more actors, such as churches around the world and require the creation of a new cooperative regime.
"Unlike the major weapons systems that dominate arms trade discussions, the weapons used by breakaway groups consist mostly of small arms and light weapons: machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars, grenades, landmines, and raw explosives. Such weapons have none of the exotic appeal or engineering elegance of big-budget equipment, and their cost is almost trivial by comparison. They are disarmingly ordinary and familiar, and compared to the major weapons systems their potential destructiveness is easily overlooked. Most are based on technologies 40 or 100 years old." 10
In light of this reality, a major task for the international community is to manage to forge the same kind of consensus for light weapons that was fashioned with respect to weapons of mass destruction: consensus on the negative military/strategic consequences of their trade.11 In the case of light weapons, though, the consensus does not have to be based on the negative strategic effects of the tr ade; but rather on the political, humanitarian, and to a lesser extent, military effects.

The international arms trade in small arms and light weapons has a particularly notable feature: it changed the established pattern that had divided the international arms trade into a handful of suppliers and many recipients. In the trade of small arms, there are many more countries that can play the role of suppliers than in the trade of major conventional weapons. As noted by one of the pioneer scholars who emphasised the necessity of analysing methods for restraining the availability of small arms and light weapons, "countries like Uganda and Iran can play a greater role as suppliers than France or the United States".12

The need to deal separately with small arms and light weapons is critical because they are the weapons of choice and use in recent conflicts and are responsible for most of the humanitarian tragedies in international relations.13

The emphasis on the major suppliers of small arms and light weapons is just one aspect of the problem that must be complemented by managing the large surplus weapons that had already leaked into regions of conflict in the world and which are now being traded within and outside of these regions. It is estimated that the annual trade in small arms accounts for approximately 13% of global arms transfers.14 Therefore, small arms transfers account for roughly 10-15% of all standard government to government operations;15 nonetheless, it is estimated that paramilitary groups spend $2.5 billion to $3 billion per year on small arms. All these figures do not take into consideration that approximately 55% of the small arms trade is illegal. The United States is the leading exporter of light arms. However, this is an assumption, since the United States is the sole country that reveals its shipments; hence no comparison can be made to other States. Nonetheless, by the "sheer magnitude of the American licenses and sales, it is reasonable to speculate that the Unites States dominates the market" followed closely by Russia.16

The small arms and light weapons issue is among the biggest challenges in the international agenda today.17 This is a result not only of the nature of the problem itself but also the profound changes in the nature and character of international relations brought about by the easing of tensions between the great superpowers at the end of the Cold War. The small arms problem has become an issue in the scope of a broadened security agenda that has been evolving since the beginning of the 1990s. This new security agenda encompasses not only old concerns such as deterrence and arms control, but also matters typically emphasised in the 1990s, such as criminality and armed urban violence, population growth, resource scarcity, human rights violations, and environmental problems. Even though human rights and the environment have been developing as topics of concern since the end of the 1960s, it has only been within the last decade that they have gathered the attention they merit.

Reasons why the world is awash with small arms
A closer look into the characteristics of the Post-Cold War international arms trade reveals the reasons that made it possible for small arms to become so widespread. There are five particular noteworthy reasons. First, large amounts of American or Soviet and ex-Warsaw Pact arms were made available with the end of the Cold War requirements of high levels of military preparedness and readiness. In addition, the expansion of NATO membership placed great demands on new-member States to update their military capacities. Thus the old and surplus arsenals are accessible at cheap prices or as grants to developing countries.

Second, there are large amounts of weapons in circulation in troubled regions of the world resulting from conflicts that took place during the Cold War. As analysed in this study, large-scale American and Soviet-sponsored arms pipelines - or covert arms deliveries - fuelled Cold War conflicts. These arms are still serviceable and constitute a disturbing phenomena, referred to here as "in-region" and "in-country" circulation of arms. The third reason is the remarkable growth of the black market and private arms gun-runners. This phenomenon had begun by the end of the 1970s and slowly unfolded until the end of the Cold War, with its full impact being felt throughout the present decade. Fourth, the mosaic of arms suppliers and recipients have dramatically changed since the 1980s, when small arms suppliers were restricted to only a few countries. From the end of the 1980s, this pattern has been modified so that there is now a larger array of small arms manufacturers in over 70 countries. Fifth, the continuing pace of unregulated licit governmental transfers constitutes a disturbing trend because it adds to the scope of the overall problem.

The international community may be ready and willing to define the problem, but it has been reluctant to actually set forth appropriate measures to deal with it. This means that the international community has begun to recognise and acknowledge how the problem is shaped; however, there has been little progress in the adoption of effective measures to actually solve the problem. The measures are encouraging, especially because there have been such a large number of them that have been proposed thus far. Nonetheless, their effectiveness is yet to be tested. In the case of the control of weapons of mass destruction, it took decades for the international community to establish considerably effective measures to stabilise the nuclear arms race and yet there seems to be a great deal of dissension concerning crucial areas such as nuclear tests. Perhaps, the same long process will evolve in the effort to control small arms. Nonetheless, nuclear weapons were used once in this century. Small weapons are used everyday and everywhere, and they are continuing to be produced. Therefore, the international community should act decisively. Churches all over the world are especially placed to be part of this broad action frame.

The Necessity of Action and Implementation of Practical and Legislative Measures
Within the debate on small arms and light weapons, it is acknowledged that it is necessary to establish national, regional, and international measures to control destabilising and excessive accumulation and flow of light weapons. In addition, it is further assumed that not only legal but also practical national, regional, and international measures must be put forward. Existent and forthcoming legal instruments may contribute substantially to improved international control of these weapons, but that they can only provide partial answer to this complex challenge. New legal instruments may be desirable, but should perhaps not be the main focus of our efforts. Practical action is what is needed and a number of initiatives have already been launched.

"Small arms flow and illicit trafficking does not respect national or regional borders. Therefore, action on all levels, global, regional, national, local is required." 18

"Light weapons recognise no borders, regions or continents. They are an international problem which demands an international response." 19

This background document recognises that the most urgent national, regional and international measures to be pursued by the international community should initially include the following. The first set of measures must deal with the licit governmental trade. First, every region or economic and political community/bloc should engage in the creation of effective and strict Codes of Conduct for small arms transfers, necessarily including the respect for international humanitarian law. The European Code of Conduct is thus far the sole initiative to do so but it lacks strength and presents a series of lacunas that can be exploited by governments and gun-runners. A model international Code should be promoted to serve as an emerging norm not only internationally but regionally. Second, regional small arms registers should be put in place to enhance transparency and encourage future regional consultation mechanisms. Moreover, this would facilitate the research in the field of small arms.

The second set of measures must refer to illicit trade. The problem with small arms is to a large extent caused by illicit traffic but as well as by governmental transfers. The ongoing negotiations of the Revised Draft Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Material are representative of the urgent need to cope with the illicit trade in small arms. If approved, this will be the first global norm regulating small arms and light weapons transfers. The model behind the Protocol is the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and other Related Materials (see Annexes) that was adopted at the 24th Special Session of the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) as OAS Resolution A/53/78 on 14 November 1997. It was signed by 29 States (including the United States) in November 1997 and has entered into force in July 1998 with the ratification of two states.

By July 1999, the Convention had been ratified by Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru. The purpose of the Convention is to eradicate the illicit trafficking in firearms, ammunition, and other related materials by comprehensive clauses (Articles XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVIII, XX, and XXI) on enhancing transparency through facilitating information among States Parties. For the ratification of the Convention, States have to pass the necessary legislation to establish as criminal offences under their domestic law the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking of arms, and others. In addition, States shall provide for the marking of all produced and confiscated arms. Moreover, States shall identify a national body or a single point of contact to act as a liaison among States Parties for purposes of cooperation and information exchange. The Convention provides for several other practical and legislative policy instruments, among them a specific set of measures to control illicit traffic. The Revised Draft Protocol does not include governmental transfers. This reluctance to deal with government transactions will leave a considerable part of the problem without a solution.

The third set of measures must deal with existing surplus weapons. First, ways should be studied to implement systematic collection of weapons from societies all over the world. This collection should of course be adapted to each region's needs and characteristics. Second, governments should put more emphasis on formal conversion processes applied to industries no longer necessary to cope with security requirements as well as to the arms no longer necessary to the state. In addition, governments and civil societies should pursue ways to rely less on the armaments industries to generate wealth and create jobs.

The fourth set of measures relates to unlawful use and possession of arms. First, states and civil society should promote massive campaigns that challenge the glorification of violence; especially violent cartoons for television that aim at children and frequently depict guns as a normal part of daily life. These campaigns should also target Hollywood movies that are seen all over the world by millions of people, video-games that promote violence and destroy the parameters of morals and good judgement particularly among children. Second, states should begin to reform security institutions and police capacity building, while incorporating the small arms issue to cope with the overwhelming needs of societies threatened by the misuse of guns.

In addition, it is widely acknowledged that there is a two-folded necessity when implementing measures. First, the small arms issue is of international concern and there are some elements within the broader problem that need to be undertaken internationally such as the need to create an international convention on illicit trade in small arms in all its aspects. Second, although the small arms problem has an international character, there is a strong need not to generalise solutions to it. There might necessarily be a region-to-region approach specific to each region's characteristics. It is crucial that measures be pursued and implemented at sub-regional and multilateral levels simultaneously. This shows once more that the quest for the solution for the excessive and destabilising accumulation and proliferation of small arms and light weapons is a multi-layered problem with local, regional and international elements inextricably intertwined.

Since the Secretary-General's call for micro-disarmament until the present, less than five years have elapsed. Thus, it has apparently been a relatively rapid process for the international community to reach agreement on the four dimensions proposed in this study. Nonetheless, the case studies indicate that there are large inconsistencies and discrepancies concerning the creation of measures to tackle the overall problem. Evidently it will take more than five years to bridge the differences between what the international community perceives and estimates as the problem and how it devises effective mechanisms to actually cope with it. When making the call for micro-disarmament, the then United Nations Secretary-General was right: the search for solutions to this problem will take many years; therefore, research and action should start now.

Licit Trade Illicit Trade Existing Surplus Weapons Unlawful Use and Possession of Arms Specific Post-Conflict Instruments
Transparency Safe and Accurate Storage Buy-back Programs or Systematic Collection Capacity building / Reform of Security Institutions Enforced Consensual Disarmament
Small Arms and Light Weapons Register Number of customs/Strengthen borders Conversion Addressing social conditions that promote male attitudes of support for violence Respect to Peace Accords
Authorisation Regime Weapons seizure missions Early warning indicators Challenging the glorification of violence by the mass media Reintegration of Former Combatants
Conditionality Coordination of different national agencies Control of ammunition Peace Education Confidence Building Measures
Code of Conduct        
Ban Certain Types of Weapons Increasing State Accountability Register Integration of the overall issue of small arms in the work of the police, and other agencies Destruction of Arms
Embargo Early warning indicators   Creating norms of non-possession  
Moratorium Regional Consultation Mechanism      
Marking Strengthen criminal law      
Stigmatise states in violation of international norms Strengthened Police      

The inventory shown above was made after a methodical collection of all policy instruments referred to in the research material, primary documents, and research articles and papers that have thus far been proposed by the international community. This includes measures proposed both regionally and internationally by policy makers and relevant researchers, who are attempting to find solutions and policy actions to strengthen the control of the flows of small arms and to halt the circulation of already existing weapons. These measures include both policy ideas that have only thus far been discussed in the literature and also actual policy measures that have been taken in some parts of the world. Therefore, the inventory includes both theoretical ideas about policies to address the small arms problem as well as practical measures already applied in some part of the world.

  1. 'International community' here includes: states, international organizations, churches, non-governmental organisations, grass roots movements; i.e. all groups involved in the making of actions to address a problem which local dimensions may have regional and international implications.
  2. Chayes and Chayes, "The UN Register, Transparency, and Cooperative Security", p.199 at Malcolm Chalmers, Owen Greene, Edward J. Laurence, Herbert Wulf, Developing the UN Register of Conventional Arms, Bradford Arms Register Studies number 4, 1994.
  3. Surplus Weapons, according to the Bonn International Center for Conversion, in its Conversion Survey 1997, "Global Disarmament and Disposal of Surplus Weapons" p. 60 - 65, are defined as weapons which are officially declared excess to military requirements by a State's political or military authorities. Few governments officially declare what they consider "surplus". They usually put them in storage without deciding for years, sometimes, what to do with them. The Bonn International Center for Conversion regards the "surplus" weapons problem as one of the main features of the unrestricted availability of small arms and light weapons. Therefore, it is a surplus weapons proliferation issue to conflicting areas, see p.147.
  4. Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict - a study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, June 1999, p. 18. Commissioned by the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva December 1995. See as well, Abdel F. Musah and Robert Castle, Eastern Europe's Arsenal on the Loose: Managing Light Weapons Flows to Conflict Zones; BASIC Papers Occasional Papers on International Security Issues, May 1998, Number 26.
  5. Idem, p. 17-18.
  6. Idem, Ibiden.
  7. Lloyd Axworthy, "Now for a New Diplomacy to Fashion a umane World", Herald Tribune, 21 October 1998.
  8. Edward J. Laurence, The New Field of Micro-Disarmament: Addressing the Proliferation and Buildup of Small Arms and Light Weapons, p.16.
  9. Security Council, S/PRST/1999/28, 24 September 1999: "Statement by the President of the Security Council", p. 2.
  10. Aaron Karp, "Arming Ethnic Conflict", p.8.
  11. Edward Laurance, "Addressing the Negative Consequences of Light Weapons Trafficking: Opportunities for Transparency and Restraint", in Lethal Commerce, p.148.
  12. Michael Klare, "Small Arms - the New Major Weapons", in Lethal Commerce, p. 19.
  13. P. Wallensteen and M. Sollenberg, "Armed Conflicts, Conflict Termination and Peace Agreements, 1989-1996, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 34, number 3. They made a research on 101 conflicts between 1989 and 1996 showing that small arms and light weapons are the weapons mostly or sole used.
  14. According to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, cited in Michael T. Klare, "The New Arms Race: Light Weapons and International Security", see bibliography at the end of the Chapter for the full reference of this article.
  15. These figures were compiled from World Watch Institute, IANSA website:, International Committee of the Red Cross, The Norwegian Red Cross, OXFAM, Institute for Security Studies, at Update, Saferworld, Summer 1999, 23.
  16. Lora Lumpe, "U.S. Policy on Small Arms/Light Arms Exports", op.cit., p. 13.
  17. Knut Vollebaek, "Small Arms - Great Challenges", The Fridtjof Nansen Memorial Lecture, 12 October 1998, Peace Palace, The Hague, p.1.
  18. Winrich Kühne, in Consolidating Peace Through Practical Disarmament Measures and Control of Small Arms - From Civil War to Civil Society, 3rd International Workshop, Berlin, July 2-4, 1998, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, reporting the general opinion of the participants from all over the world who participated in this workshop.
  19. Paul Eavis, "Awash with Light Weapons", The World Today, April 1999, p. 19-21.

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