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Ending the Small Arms Trade
Alex Steffen, 2 Jan 07
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The spread of small arms -- weapons like automatic rifles, mortars and landmines -- drives much of the instability that retards progress towards a sustainable world.

These weapons directly kill over 300,000 people each year, but as we've discussed before, direct deaths due to violence are merely the tip of the iceberg: violence also leads to the collapse of essential survival systems, spreading disease, hunger and privation and undermining victim's efforts to meet their needs in the future. Indeed, some argue that stopping conflicts can do more to help the world's poor than aid or trade reforms. Around the world, from Iraq to Darfur, the ready availability of cheap, powerful weapons is a dire problem.

Small arms are so readily available because of the massive trade in small arms, much of it illicit. Gunrunning is incredibly profitable, and many supposedly legitimate arms frequently find their way through smuggling channels into the hands of horrible men. Often those weapons are manufactured in places like the United States and Russia, sold legally to a middle man, and then transported for resale in conflict zones across the developing world (PDF).

This trade not only puts deadly weapons in irresponsible hands, it also fuels corruption and facilitates the black market for contraband like blood diamonds (and thus terrorism). The arms trade is bad news.

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to start negotiations on a treaty designed to bring the arms trade under control.

This is a profoundly positive development, in its own right, and may well lay the groundwork for a curtailment of the arms trade. We don't yet know what will be in the treaty, of course, but we know something about what should be in it. The five main goals of the Campaign Against Arms Trade are widely thought to be the most effective measures we can currently pursue:

end government subsidies and support for arms exports; end exports to oppressive regimes; end exports to countries involved in an armed conflict or region of tension; end exports to countries whose social welfare is threatened by military spending; support measures, both in the UK and internationally, which will regulate and reduce the arms trade and lead to its eventual end.

We know that peacemaking is possible, especially if new approaches are embraced (and perhaps somenew institutions strengthened). Peace, in turn, can provide the platform for progress. Ending the arms trade is a major step down that path.


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These weapons directly kill over 300,000 people each year,

Not trying to get all Second Amendment on you (I am not a member of the NRA, promise) but the weapons don't directly kill anyone the people who pull the trigger do.

Getting rid of the weapons won't eliminate the problems you're talking about; many of the deaths in Rawanda were from edged and blunt weapons.

Posted by: Brian on 2 Jan 07

That is true, Guns don't kill people, people kill people. But a person with an M-16 kills a lot more people that a person with a machete

Posted by: Martin Walsh on 2 Jan 07

Sure would be nice if we could get the arms trade under control, but color me skeptical: take CAAT's first four goals and lop off the word "end" and you've basically got the business plan for much of the US "defense" industry.

Good luck and godspeed to the UN on this one, but I expect that the US will play the spoiler just like it did with Kyoto. Makes me wonder how much longer it will be before we get that rogue nation status we've been working so hard for.

Posted by: Hank on 2 Jan 07

But a person with an M-16 kills a lot more people that a person with a machete

Maybe? Depends on how skilled you are. And how motivated.

The real goal of the UN ought not to be 'the arms trade' but the end user. Consider how well the Drug War has worked for the US. It hasn't.

You can't just enact legislation when the demand is this high. People want rifles and if they can't get them from Colt then people will discover that anyone with a modest amount of skill and a machine shop can turn out a rifle, mortar or landmine.

Reduce the demand by making everyone wealthy and the violence should decrease. Maybe that's my hopeless optimistic side but I don't think so.

Posted by: Brian on 2 Jan 07

Seems to me that, if the guns hadn't killed those people then:

1) Starvation or disease (or filthy water, lack of sanitation, etc.) would have (in many of those countries) or

2) We would have another 1/3 of a billion people on a planet already too crowded to contain it's population.

These issues can't be addressed in a vaccuum. People who have what they believe is a just cause to hate one another will fight.

Taking away their guns is not the solution, taking away their poverty, hunger, lack of education and healthcare and especially their feelings of helplessness *is*. every year, 6.5 million *children under 5* die of starvation.

Now there is a problem. Guns are a small issue, comparatively, and a harder one to solve.

Posted by: Shawn on 2 Jan 07

Guns are, of course, a symptom more than a cause. To end fever, treat the underlying infection. Guns are fever.

Posted by: David Foley on 2 Jan 07

But, thinking further, this is a great cause. What if you really want to end small arms trade? What if you're willing to address actual root causes to do this? Ending gun violence, like ending hunger, forces us to address deeper underlying causes. So it's actually a great idea - if we really mean it.

Posted by: David Foley on 2 Jan 07

Actually, the guns make all those other problems worse and more difficult to solve:

It might be convenient (within the political discussion of the US) to believe that the availability of cheap small arms is not a root cause of big problems, but as I understand it, essentially all of the research out there says otherwise. Lots of guns around make all the other problems in a struggling society worse.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Jan 07

Lots of guns around make all the other problems in a struggling society worse.

With respect, you're not going to eliminate small arms. No one is going to be able to make a dent in the manufacture, sale, distribution or use ... as long as people feel they need them.

It's a grand idea - but prohibition does not work, ever. Get at the underlying causes first and the 'gun' problem takes care of itself.

Posted by: Brian on 3 Jan 07

A person with an M-16 holds a greater power of potential violence. I was in the DRC two years ago; on the roads are endless "checkpoints" manned by "soldiers" demanding toll fees (though, thankfully, my group travelled in USAID vehicles and were little harassed). One certainly reacts differently on the road to men with rifles than a group of guys with agricultural implements.

All throughout the country, there are armed groups of men with automatic weapons and some manner of uniform (so one never really knows if these are "legitimate" government militia or a group of thugs in uniform). Also, many of these weapons are new; I saw few cobbled together Kalashnikovs or re-cycled rifles from some past distant war. Somehow, though the DRC lacks any sort of formal trade infrastructure, violent people are able to gain access to new weapons and ammunition. (And, of course, the ongoing supply line for ammunition is the most telling element of the equation.)

These arms are key to ongoing conflict in Africa; Americans should not press their own constitutional freedom for bearing arms onto this situation. The need for a "well ordered militia" in Colonial America was in a land of plenty (or, at least, a land where one could reasonably hold land and plan crops from year to year) and among a people with different societal pressures upon them; Africa today is markedly different than New England of the 1700's.

Also, to add to the comment "if guns hadn't killed these people . . ." In the DRC, people live in a rich lush country. One that, sans conflict, could support a healthy life for all. The problem is not necessarily a surplus of people; it is a lack of stability and order among them. If there were half the people, yet conflict and corruption remained, death and mayhem would still spread openly.

Guns are just part of a larger issue; I don't think Alex is suggesting that the removal of weapons would, somehow, magically make the world a happy place. But, cholera is a small issue as well; it's just a tiny speck of a thing. However, if the conditions are right (or wrong) it can become devastating.

Though it would be folly for you or I to visit African villages and attempt to take weapons from the hands of thugs, it is upon us to influence matters on the manufacturing side. True, if these weapons are not made one place, they will be made elsewhere. However, as is endlessly implied on this site and others, should we not become part of the solution rather than the problem? If the UN is trying to address this, should not the support of many nations stand behind them?

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 3 Jan 07

Alex wrote: ...It might be convenient (within the political discussion of the US) to believe that the availability of cheap small arms is not a root cause of big problems, but as I understand it, essentially all of the research out there says otherwise. Lots of guns around make all the other problems in a struggling society worse.

Thanks Alex - you're helping me to see this differently. In a system with entrenched feedback loops, there are many "root causes", because everything is linked. I thought of small arms as "fever", but a fever usually doesn't make the underlying infection worse. This is different, because guns worsen the conditions of poverty, conflict, corruption and insecurity that fuel the demand for more guns. You've done a real service to point this out.

But as others have noted, stamping out the trade in small arms may be as ineffective as trying to stamp out trade in illicit drugs. The wrong approach could make the situation worse: our "wars" on microbes, crop pests, drug trade and terrorism are all made worse by policies that ignore feedback, amounting to "Predator Strengthens Prey". We wind up with nastier germs, stronger bugs, smarter and more-ruthless dealers or terrorists.

Trying to intervene directly in the arms trade may be about as effective as spraying pesticides. What would an "Integrated Gun Management" strategy look like?

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Jan 07

In the the 1800's in the United States, Native Americans obtained small weapons and used them to attempt to save themselves from the immoral onslaught by U.S. cavalry and land-hungry citizens. Was the answer to disarm the First Peoples? Was the problem that they didn't just didn't go away without a fight? Is the author suggesting that all would be well if people simply relinquished all ability to be violent to the government and then prayed for mercy?

Posted by: Rhonda Lee on 3 Jan 07

The reduction of small arms (or their hypothetical elimination) would, of course, have to be concurrent with greater accountability and transparency concerning governments. I think one would not necessarily argue that people living under an oppressive and murderous government be stripped of their ability to defend themselves; however, even in the "best" of circumstances, a band of citizens with small arms would not be able to withstand a well armed government with evil intent.

Far more effective are the arms of communication and non-violent resistance. (Though this is easy for me to say, sitting in the safety and peace of the EU...however, I'm sitting in the Czech Republic; in which an unarmed citizenry peacefully overturned an oppressive government). As I mentioned in my earlier post, we may not be able to physically go to Africa and confront arms dealers or protect the oppressed; however, we can communicate with people there. We can find out what weapons are in use. We can make noise; how did that load of new rifles get to the Sudan? How is ammunition supplied? It is we, who are armed with the technological tools, who must speak for people under fire.

Mercy may not be found when it's needed most; but it is, for sure, never found through violence.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 3 Jan 07

However, as is endlessly implied on this site and others, should we not become part of the solution rather than the problem? If the UN is trying to address this, should not the support of many nations stand behind them?

I have no problem being part of a solution - indeed it's why I'm working a second job at a company that wants to be a player in the space launch industry. We all do what we can.

I question that how effective this would be, s'all. Be a part of the solution, sure. But this implies that the solution will work, which I don't see here.

Posted by: Brian on 3 Jan 07

"But as others have noted, stamping out the trade in small arms may be as ineffective as trying to stamp out trade in illicit drugs."

Yes, the same thing was going through my mind as I read the article. However, there is a fundamental difference in something used, potentially, to harm oneself to a thing that is specifically made for the purpose of harming others. So the grounds for imposing far-reaching arms-trade restrictions are much stronger. But as people have mentioned here before, even if successful, it would most likely just push the whole trade underground.

Posted by: Ragnar on 3 Jan 07

Referring to the argument above that in the absence of guns, people will use machetes, here is a crucial difference.

Killing or maiming a person with a gun is the result of a "decision". To the one pulling the trigger, the violence and gore is an abstraction, a distance away from self, instantaneous and clean (from the trigger puller point of view). On the other hand, killing with edged and blunt instruments is a lot of physical work, strenuous in fact, messy, takes time, needs repeated "acts" of arduos physical violence, is much more than just a decision, requires one to have a fit of anger to generate the adrenalin and above all it is risky because the victim may fight back and disrupt or reverse the intended outcome.

The ease, speed and abstraction of violence of gun usage allows a large population of cowards and conniving misfits to participate in evil who otherwise would in hiding during a machete battle / fight. The abstraction of small arms scales very well into the usage of cruise missiles and surgical star wars. How brave or proud should one feel when striking a faceless "enemy" with guided missiles hundreds of miles away.

Can we imagine a cavalry attack in Iraq with fine swords and machetes? Intervention in Iraq will immediately turn into "not worth the trouble" category.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 3 Jan 07

What Subbarao said.

However, as others have noted, until we change human behavior at the same time, the problem will never really go away. It has to be a two pronged approach. Elimination & education

Posted by: Deepak on 3 Jan 07

Unfortunately global military spending dwarfs the drug trade (drug trade sits at around $400 Billion and the arms trade is more like $1 Trillion). Now you may argue that the small arms trade is different and somehow more manageable, but the sad truth is that there is money to be made irrespective of social impact. As Brian said, making weapons isn't rocket-science and there are plenty of people willing to make money in the weapons industry. Simply put, if people where happy, with full bellies, clean water and shelter you would have a much tougher time convincing people to fight. The costs of trying to beat a trillion dollar industry into submission far outweigh the costs of food, water and sanitation for the whole planet($40Bn -, but that is a dangerous proposition for the elite for other reasons.

Posted by: Robin Ronne on 3 Jan 07

I agree with Deepak; it's important to discuss & bring to light the detailed pro's and cons of each proposed action, and its also important to keep the big picture in mind, which is ALL aspects of violence must be addressed.
The UN weapons trade proposition is a very worthwhile initiative as long as higher level strategies are used employed as part of that plan, not as a separate initiative.
The UN needs a plan that addresses the past, current, and future aspects of a community or regional conflict all together, including but not limited to the arms situation. Maybe doing some causal loop diagrams would be a helpful excercise.

Posted by: Melanie on 4 Jan 07

"Mercy may not be found when it's needed most; but it is, for sure, never found through violence."

Through violence North America's First Peoples were at least able to secure a reservation system for themselves. In contrast, the unarmed slaughterees in Darfur are proving that if you can't fight back, you just get to die. In China, poor unarmed farmers are being thrown off of their ancestral land to make way for golf courses. Disarmament of the poor (think Oaxaca) means that they get to have a little protest and then yield to whatever abuse the elites throw at them. Palestians, on the other hand have weapons and are using them to make Israel uncomfortable enough to periodically negotiate.

Every animal on the planet has a right to fight back when attacked, why not people? Why should people have to cower, plead, and petition in vain for mercy while governments use force at will? Is it "progressive" to lose the power of self protection?

Posted by: Rhonda Lee on 4 Jan 07

Rhonda, your comments neglect what the sources say is the actual reality of most people's situations -- in much of the world, "rebel" groups are no better to the surrounding populations than the governments they oppose; in most cases, the groups that have the money to buy large numbers of small arms have that money because they're involved in illicit activity (such as drugs and blood diamonds) which corrupt theiir behaviors; and in very, very few cases are the combatants waging some noble war of self-preservation and winning (you'll note that your two examples, native Americans and Palestinians, are both practically iconic examples of those completely overrun by more powerful neighbors).

By and large, small arms are not enough for meaningful resistance to an actual governmental army, but quite enough to help worsen civil wars, social breakdown and ethnic cleansing. In the vast majority of conflict zones, the experts say, cheap and readily available small arms are simply increasing the level and cost of violence. The vast majority of people who've died because of violence in the last 50 years died not because they were murdered by some oppressive government but because conflict destroyed their access to clean water, food and medicine. Selling more arms to the combatants in those conflicts is not helpful to those dying.

In addition, as we've noted elsewhere on this site and in the book, the vast majority of successful revolutions in the last 50 years have involved non-violent confrontation. Violence is not a particularly effective tool for regime change, in comparison.

Do we need better peacekeeping and intervention methods? Absolutely. Do we want more democracy and human rights? Heck yes. Is shipping guns to anyone who can afford to buy them part of the solution? No.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 07

This is slightly off topic; however, the attitude of the Palestinian girl quoted below is the start of the solution to the matter we discuss.

I spent a week with a group of Palestinian youth last summer in the Netherlands (it was a youth exchange bringing together a group of Dutch youth with kids from Palestine and Israel). I won't get into the argument for or against violence in their situation (the Palestinians); however, I must say that these kids did not strike me as especially bloodthirsty. They were, out of the context of the streets of Palestine, just normal kids. Deepack's comment above reminded me of a statement made by one of the youth. I interviewed them concerning their observations in the Netherlands and asked them to comment on their life situation.

One girl had a particularly telling comment; I had asked her what she would say to people in the West about what we can do to better understand their situation.

"First, the person must change himself so he can change his family. His family will change the countryside, his town. The town will change the society. We can start from one. One tells the message, tells what he knows and has seen. So…just that you know the truth; that’s all I want, just for you to see. We can make a change; from one person we can make a change."

Though they told of their own suffering, they were careful to emphasise that, in this whole matter, everyone suffers. Violence begets violence (especially in vendetta cultures). If you link to the interview on my weblog, you'll see that there is an underlying anger there that will not diminish as long as violence continues. It's far more complex than I can pretend to understand (one thing I gain from such exposures is the knowledge that I understand much less than I would hope to).

I will reiterate, violence is an ill-suited tool for fostering peace.

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 4 Jan 07

Alex and Jason, I appreciate your thoughts and share them to a certain degree. However, this is a case in which getting the cart before the horse has dire consequences. I do not consider leaving people vulnerable to outlandish abuse to be "peaceful"; even though it's true that their inability to fight back does reduce the casualties. I guess I just don't believe it's just to allow elites to threaten violence without ever being under threat of receiving it. Perhaps what is needed is engineering of the human genome to create a drone class that is okay with being shoved about and discarded at will. I believe it was Sitting Bull who said "I think the white man should put the Indians on wheels so they can move us whenever they want."

Posted by: Rhonda Lee on 5 Jan 07

Rhonda, what are the carts and horses here? How does the horse of violence pull along the cart of peace? (Apologies for that awkward metaphor.) I know what you mean; I have felt it. I have been with the oppressed people. I too want to "root for the underdogs." During the the week I spent with the Palestinians mentioned above, I could not help, at times, wishing they could have better odds in their struggle. However, that struggle, as we know it and see it, is a violent one without apparent end.

Nor do I think leaving people submerged in abuse is just (neither, I would venture, does anyone who frequents this blog). The elite who proffer violence in Israel aren't especially under threat from Palestinian violence; the people under threat are teenagers having coffee in a street-side café or women shopping in the market. The machine of war crushes a thousand people for every tank destroyed. No, it is not just for people to be oppressed; but there is never one side to the story. (I'm not trying to turn this into a discussion over the Palestinian issue, but it makes a good case in point). There is no justice on either "side" of the issue; but, as long as the violence continues, neither will they find resolution. If it would, we should all get together and send some RPGs and a couple hundred pallets of SEMTEX to Gaza. Would that really balance things out? It might bring victory but what peace or justice could be found through it?

As an aside, when I was in high school, I spent a couple weeks on the Crow reservation in Montana. It was that stay that began to open my eyes to the plight of people oppressed or neglected. Whilst there, my group was honoured to have Joseph Medicine Crow, the tribal historian, as our guide. I think a quote of his is warranted here:

"No one wins [in war]. Both sides lose. The Indians, so called hostiles, won the battle of the day, but lost their way of life."

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 5 Jan 07

all problems facing us today have to be solved based on the suffering they cause.saying we cant solve one with out the other being addressed is what has brought us to the current state today.make some gains on the trade of arms and places will be come safer then go onto the next problem.the arms are being produced by countries at peace and sent to cause misery in countries already suffering from multiple problems at great pofits.who are the criminals here?

Posted by: dave on 9 Jan 07

Well said Dave, on the money - "who are the criminals here?"I feel like one myself for witnessing a "crime in progress", paying taxes to subsidize / protect (legally) the perpetrators and shrugging it away.

Here is a good quote and if we focus on "Every gun that is made"... the context for this post is striking:

"Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold, and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children....This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953

And I can't resist putting in this second quote, slightly off topic, but only slightly..

"War can't end terrorism. War is terrorism."
-- Philip Berrigan

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 9 Jan 07

I think we will all agree the tools of violence are distinct from the ideals prompting it. Are we arguing a moot point when we speak of eliminating the tools? In a certain sense we are; as Robin and Brian noted above, someone will manufacture the tools as long as demand continues. I know we should discuss specific positives since the mandate of this site is to address topics and generate positive responses. I think (though the original article is too far above these postings to scroll back up to) this is what Alex began with.

What are the costs of war? We speak of material, manpower, collateral loss, etc. There is much talk now of calculating industrial costs with an inclusive environmental factor; what if we demanded the same level of accountability from our governments when they determine the cost of war? What if governments were required to weigh the long-term costs of violence and had to actively pursue peace if that was the option with the least impact?

I feel that I'm rather talking out the side of my head here; as I can't see how exactly such a system would work. What I can see is that the world's governments spend seemingly infinite sums on weapons, whilst so many of the world's people lack education and access to health. What if we pursued peace with the same vigour we equip ourselves for violence? I know I am not the first to ask such a question; but what keeps our species from doing this? Why are we bent on continual violence? We speak so glibly about "defence." As if we are defending ourselves against an onslaught of barbarians. People, for the most part, just want to be where they are; they want to live full and satisfactory lives.

President Eisenhower's quote above is so true. Why can we not act upon it?

If I may, I would like to merge thoughts from two active topics here. In The Green Mayor posting from a few days ago, Patrick Rollens states, "...the sheer level of activity in Chicago is proof that the city-state mentality may not be such an archaic notion after all." We gnash our teeth over the activities of our governments at the federal level. What could a new type of city-state do to foster peace in the world? A city-state may not be able to wage war; but what would stop it from waging peace? Why could many city-states not collaborate to function as advocates of peace. What if the City-State of Chicago partnered with the City-State of Nairobi on health and welfare issues? The City-State of Portland could send teams of doctors into rural Pakistan to train people in local clinics they help set up; that would happen after the City-State of Boston helped train local police to reduce corruption. All the while, people from all these places would have open communication with one another. What if, at so many levels, people were able to meet face to face and know one another? Would that not, at some level, address the demand for violent tools?

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 10 Jan 07

Has this discussion petered out? I've been giving it more thought and would like to see proposals for steps we might take to address the issue.

I hope to go to Kenya this summer with one of the NGOs I work with; I'll travel there with a Swahili speaking musicologist who lived in Kenya for years and worked with different groups in the country (studying the structure and history of their music). I've suggested that he write some "community building" songs against violence and, in the workshops we will have, encourage people there to do the same. A group of armed thugs can silence many people; but it's difficult to suppress a good song.

What are some other measures like these with which we can encourage young men to resist the lures of violence and pick up tools to build community? This doesn't address the whole issue; but what are some parts that can be addressed?

Posted by: Jason Nicholas on 17 Jan 07



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