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New Approaches to Ending the Arms Trade

This article was written by Alex Steffen in November 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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.


Ending the Small Arms Trade is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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