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Small Arms


Prepared by Professor Michael Klare, Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. USA

Since the end of the Cold War, increasing international attention has been focused on problems arising from the worldwide proliferation of small arms and light weapons. This is so because these weapons have been the primary tool of violence in the many ethnic and internal conflicts that have erupted in recent years. Small arms and light weapons have been responsible for the majority of the combat deaths in recent wars and figure in much of the crime and civil violence visited upon vulnerable societies around the world. ("Small arms" refers to hand-held weapons like assault rifles, carbines, pistols, and submachine guns; "light weapons" refers to easily portable crew-served weapons like heavy machine guns, bazookas, and light mortars.)

The widespread use of small arms and light weapons is not a new phenomenon. Most of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the widespread use of rifles, carbines, machine guns and other such weapons. But the prevalence of these weapons in contemporary combat appears to be growing. Of the 49 armed conflicts since 1990, all but three relied on small arms and light weapons as the only instrument of war, and only one, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was dominated by heavy weapons. Modern small arms - especially assault rifles like the Soviet/Russian AK-47 and the U.S.-made M-16 - have played an especially conspicuous role in recent conflicts, accounting for anywhere between 35 and 60 percent of all of the deaths and injuries in warfare since 1990.

Small arms are attractive tools of violence for several reasons. They are widely available, low in cost, extremely lethal, simple to use, durable, highly portable, easily concealed, and possess legitimate military, police, and civilian uses (so are present in virtually every society). These weapons are also relatively light in weight, and so can be used by the child soldiers who have played such a significant role in recent conflicts. Small arms and light weapons are used both by government forces (military and police) and non-state actors (guerrillas, ethnic militias, warlords, brigands, and so on) engaged in low-intensity conflicts.

The widespread availability of small arms and light weapons has long-term pernicious effects. Even when a conflict has officially been terminated, small arms remain in the conflict zone and make it easy for fighting to recommence. Even when further combat is avoided, small arms become tools of other forms of violence, such as criminal activity, ethnic and political rivalries, and interference with efforts to deliver food, medicine, and supplies to people in dire need of relief. Refugees are often afraid to return to their homes because of the large number of weapons that remain in the hands of ex-combatants who have not been demobilized or have become affiliated with local gangs, warlords, or militias.

The negative effects of leftover weapons are felt not only in the immediate conflict area, but in neighboring countries and regions as well. Small arms can easily spread across porous borders, igniting violence in adjacent areas. In some societies, these surplus weapons may create a "culture of violence" that traps whole populations in an endless cycle of war. As a result, the United Nations, many regional organizations, certain states, and a wide range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have initiated efforts to curb the global spread of small arms and to remove such weapons from areas of conflict.

Jump to: Commonly Used Small Arms, Bibliography, UN Efforts, US Policy, Instant Library

The Global Significance of Small Arms Proliferation: The great importance ascribed to small arms proliferation by the international community is attested to in We the Peoples, the October 2000 Millennium Report of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the UN General Assembly: "The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems - and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as 'weapons of mass destruction.' Small arms proliferation is not merely a security issue; it is also an issue of human rights and of development. The proliferation of small arms sustains and exacerbates armed conflicts. It endangers peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. It undermines respect for international humanitarian law. It threatens legitimate but weak governments and it benefits terrorists as well as the perpetrators of organized crime."

The Social Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons: Small arms and light weapons have been called "weapons of mass destruction" for good reason. The insidious nature and devastating impacts of these weapons affect all aspects of society. The Small Arms Working Group has produced a series of fact sheets on the impact of small arms on children, development, domestic laws, human rights, humanitarian relief, international humanitarian law, peacekeeping, private trafficking, public health, and tourism.

Definition: Generally speaking, Small arms are weapons designed for personal use, while light weapons are designed for use by several persons serving as a crew. Examples of small arms include revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine-guns. Light weapons include heavy machine-guns, some types of grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, and portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems. Most small arms and light weapons would not be lethal without their ammunition. Ammunition and explosives thus form an integral part of small arms and light weapons used in conflicts. They include cartridges (rounds) for small arms, shells and missiles for light weapons, anti-personnel and anti-tank hand grenades, landmines, explosives, and mobile containers with missiles or shells for single-action anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems. (Source: UN Dept. of Disarmament Affairs, Conventional Arms Branch.)

Commonly Used Small Arms and Light Weapons: A list of some of the most widely used small arms and light weapons.
Jump to: Commonly Used Small Arms

Bibliography: Selected bibliography on small arms. Many valuable research documents on small arms proliferation are available at the website of the International Action Network on Small Arms.
Jump to: Bibliography, Instant Library

Data on the International Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons: Considerable data on the international trade in small arms and light weapons can be obtained on-line at the website of the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT). Extensive data will also be available at the site of the Small Arms Survey.

United Nations Efforts to Curb the Spread and Misuse of Small Arms and Light Weapons: The United Nations has played a significant role in international efforts to curb the spread of small arms and light weapons. An overview of United Nations efforts in the field of small arms and links to key U.N. documents on this topic.
Jump to: UN Efforts

U.N. Conference on Illicit Arms Trafficking (Summer 2001): A major focus of the United Nation's work on small arms was the July 2001 U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, held in New York City on July 9-20, 2001. This conference assessed the impact of illicit arms trafficking on international peace and security, and proposed steps that can be taken to curb this trade. The final outcome of the UN Conference was the adoption of a Programme of Action, a non-binding political declaration of member states' commitments on national, regional, and global actions and responsibilities on small arms.  For reactions to the UN Conference, see the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and the Small Arms Survey.

Efforts by Regional Organizations to Curb the Spread of Small Arms and Light Weapons: For the most part, regional activities have been far more effective than international efforts to control small arms proliferation.  Many regional organizations, including the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have adopted measures to curb the spread of small arms and light weapons. For access to regional organization documents relating to these efforts, visit the web site of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). For background on the arms moratorium imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), visit the web page of the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers(NISAT).

United States Policy on Small Arms Proliferation: The United States is one of the world's leading manufacturers and exporters of small arms and light weapons.  It has also taken some steps -- usually in conjunction with other governments and the United Nations or regional organizations -- to curb the global proliferation of small arms and light weapons.  A summary of official U.S. Government positions on small arms issues is contained in U.S. Comprehensive Initiative on Small Arms and Illicit Trafficking, a Fact Sheet available on-line from the U.S. Department of State.  U.S small arms policy is outlined in the Background Paper: The U.S. Approach to Combating the Spread of Small Arms. This paper explains that the U.S. approach to addressing the proliferation of small arms "focuses on practical, effective measures to address the problem of illicit SA/LW trafficking in conflict regions where it is most urgent, while acknowledging the legitimacy of legal trade, manufacture, and ownership of arms.
Jump to: US Policy

NGO Efforts to Control the Spread and Misuse of Small Arms and Light Weapons: Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world have undertaken efforts to curb the spread of small arms and light weapons. These efforts are coordinated at an international level by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), based in London. Other NGOs that have taken initiatives in this regard include: British-American Security Information Council (BASIC), Saferworld, International Alert and the Small Arms Working Group (SAWG).Among the most active groups at the local level are Viva Rio in Brazil and Gun Free South Africa.
See below for links to NGOs with an interest in the small arms field.


A number of useful reports and articles on small arms proliferation can be accessed on-line. These include:

"A Scourge of Small Arms,"by Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael Klare, from Scientific American, June 2000.

"The Kalashnikov Age,"by Michael Klare, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1999.

"Leader of the Pack" (on U.S. small arms exports), by Lora Lumpe, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1999.

Hearts of Darkness"(on black-market arms trafficking in Africa), by Kathi Austin, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1999.

"Small Arms and Light Weapons: Controlling the Real Instruments of War," by Jeffrey Boutwell and Michael Klare, from Arms Control Today, August/September 1998 (with Jeffrey Boutwell).

Small Arms, Report of the UN Panel of Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, August 27, 1997.


Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), Project on Surplus Weapons, Bonn, Germany.

British-American Security Information Council (BASIC), Project on Light Weapons, Washington, D.C. and London, U.K.

Center for Defense Information (CDI), Washington, D.C.
Provides policy analysis on small arms, focusing on U.S. policy.

Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Arms Sales Monitoring Project, Washington, D.C.  Provides useful documents and links to other useful sites.

International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA): An international consortium of NGOs working to curb the spread and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Contains much valuable information plus links to other useful sites.

Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), Oslo, Norway. Provides extensive data on small arms transfers and on efforts to control the spread of these weapons.

Small Arms Survey, Geneva, Switzerland. Provides extensive data on all aspects of small arms proliferation including Special Reports and an Occasional Paper Series.

United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR), Geneva, Switzerland. Has a page devoted to small arms at its web site, containing useful links and documents.

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