Monday, July 18, 2005

Small arms hugging big profits

We hear a lot about the threat WMDs and their proliferation (which the US does little to stop), but from the public health point of view (population burden) the real weapons of mass destruction are small arms: handguns, rifles, grenades, "small" bombs. These are the weapons of choice of terrorists, whether state or non-state sponsored. This weekend The Toronto Star (via Common Dreams) had an important article about the UN Program of Action on Small Arms, which is strongly supported by Canada. Guess who the big problem is?
More than 20 governments have now signed up to a proposed legally binding Arms Trade Treaty, which would ban arms transfers likely to fuel conflicts and human rights violations, or undermine development — an event that has given campaigners new hope that the deadly trade can be reduced if not eliminated.
But, says Amnesty International's Ottawa campaigner Hilary Homes, "the issue still isn't getting the attention it deserves. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Ivory Coast, it's not weapons of mass destruction that are the problem. It's small, conventional weapons."

One of the major stumbling blocks to controlling the small arms trade is America's strong attachment to guns, and suspicion of attempts to control them, experts say.

Statistics show that the United States has 220 million guns, or almost one for every man, woman and child in the country. With less than 5 per cent of the world's population, America harbors one-third of the world's 640 million small arms.
The Canadians have a right to complain because half of all handguns used in crimes in that country come from the US. In Mexico it's worse: 80%. The Canadians also chafe at the handwringing about terrorists coming to the US across their border (passing the guns going in the opposite direction?):
Ironically, Cukier says, Canada has been at the sharp end of complaints that dangerous terrorists can slip across its border to attack Americans. But although Ottawa has tightened security to meet Washington's demands, there has been scant interest in improving American control over smuggled weapons heading north to Canada.

"The fact is, many more American guns have killed Canadians than Canadian-based terrorists have killed Americans," she said.
Even the half of small arms homicides not involved in armed conflicts (125,000 out of 250,000 worldwide) are related to the profitable trade that finances terrorism and ironically, the US "war on terrorism":
"It's become a political policy for leaders to talk about the chemical or atomic threat of terrorism," says Loretta Napoleoni, a London-based economist and expert in the financing of international terrorism. "The truth is that small arms are what terrorists use."

She notes the invasion of Iraq provided a huge arsenal of new weapons flowing through the Middle East.

"Saddam Hussein had a very large supply of weapons, and they were looted during the war."


"It's caused a big collapse in prices, and made weapons even more available. They include (shoulder-fired) missiles like Stingers, which used to cost around $200,000 and can now be bought for $5,000."

For rogue states, warlords, traffickers and international criminals, finding and acquiring small arms holds little challenge. According to international arms trade analysts, several hundred arms dealers are able to supply weapons whenever and wherever needed. Recycled arms are not the only problem. Dozens of countries continue to produce small arms for export, with the biggest sales made by the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany and Belgium, according to the Small Arms Survey's 2005 report. By 2001, it says, more than 600 companies in 95 countries were involved in some aspect of the small arms trade.

As a result, about 8 million new weapons a year are circulated internationally. Although many are officially destined for "legitimate" countries, they frequently turn up in the hands of abusive security forces and militias.

The most tragic result, human rights groups say, is the recruitment of child soldiers, 300,000 of whom are estimated to be fighting in conflicts in more than 30 countries.

"The weight and size of small arms makes them easy for children to use and encourages the use of children as combatants," says the International Action Network on Small Arms. "A child as young as eight can easily be taught to fire an assault rifle."

As in Afghanistan — armed by numerous countries — weak states of Africa have been further undermined by the infiltration of weapons. Once in control of a large supply, warlords can continue to defy efforts to make peace, and multiply human suffering.
The Star article ends on a hopeful note regarding the UN effort. The Bush administration, however, is unlikely to push for controls on the international arms bazaar.

Another crime History will lay at America's feet.