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UN: Despite Glut Of Weapons, Small Arms Industry In Decline

  • Nikola Krastev

The first global survey of small arms has found that the number of companies manufacturing light weapons is on the rise worldwide -- but that the industry as a whole has been on a steady decline since the mid-1990s. Officials from the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies, which conducted the survey, say both trends are particularly visible in Eastern Europe, where the Cold War arms surplus has already been sold off and the once state-controlled arms industry has broken down into a number of private manufacturers. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev reports.

United Nations, 11 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The results of the first global "Small Arms Survey" contain a surprising discovery. Contrary to perceptions, the legal manufacture of light weapons is no longer the profitable business it once was. In fact, it comprises only a tiny fraction of the total worldwide industry.

The survey, released yesterday (10 July) on the sidelines of a United Nations small arms conference in New York, estimates that the combined value of legally produced small arms and ammunition in the year 2000 is just $4 billion. Between 1980 and 1998, an average of 6.3 million small arms were produced legally each year. In 2000, the number had dropped to 4.3 million.

At the same time, the number of legal manufacturers has tripled, from fewer than 200 firms worldwide in 1980 to more than 600 today, spread over at least 95 countries. The survey notes that as many as 25 additional countries -- primarily in southern Africa and South and Southeast Asia -- may be involved in illegal weapons production.

Three countries qualify as major producers: China, Russia, and the United States. The survey indicates that over half of the word's legal small arms manufacturers are located in the U.S., although the study's coordinators note that the difficulty of obtaining reliable information from China and Russia -- where weapons production is considered a matter of national security -- may have served to underplay those countries' roles in the industry.

Russia, while among the top three producers of light weapons, ranks only fifth in terms of legal exports, coming in lower than Germany and Brazil.

The survey also says that private arms brokers have become increasingly prominent in Eastern Europe because of the diminishing role of government agencies in covert arms deals and the growing demand for indirect weapons transfers to questionable recipients. Of the 28 countries surveyed, only seven directly regulate arms brokers, with the United States applying the most comprehensive regulations.

Survey coordinators say the arms-trafficking cases that make the headlines -- sales to insurgent groups -- make up less than 1 percent of total arms traffic. But, as the survey's director, Professor Keith Krause, says, the damage they do can be devastating:

"Relatively small numbers [of light weapons] in the hands of armed groups are causing a large amount of death and destruction in civil conflicts."

The results of the survey, which covers the period of 1998 to 2001, highlight the relatively small role of national governments in the light arms industry. As demand shrinks and profits dwindle, fewer and fewer states have a vested economic interest in the small arms trade.

Eastern Europe has traditionally been an area of concern in the illicit small arms trade. In 1999, several countries in the region -- most notably Bulgaria and Ukraine -- were alleged to be conducting illegal weapons transfers to parts of Africa under a UN arms embargo. Krause says government involvement in such transactions, if there was any at all, was minimal:

"The problem in the mid-1990s was that you had surplus stocks as armies were downsized very rapidly. And you had a situation where members of the bureaucracy -- who may or may not have been paid for several months -- or customs officials who may have been easily corruptible were susceptible to participating in illicit transfers. We know that there have been some cases of that. But in many cases it wasn't necessarily the government that approved this. It would be officials working on a very low level, who may have been corrupt. As [governments] have become conscious of the problem, many of them have taken steps."

The survey coordinators note the distinction between what they call "gray" and "black" markets in small arms traffic. "Gray" traffic involves transactions where the government may not authorize small arms deals but is aware they are taking place. "Black" traffic is composed of those arms deals that fall entirely outside of government approval or control. Here, Krause says, is where the crucial role of the arms broker emerges:

"Transactions are arranged in a very complicated fashion that is very difficult to trace. A concrete example we are offering is the Bulgarian and Ukrainian weapons, [which] may be handled by a Western broker who never took possession of the arms, transported by someone in North Africa, sold officially and legally to countries such as Uganda and Burkina Faso, and ending up in Sierra Leone, in the hands of the Revolutionary United Front [rebel group]."

Peter Batchelor, who also coordinated the survey, says that in many cases, weapon-producing countries are not the main culprits in illicit arms-trafficking:

"We're not for a moment suggesting that every country in Eastern or Central Europe or the former Soviet Union is involved in the illicit trade. They often sell these weapons quite legally -- they have export permits and things like that. But it's at some point along the way that those weapons get diverted. And as Professor Krause said, it's often the recipient countries who may have purchased the weapons legally and then basically sold the weapons on to [Angolan] UNITA [rebels] in violation of the UN arms embargo. That's when the weapons became illegal."

Despite the general downturn in the global small arms industry, the survey concludes with a grim reminder: An estimated 550 million small arms are currently in circulation throughout the world, and cause an average 1,300 deaths every day. Such figures have prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to call them the world's "real weapons of mass destruction."

(Background on the report can be found on the following website: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org)

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