What is it that we are never short of? What is it that always seems to be available in abundance — even in the poorest, remotest parts of the world?
When was the last time that we heard of a war, an insurgency or a guerrilla movement that ceased or abated because one of the sides in the conflict ran short of bullets?
Where there is war money always appears, and where there is money, arms always appear. And they don’t just appear where there is war and money. Arms abound even in the most miserable parts of the planet. In ghettos where there is a shortage of everything — where babies don’t have milk, students don’t have books, and hunger is a daily experience — arms are never in short supply. Pistols, revolvers, rifles, submachine guns, grenade launchers and other small arms are tragically common in the slums of the world.
They are also plentiful in places where there is nothing but hunger, thirst and death. In the towns and cities of Sudan and Yemen, in the jungles of Colombia and Sri Lanka, and in the mountains of the Congo, Afghanistan and Chechnya there is a shortage of everything. But not arms. Arms that, every year, cause the deaths of half a million people.
The Small Arms Survey is an initiative of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and specializes in the markets and the consequences of the international trade in small arms. The survey’s researchers estimate that there are 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide, produced by more than 1,000 firms in 100 countries, selling in a market that moves $7 billion a year. The experts agree that the main obstacle to reducing the harm caused by the proliferation of small arms is lack of information. Anonymity in the manufacture, purchase and sale of arms, and secrecy about their destination, the quantity and the type of arms sold, stand in the way of public policies that might mitigate the problem. Opacity undermines the international efforts necessary to cope with a threat that crosses international frontiers. The end of the Cold War, and the acceleration of globalization, intensified two trends that further complicate the small arms market, and access to relevant information about it: proliferation and privatization.
Today there are more suppliers and purchasers than before, and increasingly, neither sellers nor buyers are governments or their armed forces, but rather “private” customers such as insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists and criminal gangs.
The growth in the supply of arms is considerable: some years ago, the companies that manufactured small arms were only a few hundred in number. Now they are more than a thousand, and their numbers are rising. They used to be based in a relatively small number of countries. Now they are everywhere. They used to be appendixes of governments, despite formally being private companies. Now the governmental or military control of arms production has weakened, and there are multinational companies that, in practice, operate quite independently of governments. As a result, buyers of small arms now have a larger number, more diverse — and more “flexible” — suppliers than ever.
And on the demand side the same is happening: the number of customers and their appetite for small arms is rising. Oddly enough, this is happening just when wars between countries have diminished (since the 1990s, armed conflicts between nations have fallen sharply). But the contrary occurs with conflicts within countries, and we have seen a rise in civil wars, insurgencies and armed confrontations between political factions. The Arab Spring, for example, has produced a spike in demand in the small arms market. In Syria, before the crisis, a Kalashnikov (AK-47) could be bought for $1,200 on the black market; now it runs to more than $2,100.
All this does not mean that governments and their armies are not still the main protagonists in the international small arms market. The United States and Europe are the main producers and exporters. But oddly enough it is the governments of these countries that are making the biggest effort to contain the worldwide boom in small arms. We are accustomed to hypocrisy in international relations. At times this only results in boring, inconsequential speeches. But in the case of the indolence of the international community concerning the proliferation of small arms, and of the countries and firms that profit from them, indifference and hypocrisy have lethal consequences.
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