The illegal buying and selling of arms is big business worth billions of dollars each year.
It’s a truly global operation with pilots flying planes from Belgium, Ukraine and South Africa delivering weapons to places from Africa to Afghanistan.
They smuggle them easily through lax air, land and sea borders where the weapons often end up in the hands of war lords and dictators.
The most popular weapons transported by these illegal traders are small arms.
These include assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition, and are responsible for 500,000 deaths and millions of injuries each year.
Small arms are a trafficker’s dream. As well as being small, they are lightweight, portable and easily concealable.
They can be flown in directly or dropped from planes, packed into waterproof sacks and attached to the bottom of boats, or brought in by foot or truck.
Armies, rebel forces and terrorists prefer these weapons as well. For them they are cheap, lethal, durable and simple to use. For these reasons there will always be a market for illegal traders to supply.
Unlike drugs, the weapons themselves are legal. It’s the act of selling them to banned buyers which is illegal. These buyers usually include countries whose governments have a bad record on conflict or human rights.
This illegal selling can happen in various ways.
The most popular method is a complex system used by traffickers to ship legally-produced weapons directly to and through banned countries, violating arms restrictions by using front companies such as airfreight businesses.
False or illegally-obtained documents like End-User Certificates (which are required to state what country weapons are to be sold in) are forged in places such as Panama, Paraguay, Turkey, Thailand and Singapore.
They use a loose collection of financiers, brokers and corrupt officials operating out of several different countries who are often old Cold War contacts or who run other illegal businesses such as drugs, prostitution or the trade in ‘blood minerals’.
Poor inventory security and management can also lead to theft and accidental loss, especially during times of national instability when military stockpiles can be looted and weapons easily lost.
They are also stolen from legal and illegal civilian owners. In the United States this small scale burglary provides 500,000 weapons to the black market every year.
Unauthorised gunsmiths (manufacturers) add to the problem of illegal arms too. In Ghana, for example, a study found that the local gunsmiths could produce up to 200,000 weapons a year, each of a similar quality to those produced industrially.
Even more worrying is the fact that soldiers are often willing to sell their weapons for cash. This is extremely common in places where the military are poorly paid or haven’t been paid at all.
Indeed, there are even documented cases of Israeli military officers selling weapons to Palestinian fighters knowing that the weapons will likely be used against them.
Illegal weapons have a horrific effect on our world beyond just the direct killings and injuries. They have the ability to ruin economies and separate communities.
According to the UN’s 2005 Human Development Report, the insecurity linked to armed conflict remains “one of the greatest obstacles to human development, and is both a cause and consequence to mass poverty.”
Such conflicts, like that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, can disrupt and destroy food production leading to hunger and malnutrition.
With such a list of problems coming from the illegal arms trade, one would think that global arms trade agreements would be well policed. But this is not the case.
End-User Certificates have no internationally recognised or standardised document, and are in many cases forged.
There are no enforceable international rules governing the trade in regular weapons and many of the international codes of conducts are simply ignored by the traders and corrupt officials.
The main problem is that the world’s most powerful countries are also the ones that tend to benefit from the trade.
They are the largest producers of arms, and the industry can add a lot to the country’s export earnings and employment.
The same governments also use arms to prop up preferred governments in the poor world to ensure they are able to provide lucrative business deals for Western companies (this is particularly the case with African mining contracts).
These vested interests in countries like America, Britain, France, Russia and China – who also happen to be the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – make fixing the problem significantly more difficult.
Nevertheless, in July the UN held the first of four conferences leading up to a month long conference in 2012.
The aim is to draft an arms trade treaty which will ensure common import and export standards to prevent illegal trafficking.
It’s a step in the right direction, but is still far from enough to secure a normal life for millions who suffer directly or indirectly from this business.
By James Kayel
Photo – A collection of weapons that was seized and burned by Kenyan authorities