VIEW: Small arms proliferation - Shaukat Qadir
The largest exporter of small arms in the world is the USA. The economic depression of the 1930s ended due to an unprecedented expansion of the production of weapons. Though few economists will acknowledge this publicly, there is a realisation that weapons, and therefore, wars, are the backbone of economic growth
Whenever the word “proliferation” is used it is assumed that one is referring to proliferation of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Few realise that the proliferation of small arms can be far more insidious. Small arms range from knives to any weapon carried by the infantry soldier, including those of the armoured infantry. These weapons are responsible for more than 90 percent of the deaths every year, excluding those caused by accidents or natural calamities.
The International Network on Small Arms (IANSA) has been formed to combat this proliferation. It has had little success despite the considerable efforts of its members. In my article on the drug trade (Eliminating the drugs trade, Daily Times, July 16, 2005), I mentioned that the trade in small arms was linked to the illegal drug trade.
There is a need to remember, first, that USA is the largest exporter of small arms in the world, both legal and illegal. Second, that the economic depression of the 1930s ended due to an unprecedented expansion of the weapons industry. Though few economists will acknowledge this publicly, there is a subconscious realisation that weapons, and therefore, wars, are the backbone of economic growth.
Third, the right to bear arms is intrinsic to the American constitution. Though there is considerable variation in the laws of different states, none dare deny their citizens this right. This provides the pro-arms production lobby with a common rallying point; reduction in arms production would deny their citizens their basic right guaranteed by the US constitution. Thus, while there have been some attempts by various US administrations, Bill Clinton’s being the last, to pass an Arms Control Bill, none have been successful.
While there is considerable legitimate trade in small arms between nation-states — it forms the bulk of the annual production of small arms; the real profits lie in the illegal trade. Those who are familiar with the “Iran-Gate” scandal would appreciate how the Reagan administration benefited from its efforts to fund a war in Nicaragua without the sanction of the Congress.
Oliver North, a colonel on the presidential staff, was selling arms to Iran at exorbitant prices (at a time when the Iran-Iraq War was going on and the US was backing Saddam Hussein); and using the money to funds the Contra rebels against the Nicaraguan government!
The legitimate trade in small arms is of two kinds; first, the trade between states where the purchasing state seeks to arm its soldiers or policemen — those authorised by the state to carry arms — and second; purchases of infinitesimally small quantities by legitimate arms dealers who sell these weapons to individuals in accordance with local laws.
The illegitimate trade is also of two kinds: first, between states as was the case in the “Iran-Gate” scandal; or illegal purchase of weapons by organisations/individuals as is the case of weapons acquired by Al Qaeda, the Baader Meinhoff, the Red Brigade, or the IRA.
While legitimate trade is usually documented, the illegitimate trade is not. There is little necessity for control over the legitimate trade; it is the illegitimate trade that needs to be eliminated. There are fairly simple means of doing so — every arms producer should be forced to document every single weapon produced. If each and every weapon is listed at the production source it will be possible to demand that all sales be documented. Those violating the requirement can then be made liable to punishment under law. As long as weapons are not documented at production, it will be possible to by-pass customs and other regulatory authorities and conduct illegal sales.
In the wake of 9/11 there was interest in how terrorist organisations acquired weapons and equipment, even training, to carry out their attacks. But it did not last long. It is astonishing that those who use these weapons are considered guilty (as they indeed are) but those who provide them the means to execute their attacks are not held responsible! By all legal norms, the latter should be considered accessories “before or after the fact”. But they are too powerful to be implicated in anything as sordid as being an accessory to terrorism, just because they are profiting from it!
In all fairness it must be stated that the arms producers almost never deal directly with those making the purchase. There are layers of insulation. Nonetheless, they must be aware that the weapons are meant for illegal purposes, to inflict damage where they should not be allowed to do so. Perhaps another way of cracking down on this trade could be to trace each weapon/explosive used illegally to its production source and compel the producer to share the blame and cost of damage. Is this impossible with modern technology? Perhaps not, but expecting the producers to be held responsible might just be too much to hope for.
The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)