August 21, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons

As of late August 2012, the value of the official global trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) — along with the associated ammunition — is estimated at more than US $7 billion per year. While the value of the extensive undocumented or illegal trade in small arms cannot be determined with any specificity, that alone is estimated to run in the billions as well. The total transaction revenues tell only part of the story, however, as countries often sell aging and surplus arms for a fraction of their real value or simply give them away. (Given its intractable role in facilitating conflict, the SALW trade also indirectly exacts substantial costs beyond the value of the weapons themselves: the World Bank has calculated the average cost of a single civil war as equivalent to more than 30 years of gross domestic product growth for a developing country.)

The illicit trade in SALW is a global activity, but demand for such arms is concentrated — not surprisingly — in areas afflicted by armed conflict, rampant and unrestrained violence, or organized crime. Arms trafficking fuels civil wars and regional conflicts; stocks the arsenals of terrorists, drug cartels, and other armed groups; and contributes to violent crime and the proliferation of sensitive technology.

To understand the true scope of the problem, however, requires an exploration that goes beyond the key elements of production, trade, stockpiling and diversion to include, most importantly, their use. Armed violence kills on average 526,000 people annually. Three-quarters of these victims (roughly 396,000 people) die in situations of interpersonal and crime-related violence outside of armed conflicts, and the vast majority of them live in low- and middle-income regions of the world.


The Regulatory Challenge

The trade in small arms is not well regulated and is probably the least transparent of all trade in weapons systems. In recent decades, the arms trade has seen a shift from mostly direct contact between government officials or agents to the ubiquitous use of private intermediaries that operate in a particularly globalized environment, often from multiple locations. Contemporary traders, agents, brokers, shippers and financiers regularly combine their activities, making it difficult to clearly distinguish small arms trade from brokering and related activities.

In many countries, owing to a lack of regulation and controls, it is all too easy for small arms to fall into the hands of recipients who use them to commit violations of international humanitarian or human rights law or divert them to the illicit market through theft, leakage, corruption or pilferage. After an open debate of the United Nations Security Council on post-conflict peace-building held in April 2010, the Council noted that illegal trafficking in arms could constitute transnational threats with an impact on the consolidation of peace in countries emerging from conflict.

Most weapons carry markings that uniquely identify them and chronicle their history from production through to the last legal owner. Marking weapons in this fashion makes it possible to detect breaches of arms embargoes and unlawful diversions. Through the United Nations Firearms Protocol and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), most countries have made various commitments related to the marking and tracing of small arms. (In December 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the non-binding ITI to enable states to identify and trace illicit SALW in a timely and reliable manner.) However, in many instances weapons often cannot be traced. Where officials are unfamiliar with markings, for example, it is not possible to accurately identify a weapon type or model, or there is a lack of adequate records. Oftentimes, serial numbers of weapons are simply erased by grinding, clearly indicating that either the armed group or the supplier of the weapons did not wish them to be traced.


Tracking Weapons and Ammunition

The tracing of weapons in conflict situations is uncommon and usually limited to the activities of United Nations embargo-monitoring groups and non-governmental research organizations. This is unfortunate as tracing can be critical in identifying leakages in a given state's security apparatus or in revealing where the security of weapons and ammunition needs to be improved (or even formally established). Expert panels monitoring Security Council arms embargoes check the serial numbers of recovered weapons with the authorities in the country of production, which subsequently ban the arms brokers responsible for the diversion of the shipment from entering into further contracts. Tracing weapons, therefore, can an effective and irreplaceable measure in containing the illicit trade in small arms.

The weapons, which are often recycled from conflict to conflict, typically have a lifespan of several decades; however, their value ultimately depends on an uninterrupted supply of ammunition. This is reflected in expert assessments that link the popularity of certain types of weapons among armed groups to the availability of the appropriate ammunition. Conversely, reports have shown that, in some cases, the lack of ammunition has prompted combatants to seek to resolve their disputes peacefully. As a result, trade in ammunition must also be a key component of any discussion on the regulation of the global arms trade.

Between 1998 and 2008, the United Nations and associated entities collected more than 300,000 weapons and kept records for most of them. These records could help to improve the understanding of the illicit trade in weapons, facilitate the monitoring of progress made by countries recovering from conflict and improve the efficacy of arms reduction initiatives. In accordance with the UN's integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) standards, record-keeping on the manufacturing and distribution of weapons has become a formal part of these DDR programs (whose disarmament component is the responsibility of the United Nations).

To be effective, prevention and reduction measures need to take certain key — and often complicated — factors into account. Armed violence is often concentrated in specific areas or among particular groups in society. But it is often difficult to distinguish between large-scale political violence and the organized predatory behavior of groups operating in the same setting, the latter frequently facilitated by elite patrons and the absence of basic state control and the rule of law. Somalia is one of the most dismal examples, but similar patterns can be found in Haiti, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan. Furthermore, participating in an armed group, whether for political reasons or an array of socioeconomic motivations, often provides young men with a livelihood and perceived legitimacy that public authorities and the private sector are often fundamentally unable to match.


International Measures to Manage Global Trade in Small Arms

In 2001, UN member states signed up to a politically binding plan to tackle small arms. The UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) is a central tool, one that has laid the foundation for action at the national, regional and global levels. Member States are gathering in New York from late August through early September 2012 to assess the state of overall implementation of the PoA and the ITI, and also set the agenda for the next six-year cycle. (Moreover, further to the adoption of the ITI, the signatories agreed to report on a biennial basis to the UN Secretary-General on their implementation of the ITI, including, where appropriate, information on national-level experiences in tracing illicit SALW, as well as measures taken in the area of international cooperation and assistance.)

The recognition that there was a clear link between crime and conflict, and the fact that serious crime — both random and organized — was prevalent in many conflict areas was the basis for a specific agreement between the United Nations and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in October 2009. This agreement provides for the enhanced exchange of information, including data relating to the trafficking of small arms gathered by monitoring groups that may be of use to UN investigative authorities.

Only recently, however, the UN Arms Trade Treaty, in preparation since 2006, suffered a major setback when the negotiations at the UN to regulate the conventional arms trade ended without an agreement on July 27th. The U.S., Russia and China all opposed the inclusion of binding language aimed at preventing arms from being exported to countries where they could be used to undermine human rights. With the global arms trade estimated to be worth between US $60 to $70 billion per year, it appears likely that definitive action by the world's top arms suppliers (United States, Russia, Germany, France, United Kingdom and China) to reduce the consequences of under-regulated arms exports will require more time, effort…and commitment.

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