by Hugh McCullum
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. – Former U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a speech on April 16, 1953
The statistics are mind-numbing. A decade after Canada spearheaded the campaign that made landmines illegal, 309,000 people were killed this year (2006) by small arms. There are 650 million guns – leave out the smart bombs, giant artillery and tanks, the mortars, the missiles, the weapons of armies, air forces and navies – in circulation world-wide, one for every 10 people on the planet. Put another way, with 16 billion units of military ammunition produced every year, there are small arms and ammunition enough to shoot every man, woman and child on the planet twice.
Such figures on their own mean little, of course, if it were not for the fact that the easy availability of arms, especially in Africa, increases the incidence and impact of armed violence, triggers conflict and provokes local armed struggles into fullscale wars once they break out. Retired UN Secretary General Kofi Annan calls them “weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.”
|“With 16 billion units of military ammunition produced every year, there are small arms and ammunition enough to shoot every man, woman and child on the planet twice.”|
It gets worse:
The five permanent members of the Security Council are the five top exporters of small arms selling 88 percent of the world’s supply (rifles, pistols, light machine guns called Kalashnikovs or AK-47s, hand grenades and landmines – the latter are illegal but still widely manufactured and used);
Late in 2006, the vast majority of members of the UN General Assembly voted to begin working on a treaty to ban small arms; 24 abstained, including China, Russia, Pakistan and India, the world’s leading manufacturers and sellers; and one country, the U.S., voted an outright “no” to the treaty. President George W. Bush, a close ally of the US gun lobby, effectively vetoed negotiations on a new global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT);
Children can easily use small arms. They are simple to transport and hide, ready to use without much prior training and, in most cases, require little maintenance and support. Because of this, small arms have helped create more than 300,000 child soldiers. Children are also primary victims. The increased availability of small arms through illegal channels has contributed to an alarming rise in child casualties in African conflicts where small arms have been used. More than 4 million children have been killed, 8 million have been disabled and 15 million left homeless (UNICEF).
It is estimated that 100 million small arms exist in Africa, especially around the Horn, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, the violent belt of Central Africa and many areas of West Africa. Accurate figures are hard to obtain. Even Africa has its manufacturers and illicit sales. Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe all have manufacturing and distribution factories and illicit sales networks. AK-47s can be bought in some countries on the open market for as little as the price of a sack of flour or a chicken. In some countries like Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, guns are part of the culture, almost everyone carries a personal weapon. Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, along with Nigeria and Ghana in the west, blame the proliferation on huge increases in violent crime.
South Africa’s retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described the small arms trade in Africa as “the modern day slave trade which is out of control. It continues because of the corruption and complicity of most governments in sub-Saharan Africa, including I am sad to say my own beloved country, which turn a blind eye to the appalling suffering associated with the proliferation of these weapons. The world could eradicate poverty in a few generations,” he stated, “if a fraction of the spending here on small arms was spent on peace.” Along with the Dalai Lama and other world religious leaders, Tutu published a letter to the Times newspaper in London prior to the UN vote on Oct. 29, 2006.
|“Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described the small arms trade in Africa as ‘the modern day slave trade which is out of control.’”|
Nothing symbolizes the proliferation of small arms in Africa like the ubiquitous Kalashnikov or AK-47 assault rifle, first invented by the Russian General Mikhail Kalashnikov during World War II. Today it is estimated that between 60 and 70 million of these durable weapons are spread around the world. It’s the gun of choice in all of Africa’s conflicts and is for sale in many places for less than US$30. It will remain the most widely-used weapon in conflict zones for at least the next 20 years because it is so poorly regulated. According to a new report by the Control Arms campaign:
The Kalashnikov is manufactured in more countries and is being used to cause more widespread suffering today than at any time in its 60-year history. Many thousands of people are killed every year by the weapon because there is little international control on its production, sale and use. (AK-47: The World’s Favourite Killing Machine, June 26, 2006.)
The report estimates that up to 70 million AK-47s are found in the state arsenals of at least 82 countries and are produced in at least 14 countries. The widespread availability of surplus Kalashnikovs and the absence of global standards and laws to regulate their transfer make it easy for the weapons to fall into the hands of unscrupulous arms brokers, armed militia and criminals.
The widespread availability of the AK-47 and its variants is a legacy of the Cold War. Millions of AK-47s were also supplied to various regimes during the period and these are still in circulation, now being traded by numerous firms and governments across the globe.
“The AK-47 is a symbol of the way in which the arms trade has run amok, destroying lives and livelihoods. Only global rules to control who produces the weapons and to whom they are sold will ensure that they don’t fall into the wrong hands,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Kalashnikovs, of course, are not the only small arms being sold illegally. The much prized Israeli Uzi is valued for its strength, lightness and accuracy, but it is many times more expensive than an AK-47. American M19s and a plethora of US sniping rifles are also sold illegally but are too expensive in the developing world for more than a few elites. South Africa produces seven types of assault rifles, also expensive compared with Kalashnikovs.
The purchase and supply of assault rifles, especially AK-47s, was dramatically altered after the Cold War ended. Now, tens of thousands of Kalashnikovs are bought, trafficked and brokered by a new breed of middlemen, international networks of companies, government agencies, and individuals in Europe, the Middle East and North America. These arms merchants are involved in complex supply chains to deliver assault rifles using brokering networks, freight-forwarders, transport firms, offshore bank accounts and other interconnected companies. These are now increasingly being joined by some Western countries (including the US) and associated private contractors who traffic in surplus arms from former Warsaw Pact countries. Notable among these are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and Belarus.
|“The purchase and supply of assault rifles, especially AK-47s, was dramatically altered after the Cold War ended. Now, tens of thousands of Kalashnikovs are bought, trafficked and brokered by a new breed of middlemen, international networks of companies, government agencies, and individuals.”|
Critically, small arms trading is not illegal in most countries although the private ownership of such automatic weapons is banned in many countries, except for re-export. But all governments have a duty under international humanitarian law such as the Geneva conventions and protocols to ensure that their armed forces do not use these weapons for indiscriminate attacks on civilians. These standards should also apply to police and security officials and even paramilitaries where possible. Their use of Kalashnikovs and other assault weapons pose a much greater risk to civilians than “normal” police arms.
As long as governments fail to uphold such human rights and standards and allow the sale and transfer of these weapons and their ammunition, mass civilian suffering will continue and grow. Similarly, as long as governments turn a blind eye, and even encourage, illegal arms merchants to supply criminal groups, mercenaries, rebel groups, smugglers and others who commit atrocities and abuse civilians, the deaths of women, children and the aged will continue unabated. It is just too easy to obtain licences to sell arms in countries such as those sitting on the Security Council.
In countries like Canada, Britain, France, US, Sweden, and others which pride themselves on democracy and the rule of law and which have signed on to all the international laws against weapons of mass destruction, it is business as usual with the licensed production of small arms. With these “legal” and lucrative production systems comes the multiplication of supply networks. If lives are to be saved these distributors and their access to legally manufactured surplus stockpiles must be interdicted by global standards governing the movement and transfer of small arms.
|“In countries like Canada, Britain, France, US, Sweden, and others which pride themselves on democracy and the rule of law and which have signed on to all the international laws against weapons of mass destruction, it is business as usual with the licensed production of small arms.”|
The Control Arms campaign calls for four life-saving measures by governments and the international community:
Tough standards on arms transfers covering all small arms and light weapons and negotiations on a new global Arms Trade Treaty. To be effective, these global standards must cover national controls on production, transfer, holding and use of assault rifles of all kinds and other small arms and their ammunition;
All international arms and ammunition production licenses must be considered on a case-by-case basis before they are granted and no permits should be issued if there is a risk that transfers to areas of conflict or potential conflict could occur;
Existing stockpiles in known weapons manufacturing countries must be secured and managed with the accurate and honest record-keeping of inventories including serial numbers of every weapon. Surplus stockpiles should be destroyed;
Governments must increase efforts to reduce the demand for assault rifles through a series of integrated measures such as: reforming police and other law enforcement agencies; incorporating into law weapons collection strategies in post-conflict situations, peace-building programmes and the removal of surplus and illegal weapons and ammunition from all unauthorized users. Disarmament will benefit the whole community.
The beginning of this editorial quotes General Eisenhower’s famous speech of 1953 in which he deplored the military-industrial complex and said that money spent on arms could not be spent on development for the poor of the world. The same argument holds today in countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC, Uganda, Angola, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire and others rich in resources but poor in development. All are involved, or have been involved recently, in civil wars.
Last year, according to the International Herald Tribune, Russia surpassed the US for the first time as the leader in weapons deals with the developing world. These weapons deals in 2005 were part of the highly competitive global arms bazaar in the developing world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, which grew to US$30.2 billion, up from US$26.4 billion in 2004, a market the US has regularly dominated. While many of these sales do not fall under the heading of small arms, a significant number, called “conventional arms” in a report by the Congressional Research Service, went to countries such as China, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. India and China, in turn, sell them in large numbers to Africa.
The huge amounts of money spent on illegal arms and on bribing officials in Africa and other parts of the South diverts massive amounts of money that could be used to develop health care, education, infrastructure, housing and programmes to advance the rights of women and children.
|“The huge amounts of money spent on illegal arms … diverts massive amounts of money that could be used to develop health care, education, infrastructure, housing and programmes to advance the rights of women and children.”|
As long as arms are cheap and easily available, development experts say, there is little hope of solving the deep and deadly problems that beset Africa – from the brain drain of its most capable and well-educated people to the huge toll from HIV/AIDS, which is often worst in conflict zones. Development goes hand-in-hand with disarmament. However, without the investment that creates jobs for hungry, angry, unemployed young men, countries recovering from civil wars can too easily slip back into conflict. Sudan and Darfur, the Horn of Africa and Central Africa all fit these categories right now.
The failure of most African countries to disarm fully after wars exacerbates underlying problems of poverty and underdevelopment. The situation is made worse by Western trade laws and “shock therapy” economic reform. Structural adjustment programmes and trade violations, many Africans would say, get in the way of development. People suffer greatly and their desperation leads to a spiral of violence, fuelled by easy availability of small arms.
In the articles that follow in this series, regional situations in Africa where the small arms trade flourishes will be examined.
McCullum was named editor/publisher of The United Church Observer in 1980, following the death of longtime editor Rev. Al Forrest. He was not only the first layperson appointed as editor, he was also the first editor who came from outside The United Church of Canada. The son of an Anglican priest, McCullum had been editor of the national newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1968-75. Before that, he enjoyed a colourful career in daily newspapers, including stints at the Kingston Whig-Standard, the Regina Leader-Post and the now-defunct Toronto Telegram. Stories he wrote for the Telegram in the late 1960s about the secessionist Nigerian state of Biafra helped bring the world’s attention to a politically engineered famine that killed an estimated one million people.
As editor of The Observer, McCullum presided over the magazine’s transition from an arm of the General Council to an independently incorporated publication with full editorial autonomy. Never content to confine himself to the editor’s office, he travelled extensively, reporting on church-backed struggles for justice in Canada’s North, in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. McCullum won dozens of church press awards and was a three-time National Magazine Awards winner. During his time at The Observer, he also hosted CBC TV’s Meeting Place.
McCullum is remembered as a passionate advocate for marginalized people everywhere, and as a prolific reporter and writer who insisted that church publications engage the world beyond their institutional borders. McCullum died Oct. 16 in Toronto. He was 76 and had been in declining health for two years. UCObserver
Select bibliography and links:
Arms Without Borders: Why a Globalised Trade Needs Global Controls. A report produced for the Control Arms Campaign by Amnesty International, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and Oxfam, 2006.
Focus on Small Arms in Africa (a quarterly newsletter since March 2002). Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
“Implementation of the PoA in Africa”, Biting the Bullet Project (International Alert, Saferworld and University of Bradford), 2006.
McLean, Andrew (compiler). Tackling Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa: Strengthening the Capacity of Sub-regional Organizations. Safer World 2000 Meeting Report, 7-8 May 2000.
Mirzeler, Mustapha & Crawford Young. “Pastoral Politics in the North East in Uganda: AK47 as Change Agent,” Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2000.
Mkutu, Kennedy. “Pastoral Conflict and Small Arms: Uganda Border Region”, Safer World, November 2000.
Reyneke, Eunice. Small Weapons and Light Weapons in Africa: Illicit Proliferation, Circulation and Trafficking. Proceedings of the OAU Experts Meeting and International Consultation May-June 2000. Institute for Security Studes, South Africa.
Saferworld (an NGO working to prevent armed violence and create safer communities).
Venter, Al. “Arms Pour into Africa,” New African, no. 370, January 1999, pp. 10-15.
Wood, Brian & Elizabeth Clegg. Controlling the Gun Runners: Proposals for EU Action to Regulate Arms Brokering and Shipping Agents. Safer World, February 1999.