Legal trade in small arms doubles in six years

More than half a million people, mainly civilians, are killed each year by illicit small arms Keystone

The legal international trade in small arms, light weapons, their parts and ammunition is worth at least $8.5 billion (SFr8.15 billion) annually, according to the Swiss-led Small Arms Survey 2012.

This content was published on August 28, 2012 - 11:36
Rita Emch in New York,

This figure, released on Monday at the United Nations in New York, is more than double the previous estimate from 2006.

According to the Small Arms Survey (SAS), the increase from the previous estimate of about $4 billion is due to various factors. Two important sources are large-scale government spending by states involved in the conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan and increased purchases of small arms and ammunition by civilians in the United States.

Better information and improved research methods also played a role in refining the estimate.

Eric Berman, SAS managing director, said at the UN headquarters in New York that the report’s findings on trade were based on four years of investigation. The researchers reviewed tens of thousands of records, customs reports and other government data.

He said the researchers thought the authorised trade was larger than the illicit trade, which nevertheless may do more damage. The two trades combined would clearly have a value over $10 billion, he added.

Switzerland among top exporters

In 2009, according to the latest report, the top exporters with a trade of at least $100 million a year were the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Japan, Switzerland, Russia, France, South Korea, Belgium and Spain (in descending order).

The top importers (at least $100 million) were the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, Germany and France.

The calculations were compiled using the most recent published customs data, but poor transparency in state reporting among both large and small exporters still keeps a great deal of the authorised trade obscure, the SAS noted.

State transparency on small arms transfers to and from Europe and North America had been relatively strong, but lagged in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Berman said.

“Improved transparency from important exporters such as China and Russia, as well as states that re-export surplus weapons, would improve our understanding of the sources and means through which authorised arms transfers fuel the illicit trade,” he said.

Transparency barometer

The Survey also contains a “transparency barometer” that assesses reporting practices of 52 countries for 2010.

The most transparent were Switzerland, Britain and Romania. The US was 14th, China 45th and Russia 47th. The three least-transparent countries were Iran, North Korea and the United Arab Emirates, all scoring zero points.

Of a maximum of 25 points, the average score of all 52 countries was 11.2, a drop of almost two per cent compared with the previous year. Switzerland scored 21 points. It was the only country to have produced a dedicated national report on small arms and light weapons exports.

Overall, between 2001 and 2011, state transparency on small arms, light weapons, their parts, accessories and ammunition improved by more than 40 per cent.

The report states that despite progress among some states, there remains much scope for improved reporting.

Illicit trade

The SAS is also engaged in a multi-year effort to examine the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, with a focus on Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

A first conclusion researchers have come to is that non-state groups in all three cases appear to almost always be using older-generation weapons, the vast majority Kalashnikov-style assault rifles. Armed groups in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have only scant access to technologically sophisticated or latest-generation light weapons.

One exception is that new data on weapons seized in Iraq suggest that a significant part of seized Iranian weapons were manufactured only recently.

The SAS also analysed other topics, including armed violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, state policy and drug violence, Somali piracy and private security companies.

There is also a chapter on non-lethal firearm violence. Worldwide at least two million people are living with firearm injuries sustained in non-conflict zones over the past decade.

Small arms

The Small Arms Survey is an independent research project located at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development Studies. It is supported by the Swiss foreign ministry and contributions from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the US. It was initiated in 1999 by Switzerland.

The launch of the Small Arms Survey 2012 coincided with the start of the Second Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

The programme was adopted in 2001 to improve national regional and international efforts to tackle the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The first Small Arms Survey was published at the time of the programme's adoption.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message to the conference on August 27 that more than half a million people, mainly civilians, are killed each year by illicit small arms.

While some progress was made since 2001, he said there is still limited cooperation among countries in tracking illicit weapons, “and in many countries, insecure stockpiles continue to be a source of arms and ammunition for armed groups, terrorists and organised crime”.

In July, delegations from around the world failed to agree on a new UN arms-trade treaty to regulate the more than $60 billion industry. They opted instead for further talks and a possible vote in the UN General Assembly at a later date.

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