Small Arms “... could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction‘.” (1)
The number of people that are injured and killed by Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) each year far exceeds deaths and injuries caused by chemical, nuclear and biological weapons. This does not diminish the threat posed by the continued weaponisation of chemical, nuclear and biological components. It should however serve as a cautionary reminder of the fact that the proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons were left unchecked and unregulated until it reached a point where it is costing the world billions of dollars to mitigate the damage caused by these weapons.
Unregulated SALW propagation has impacted African in particular on many different levels. The weapons contributed to the erosion of the social fabric in communities and played an instrumental role in plunging countries into civil wars. SALW are used to commit violent crimes across the world and the impact is felt in Africa as well as in developed countries, no one is exempt from the devastating effects of firearm related crime.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and SALW are inextricably linked and the experience gained from SALW control should serve as a guide in the approach followed to maintain effective control over WMD. The continuous reminders along the path already travelled may be used as early indicators of threats and obstacles that might arise in the future.
It should also serve as a reminder that denying a country access to technology will not prevent it from acquiring the technology in the future. If countries without nuclear capability were to pursue the capability they would eventually acquire it, and these countries may decide to fast track their own research by acquiring the technology through mendacious means. This undermines the control process and contributes to mistrust and inherent instability.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) can serve as a topical case study for SALW and conventional weapons control. The region was plagued by internal conflict for decades and although currently there has been a period of relative peace, tensions are still high between the winners and the losers of the wars in the respective countries. It is this tension that should concern the world. Should it happen, for example, that Angola and Mozambique regress into civil war, the factions in these countries may want to re-arm their supporters. This sudden demand for weaponry of all kinds may plunge the world into turmoil. Everyone will be affected, to a greater or a lesser degree, and the effects may range from the loss of oil production in Angola to the revitalised illicit trade in SALW. These factors will directly and indirectly have a world wide destabilising affect not to mention the disastrous impact it would have on the SADC region.
These considerations should provide the necessary impetus for all responsible countries to work together to establish a world where armed violence is the exception rather than the rule.
There are several obstacles that are in the way of effective global arms control. These hindrances vary from the need to protect national territory to global terrorism and criminal greed. The most concerning trend however is politically motivated manipulation for the sake of its own agenda. For example a country might try and derail international beneficial initiatives such as the Arms Trade Treaty that would contribute to increased human safety and security, from being implemented for its own national interests.
There are also significant opposition to international arms control regulation from less secure states. These states actively undermine the arms control process by preventing instruments from achieving agreement by consensus.
These states, mistakenly, assume that countries will not take a moral decision to prevent them from dealing with entities that threaten international human security. This is however not the case, arms manufacturing countries already scrutinise buyers and many have set up committees tasked to approve sales to and acquisitions of all conventional weapons, including SALW. These committees consist of several governmental departments that use their own resources to motivate why a transaction should be permitted or not.
While the current status of weapons is a serious concern and the effects of these weapons cannot be trivialised it is the weapons of tomorrow that has the most potential to disrupt the existing status quo. Technological innovation is one of the most serious threats to global peace and security from a SALW and conventional weapons control perspective. In the last 100 years few revolutionary advances have been made in the human effort to wage war. Broadly, warfare relies on human beings using some weapon to attack one another. The weapons evolved slowly and became more sophisticated over time but most needed direct human intervention to be used effectively. In the instance of landmines and cluster munitions, which were deployed and needed no further human intervention to be used, the world recognised the danger and agreed, with the exception of a few countries, not to use these types of weapons.
The basic principle of man-on-man warfare is at the brink of irrevocable change, weapons are at the point of becoming autonomous to such a degree that any human intervention will be the exception rather than the rule. The first clear indicator of this change is the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and armed unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). These UCAVs are loaded with technology and in some instances can be programmed to remain in an area until a specific target is within range before firing missiles at it (2). We are entering an era where man will serve the machines we build for war in stark contrast with the past where machines (weapons) served man to wage war.
These developments are a reason for concern, however; more disturbing for countries and continents where fragile peace exist is how the, soon to be redundant, SALW and conventional weapons in technologically advanced countries’ arsenals will be disposed of. Developed countries spent millions of dollars to develop or acquire the best weaponry money could buy - at a particular moment in time. However if a complete change in strategic warfare is imminent, would it not make sense, to these weaponized countries, to sell the redundant systems to countries with older systems in an effort to recover some of the costs of the investment they made? That raises the question will there be a flood of previous generation arms entering the market when countries with modern weaponry makes the transition from the current generation of weapons to the next generation?
It is critical that all countries realise the imminent threat posed by SALW and conventional weapons. More specifically the danger posed by weapons systems that become redundant when countries acquires better and more effective weapons systems.
Although arms manufacturing countries may be of the opinion that it would do no real harm in assisting countries in acquiring newer weaponry, as they themselves upgrade, it needs to be understood that selling older technology to fragile states will perpetuate the cycle of armed violence across the world. And the worst thing that manufacturing countries can do is to sell machinery and technology to fragile states, enabling them to manufacture weapons and weapon systems on their own.
Should this happen, the flood of arms and ammunition specifically may overwhelm fledgling democracies across the world and it would contribute to the global threat of terrorism.
The main adjustment that can make a difference in the future is for arms manufacturing countries to commit to a process of destroying the old and redundant weapon systems when they upgrade to new weapon systems. The current practice of selling redundant and outdated weapon systems to the highest bidder should be stopped.
This is a significant commitment that is needed from manufacturing countries and it would slow down the process of migrating from older to the newest warfare systems. It will also need substantial support from state and citizenry if it is taken into account that working weapon systems will be destroyed and the only capital return from these systems and the machinery used in their manufacturing might be scrap metal. The pressure and temptation to sell the weapons systems and the manufacturing equipment will be immense.
The newest tool in the effort to stem the tide of illicit or unscrupulous arms trading is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT was adopted by an overwhelming majority of countries and can contribute to a significant change in the roles played by all countries involved in any arms transfer transactions.
Countries that are involved in any way in an arms transaction are required to ‘apply its mind’ when considering an application by the importing and exporting entity in the transaction. The human security aspect of the trade becomes the guiding principle for countries and it becomes extremely difficult to allow transactions to countries with known human rights abuses.
For the safety of the people across the world and in particular Africa, it is critical that countries incorporate arms and ammunition disposal plans in their defence planning over the next half century.
Weapons and ammunition should be destroyed in the country where it became redundant and it should in principle not be sold to other countries.
The policy of all the countries in the process of developing next generation weapons systems must be that the systems being phased out will be destroyed without exception, and that the moral issue will win out over financial consideration of recouping development and acquisition costs.
(1) Annan, Kofi, UN Secretary-General (2006), United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its
(2) Crawford, Neta C (2003), ‘Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War’, Perspectives on Politics, Issue 1, March, pp 5–25.