By: Will Chim, Columnist
Nuclear weapons have been responsible for zero deaths since 1945, whereas conventional weapons have been responsible for nearly all conflict deaths of the rest of the 20th century and the entire 21st century. Yet in the field of security studies and defense policy, discussion and scholarship focus almost wholly on nuclear weapons and both ignore and minimize the broad threat that conventional weapons pose to both state and individual security around the world.
In the post-Cold War era, most wars have been internal conflicts within sovereign states fought by both regular and irregular forces. Both insurgent groups and paramilitary forces in various conflict areas around the world have used readily available, massive stocks of small arms and light weapons to devastate their countries and regions and cause significant harm to civilian populations.[i] The U.S. State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (WRA) best describes the ongoing threat that conventional weapons, often described as small arms and light weapons (SA/LW) pose to the global community, “Around the world, stockpiles of excess, poorly-secured or otherwise at-risk conventional weapons remain a serious threat to peace and prosperity.”[ii] Conventional weapons are inexpensive, readily available to any individual or group who wants them, and fuel political instability and violence the world over. Stockpiles of improperly managed weapons can explode and cause death and destruction. Unexploded ordnance and landmines prevent the safe use of land for economic purposes and displace communities in areas of conflict and instability.[iii] For example, Amnesty International noted that “decades of reckless arms trading” fueled the rise of the Islamic State.[iv] Furthermore, illicit arms trafficking fuels internal conflicts, contributes to global crime, equips terror groups, all resulting in an estimate that SA/LW account for 60-90% of the 100,000+ conflict deaths each year.[v] The US government, along with many international allies, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations, has pledged billions of dollars to countering the spread and threat of conventional weapons through programs securing and destroying weapons along with broad demining programs and efforts to disarm conflict zones.[vi] However, topic is not widely discussed outside of the conventional weapons destruction community (CWD), and especially compared to the security studies community’s obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles as tools of geopolitical politics.
The Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent research project in Geneva, Switzerland that monitors SA/LW, estimates that there are 875 million small arms in the world today, with 200 million held by state militaries and 25 million among law enforcement, leaving 600 million in the hands of private citizens.[vii] This information, however, is based on only readily available, public data for weapons that have identification information. SAS estimates that for each soldier in all the world’s militaries, there are 2-5 small arms.[viii] As well, SAS estimates the legal global trade in SA/LW and ammunition to be at least $7.1 billion per year.[ix] Factoring in illegally held weapons and stockpiles would make the 875 million number much higher. It also estimates the value of illicit arms trafficking at a minimum of 10-20% of the total global legal trade, possibly several billion dollars per year.[x] Simply put, these numbers are staggering and represent an under-recognized threat to global security.
Conventional weapons proliferation does not receive top-line attention from countries and the security studies community for a variety of reasons. The global small arms trade is incredibly profitable and intertwined with national governments and militaries, preventing any serious state-level action. For example, the United Nations’ Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to prevent weapons sales and transfers to countries under embargo or to non-state actors and requires verification that weapons will not be used in terrorism, genocide, or other crimes against humanity, only entered into force in 2014. Furthermore, major powers such as the U.S., China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia (the second largest weapons importer in the world)[xi] have yet to ratify it, rendering it largely ineffective.[xii] As well, the challenge of countering legal and illegal proliferation of conventional weapons is near-insurmountable, as small weapons are generally legal, have legitimate military and recreational uses, and are extremely easy to conceal and transport. While nuclear weapons are the exclusive domain of state governments, the small arms industry involves non-state individuals, corporations, and communities the world over. Conventional weapons proliferation poses a serious threat to security, prosperity, and development in both developed and developing areas the world over.
It is understandable that national security analysts identify nuclear weapons as posing more of a global security threat than conventional weapons, though this would be a grave mistake. For those scholars and policymakers focused on nuclear weapons, they consider the apocalyptic possibility of a nuclear war and discount the likelihood of major wars fought with conventional weapons. However, the nuclear taboo has held fast since 1945 and it will continue to do so, even in the era of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un because of the immense and unendurable political and economic consequences, as well as an incalculable cost in human lives. The development of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons is often used to challenge the taboo, but such devices entail a very different discussion from wanton large-scale nuclear annihilation, which will remain taboo. Current nuclear weapons have catastrophic but hypothetical consequences, while the carnage wrought by small arms and light weapons is a devastating, daily reality worldwide.
The world must view conventional weapons proliferation as a grave security issue and one deeply connected to a human security perspective. The spread of small arms and light weapons is not merely a business or of less importance than other non-proliferation issues. Such conflicts primarily fought with conventional weapons are considered under the threshold of “low intensity” and “localized” conflict, but this does not capture the severity of most conflicts today, which pose a much greater threat to regional and international security. Protracted conflict, even with conventional weapons, undermines all aspects of society, development, and stability. Use of landmines and other weapons have long-term economic and political effects on individuals, families, and communities long after the conflicts have ended. A human security perspective allows for the understanding that all aspects of such conflicts are connected, and that the global spread of light weapons is a core problem that requires more international attention.
[iv] “Iraq: ‘Islamic State’ atrocities fueled by decades of reckless arms trading,” Amnesty International, December 8, 2015. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/12/islamic-state-atrocities-fuelled-by-decades-of-reckless-arms-trading/
[v] Matt Schroeder, “The Illicit Arms Trade,” https://fas.org/asmp/campaigns/smallarms/IssueBrief3ArmsTrafficking.html.
[vii] Small Arms Survey, “State Stockpiles.” http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/stockpiles/state-stockpiles.html.
[ix] Small Arms Survey, “Larger but Less Known: Authorized Light Weapons Transfers,” 2011, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2011/en/Small-Arms-Survey-2011-Chapter-01-summary-EN.pdf.
[x] Matt Schroeder and Guy Lamb, “The Illicit Arms Trade in Africa: A Global Enterprise,” Africa Analyst 1 (2006): 69. https://web.archive.org/web/20070221133132/http://www.fas.org/asmp/library/articles/SchroederLamb.pdf
[xi] Dr. Kate Blanchfield, Peter Wezeman, Siemon Wezeman, “The state of major arms transfers in 8 graphics,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, February 22, 2017. https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2017/state-major-arms-transfers-8-graphics
[xii] 8. Arms Trade Treaty, United Nations Treaty Collection. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVI-8&chapter=26&clang=_en