ABELLO: Blood money and the right to life

Oscar Abello

Small arms trade is surrounded by cruel irony. Although small arms are the cause of a vast majority of deaths in armed conflict, there is still no global non-proliferation agreement or regulatory agency to monitor small arms and light weapons. Despite a global war on terror, that war remains blind to the small arms that have become the weapons of choice for violent movements of every nation, religion and faction. Weapons exports have increased, particularly in those countries closest to alleged bastions of terrorism where exporting countries have distributed weapons without regard for past humanitarian records. The resulting influx of weapons has served to bolster both sides of the conflict and further perpetuate communities of violence, all without any hint of traditional “weapons of mass destruction.” Afghani President Hamid Karzai has even gone on the record to say that in the war on terror, “small arms are the main obstacle to peace.”

They are certainly a massive obstacle. Of the estimated 639 million small arms in circulation as of 2006, nearly 60 percent were privately owned, 37 percent owned by government armed forces, 2.8 percent owned by police and the remainder owned by armed resistance forces. Over 1,135 companies are responsible for the manufacture of small arms, coming from over 98 different countries. Often the final assembly is made of products from different countries and different companies, further complicating the problem of stemming small arms trade. Roughly eight million new arms are produced annually.

A hidden evil is that small arms traffickers are dependent on keeping the current system in place. The elaborate, esoteric schemes used to transport the weapons add value to each transaction and discourage entry of new competing suppliers. Considering the shady, but unquestionable, proximity of many small arms suppliers to government officials worldwide, it is no surprise that the movement to alter the current system has often been undermined by suppliers with more money and influence.

Nowhere is the money and power of small arms suppliers felt more than in the United States, the world’s single largest exporter of small arms. Out of the estimated annual international trade value of $34 billion, the United States is responsible for an estimated $18.55 billion in small arms trade. Last year the U.N. Disarmament Committee overwhelmingly approved two motions to begin work on an international arms trade treaty that would establish international tracing measures, close present loopholes and stop the supply of weapons to countries whose development is hampered by arms spending. Only one country voted against each motion – the United States.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went on the record against any such initiatives, citing the constitutional right to bear arms preventing the United States from backing any program that would infringe such a right. Bolton has also said that the United States would refuse to fund any program to raise awareness of small arms trade worldwide.

Despite countries like the United States and others justifying the continued legitimate sale of arms by insisting they will be used to combat exclusively military targets, the reality remains that over 500,000 civilians die each year from small arms fire – one person every minute.

The cruelest irony of them all? The likelihood is nearly none of the measures approved by the U.N. Disarmament Committee will be effectively enforced, after being adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. The perseverance of arms trade might be evidence enough that any new enforcement strategy will simply lead to new strategies for getting around them. Combine that with the plain reality that the governments who would be charged to enforce these international laws have a hard enough time enforcing their own laws. If the new measures are not so much about reality, they must be more about principle, about a universal statement that no one should profit from the deaths of others. The American disapproval of such measures seems but a symbolic gesture that the right to bear – and sell – arms is more important than the right to life.

This column was compiled with permission using excerpts from a November 2006 article for The Culture.


Oscar Abello is a junior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]