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The high cost of small arms transfers
Rwanda is only the latest example of what can happen when small arms and light weapons are sold to a country plagued by ethnic, religious, or nationalist strife. In today’s wars such weapons are responsible for most of the killings of civilians and combatants. They are used more often than major weapons systems in human rights abuses and other violations of international law. Light conventional arms sustain and expand conflict in a world increasingly characterized by nationalist tensions and border wars. Yet the international community continues to ignore trade in those weapons, concentrating instead on the dangers of nuclear arms proliferation.
In the post-Cold War era, in which the profit motive has replaced East-West concerns as the main stimulus behind weapons sales, ex-Warsaw Pact and NATO nations are dumping their arsenals on the open market. Prices for some weapons, such as Soviet-designed Kalashnikov AKM automatic rifles (commonly known as AK-47s), have fallen below cost. Many Third World countries, such as China, Egypt, and South Africa, have also stepped up sales of light weapons and small arms. More than a dozen nations that were importers of small arms 15 years ago now manufacture and export them. But most of this trade remains unknown. Unlike major conventional weapons systems, governments rarely disclose the details of transfers of light weapons and small arms.
The resulting costs of such transfers are apparent. Small arms and light weapons have flooded nations like Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, not only fanning warfare, but also undermining international efforts to embargo arms and to compel parties to respect human rights. They have helped undermine peacekeeping efforts and allowed heavily armed militias to challenge U.N. and U.S. troops. They raise the cost of relief assistance paid by countries like the United States. Yet the international community has no viable mechanism to monitor the transfer of light and small weapons, and neither the United Nations nor the Clinton administration has demonstrated the leadership required to control that trade.
No tragedy better illustrates the need for controls than Rwanda, where the U.S. contribution to the present relief effort is expected to reach $500 million, or about two dollars for every U.S. citizen. Rwanda’s genocide, which began in April 1994, was preceded by a war launched in October 1990 by Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) against the Hutu-led government. Rwanda was already one of the poorest nations in Africa. Although both the government and guerrillas had limited resources with which to buy arms, and their combined 45,000 combatants never comprised a very large market, arms suppliers rushed to both sides like vultures to a carcass.
The war’s origins go back, in part, to a wave of violence from 1959 to 1966, when the Hutu overthrew the Tutsi monarchy, which had ruled for centuries. Between 20,000 and 100,000 Tutsi were killed in a slaughter that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell then described as “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” The violence drove about 150,000 Tutsi exiles, known as Banyarwanda, to Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire.
In Uganda, Banyarwanda and their descendants suffered under the tyranny of dictators, including Milton Obote and Idi Amin. In the early 1980s at least 2,000 of them joined a guerrilla movement led by a former defense minister, Yoweri Museveni. In 1986 Museveni and his men took power. In 1990, when the RPF invaded Rwanda across its northern border with Uganda, more than half its initial guerrillas and most its officers were drawn from Uganda’s army. Uganda also provided an array of small arms and other weapons systems, including recoilless cannons and Soviet-made Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers.
To counter the invasion, the Hutu government drew from its existing stock of Belgian automatic rifles and French armored vehicles. But Rwanda was understocked and under siege. Until then, Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial ruler, had been its main military patron. But Belgium had an explicit policy against providing lethal arms to a country at war. Following the invasion, Belgium continued to provide military training, boots, and uniforms to the Rwandan army, but no arms. France, however, rushed in 60-mm, 81.-mm, and 120-mm mortars and 105-mm light artillery guns. France, which was committed to keeping Rwanda within the bloc of 21 Francophone African nations, also provided seasoned advisers and four companies of 680 combat troops at a time.
An arms race was under way. More than a dozen nations helped fuel the Rwandan war, and both sides appear to have purchased considerable weaponry through private sources on the open market. By its own admission, the Rwanda government bankrupted its economy to pay for those weapons. Former Warsaw Pact countries appear to have supplied both sides, seeing opportunity in Rwanda less than one year after the Berlin Wall fell. It remains unclear how long it took ex-Warsaw Pact equipment to reach Rwanda, but eventually most RPF guerrillas carried Kalashnikov AKM automatic rifles, many manufactured in Romania. Among the rebels who had uniforms, most wore distinctive East German rain-pattern camouflage.
Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and others are aggressively promoting arms sales. The collapse of Moscow’s central control has given governments and the officials left in charge of existing stockpiles a free hand. With the Russian ruble devalued and East European nations in need of hard currency, their governments are likely to try to sell even more small arms in the future. The CIA reports that Russian crime syndicates are also involved in nongovernmental weapons sales.
By 1993, Rwanda’s Hutu government had begun to look to Russia to buy arms, especially Kalashnikov AKMs. But the key suppliers for government forces were France, Egypt, and South Africa. A $6 million contract between Egypt and Rwanda in March 1992, with Rwanda’s payment guaranteed by a French bank, included 60-mm and 82-mm mortars, 16,000 mortar shells, 122-mm D-30 howitzers, 3,000 artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives, antipersonnel land mines, and more than three million rounds of small arms ammunition.
South Africa also supplied small arms, including R-4 automatic rifles, 7.62-mm machine guns, and 12.7-mm Browning machine guns. In October 1992, on the heels of the Egyptian deal, Rwanda made a $5.9 million purchase from South Africa: 100 60-mm mortars, 70 40-mm grenade launchers with 10,000 grenades, 20,000 rifle grenades, 10,000 hand grenades, spare parts and 1.5 million rounds of ammunition for R-4 rifles, and one million rounds of machine gun ammunition.
South Africa developed its arms industry in response to the U.N. embargo against it. Its conventional weaponry is considered to be among the most durable and reliable in the world — a fact Rwanda quickly learned. By late 1993, within a year of its $5.9 million purchase, Rwanda had decided to standardize its infantry forces with South African arms. These purchases from South Africa were in contravention of U.N. Security Council Resolution 558 opposing importation of weapons from South Africa. The import prohibition was voluntary, unlike the U.N. ban on arms exports to South Africa, which was lifted in May.
Who is responsible?
The proliferation of weapons in Rwanda expanded the conflict, displacing, last year, one out of eight Rwandans — one million refugees who went unnoticed internationally. The arms flows also facilitated violations of international law (both the army and RPF engaged in direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas) and increased human rights abuses. Regrettably, that turned out to be a tragedy of minor proportions compared to what came next.
Relief groups estimate that 200,000 to 500,000 people have been killed in the genocidal carnage that began in April, although some U.S. intelligence experts estimate the death toll at one million or more. Much of the killing was carried out with machetes, but automatic rifles and hand grenades were also commonly used. Their wide availability helped Hutu extremists carry out their slaughter on a horrendous scale. The huge piles of Tutsi bodies massacred in Rwanda since April are now juxtaposed with the huge piles of rifles in Goma, Zaire, that were confiscated from fleeing Hutu.
Rwandan authorities distributed large numbers of firearms to militia members and other supporters months before the genocide began, and again after most foreigners left Rwanda at the beginning of the carnage. One example is sufficient to demonstrate the impact of small arms in the hands of those capable of crimes against humanity: Human Rights Watch/Africa reports that 2,800 people gathered in a church were slaughtered by militiamen using automatic rifles, machine guns, grenades, and machetes. As people fled, it took the militia four hours to kill them all.
Governments that supplied weapons and otherwise supported those forces bear some responsibility for needless civilian deaths. In March 1993, following the release of a report detailing the massacre of several thousand unarmed Tutsi civilians between 1990 and 1993, Belgium withdrew its ambassador, Johan Swinnen, for two weeks to protest the abuses. In contrast, France apologized for them. Said French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud, “There are violations by the Rwandan Army, more because of a lack of control by the government, rather than the will of the government.” Hutu leaders got the message that they could get away with genocide facilitated by foreign arms.
Perhaps if more had been known about the flow of light weapons and small arms into Rwanda, if the international community had the opportunity to stop the arms influx or at least to pressure suppliers into conditioning arms supply on human rights performance, the outcome would have been different. Yet to this day France, South Africa, Egypt, and Uganda have not fully disclosed the nature and extent of their military assistance and arms transfers.
For Rwanda, international scrutiny came too late. In the future, human rights organizations may continue to disagree with governments about the impact of the transfer of light weapons and small arms. But a democratic debate over whether such transfers conflict with human rights requires knowledge of the transfers themselves. This is something that any democratic republic, including France and the new South Africa, should understand.
The problems of control
On every continent, trade in light weapons and small arms — both legal and on the black market — is rapidly expanding, although there are no reliable statistics. This contrasts with the global trade in heavy weapons systems, which, according to most statistics, has actually declined in dollar value in recent years. Both trends reflect the high demand for light weapons and small arms in regional conflicts. Most observers agree that those arms have never before been so easily obtainable.
It is increasingly clear that the proliferation of light weapons is a destabilizing force throughout the world. Pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenades, light mortars, and light artillery are the weapons used most often in repressing civilian populations. Included in their toll is the suffering of refugees, and the corresponding costs of international humanitarian relief efforts. Small arms raise the cost of international peacekeeping and peacemaking operations. Thus, they endanger not only internal, but also regional and international stability.
Nonetheless, conventional arms trade control remains a secondary issue for most nations. Almost no effort is being made to monitor and control trade in light weapons and small arms. Governments and independent analysts alike focus almost exclusively on major weapons systems.
Disclosure of arms transfers is in the interest of the United States and the international community. Therefore, the first and essential element of any control mechanism should be to compel as many states as possible to make their transfers public. Some states, however, will oppose any attempt to compel transparency for fear that disclosure of their buyers might invite competition. Even more states, those that sell arms to human rights abusers, would fear that disclosure would subject them to stigma. But both concerns should be overridden by the collective international need for transparency.
The dynamics of the arms market give rise to another obstacle. Clearly, any control mechanism would be imperfect. The leakiness of existing and past arms embargoes on individual nations is ample evidence of the difficulties involved. A major reason those embargoes have been difficult to enforce is that without any mechanism to control transfers, states can easily buy arms through second- and third-party transfers, without the knowledge of the original producer.
There is also the huge problem presented by the voluminous covert trade in light weapons, which some observers believe may amount to billions of dollars each year. In one incident in 1993, 150 tons of assault rifles, mortars, rocket launchers, land mines, and ammunition, mostly of Chinese and Czech manufacture, were found in a warehouse in Slovenia, intended for Bosnian Muslims. Clearly, private arms dealers would seek ways to illegally circumvent any control mechanism. “Yet the biggest regular suppliers of weapons to the covert arms trade are not freelancing private arms dealers, but governments themselves,” reports The Economist. “The main motive is cash.”
The international community has never established a viable mechanism for controlling the transfer of conventional arms. Attempts at control have largely consisted of a patchwork of often ineffective arms embargoes against perceived rogue nations and failed international discussions, notably the Conventional Arms Transfer Talks during the Carter administration and the U.N. Security Council “Perm 5” talks following the Persian Gulf War. Many nations have domestic legislation regulating arms trade, but such regulations tend to be weak and susceptible to duplicity by such means as false end-user certificates. And, in general, there is far less official scrutiny and regulation of the trade in small arms and light weapons than in major weapons. Most troublesome, nations rarely have meaningful control over how their weapons are used once transferred.
The most significant international initiative to date has been the establishment of the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms. The register was made possible by the end of the Cold War, which created a more sympathetic environment for conventional arms trade control, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which convinced many nations of the dangers of excessive arms transfers. The U.N. register is a voluntary mechanism, designed not as a control measure but as a confidence-building procedure. Data is requested on the export and import of seven categories of major weapons systems: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, naval warships, and missiles and missile launchers. The U.N. established the register in 1991, and states made their first entries in 1993 for the previous calendar year.
The U.N. register has been a qualified success. Some previously unknown information was reported, while some critical and otherwise known transfers were not. Fortunately, most arms exporters participated, including a number of countries that have traditionally been secretive about their arms trade, such as France and the United Kingdom. But only two-thirds of arms importers participated; some key nations in the Middle East and Asia did not.
These shortcomings stem partly from fundamental problems with the register itself. It does not include light weapons and small arms; it requests reporting only after the completion of a calendar year; and it requests states to participate on a voluntary basis. Rwanda is a case in point. Despite the heavy flow of arms into that country in 1992, the only entry listed in the register is Egypt’s provision of six 122-mm howitzers. These problems are readily recognized by people responsible for developing the register, but they point out that the collective political will necessary to correct the problems does not exist at this time.
Still, the premise of the U.N. register is sound. Increased transparency enhances peace and stability. A register for trade in light weapons and small arms is needed more than one for major weapons systems, as far more about trade in the latter is already known. The addition of light weapons and small arms to the register, even if unevenly reported, would be a major step forward. Transparency can also be a crucial tool in the much-needed effort to demand accountability for weapons misuse by the supplier as well as the recipient.
Whatever control mechanism is used, to be effective it must seek to compel rather than merely request disclosure, and disclosure should be within a reasonable period. A nation’s willingness to cooperate should be a prerequisite for its acceptance by the international community. The nurturing of such a climate would, of course, take time. The first step should be expanding the register to include light weapons and small arms.
Many states will be opposed to controls on trade in light weapons and small arms, and reasonable questions will be asked about the feasibility of constructing a verifiable or enforceable export control regime. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for the Clinton administration to show leadership on an important but largely ignored threat to international peace and stability.
No discussion of conventional arms exports should omit the fact that the largest conventional arms exporter is the United States. The Clinton administration has trumpeted the increased threat of the spread of weapons of mass destruction as the foremost danger facing the United States. Yet it has issued hardly a word on conventional arms — the real killer — except to assert their importance to U.S. defense manufacturers. For almost two years, the administration has labored to develop an official arms transfer policy. According to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, “Regrettably, the evidence clearly indicates that the administration has sought to promote arms sales, rather than to reduce them.”
The United States, as the world’s number one arms merchant, should take the lead in proposing new ways to control the flow of light weapons and small arms. An administration that is struggling to deal with crises in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere should recognize its own need to check this type of proliferation.
To its credit, the U.S. government has taken action on light weapons in two notable instances. In a precedent-setting action earlier this year, the United States announced that it would no longer provide small arms to Indonesia in recognition of its government’s use of such weapons in human rights abuses in East Timor. The U.S. Congress has incorporated a similar ban into this year’s foreign aid appropriations bill.
Even more noteworthy is the leadership the United States has exercised in prohibiting the export of a particularly egregious light weapon — the antipersonnel land mine.’ With strong encouragement from a broad coalition of human rights, humanitarian, arms control, development, and environmental organizations, the United States, at the initiative of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Representative Lane Evans (D-Ill.), enacted a one-year moratorium on the export of all antipersonnel land mines in 1992 and extended the moratorium for another three years in 1993. The U.N. General Assembly subsequently passed a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on land mine trade, and to date about a dozen nations have announced an export ban. The U.S. State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency are developing a framework for an international export control regime for antipersonnel land mines. This could provide a model for limiting the trade in light weapons and small arms.
While the vast majority of the United States’ major weapons transfers are public, most of its transfers of light weapons and small arms are not. For this trade no regular reporting is made to Congress in classified or unclassified form. Many sales are private commercial transactions, and attempts to get detailed data on them through the Freedom of Information Act are routinely denied on proprietary grounds. But since the United States has perhaps the most transparent arms transfer system of any arms-producing nation, it has little to lose and much to gain by compelling competitors to move toward an equal or higher standard.
Transparency would not translate into control. But it is a necessary starting point in coming to grips with the nature, scope, and effects of the trade in light weapons and small arms. The costs to the world of this uncontrolled trade are so great that urgent action is needed. Nations need to devote more resources to monitoring and assessing the impact of the light arms trade. The international community needs to do some serious and creative thinking about how to design a control regime. To preclude more killing fields, the world begs for leadership now.
1. See, for example, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1991-1992, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994; U.S. Congressional Research Service, “Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World 1986-1993,” CRS Report to Congress, #94-612F, July 29, 1994; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 1994, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
2. See Edward J. Laurance, Siemon T. Wezeman, and Herbert Wulf, Arms Watch: SIPRI Report on the First Year of the U.N. Register on Conventional Arms, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
3. For several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a useful and detailed annual report was publicly released to Congress that contained comprehensive data on the U.S. trade in light weapons and small arms — the “Annual Report on Military Assistance and Exports, as required by Section 657, Foreign Assistance Act.” Resuming publication of this report would be the singly most important step the U.S. government could take to increase transparency in arms transfers,