US/UN: small arms trade causing widespread civilian deaths


Urgent Appeal Case: UA-24-2001
ISSUES: Military, Police violence,

UA-24-2001 – Sign the Amnesty petition for small arms controls 

US/UN: small arms trade causing widespread civilian deaths 

The latest RESPONSE for this appeal is available at:

“In the course of this speech which has lasted for only a few minutes, one life per minute has been stamped out because of small arms, resulting in destroyed families, destabilized societies, weakened countries. To those watching and listening to us, let us give a concrete and bold response. Let us be willful,. Let us be responsible.” 
— Hon. Charles Josselin, Minister Delegate for Cooperation and Francophonie, at the UN conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. [1] 


In the wake of the US statement at the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons that it will block the proposed UN plan of action to curb small arms controls, the Asian Human Rights Commission is calling for urgent action to oppose this damaging stance. 

More than 500,000 people die from small arms annually, 90% of them being civilians comprised mainly of women and children. Additionally, the United Nations estimates that 40-60% of the over 500 million small arms in circulation are illicit and have been employed in 46 of the 49 major conflicts conducted since 1990.[2] Their easily operable nature further makes them the weapons of choice for the world’s 300,000 child soldiers. According to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “[there is] no single tool of conflict so widespread, so easily available, and so difficult to restrict, as small arms.. Not only are they the primary instrument of the murder of civilians who are increasingly targeted in civil wars of our area but, unlike their victims, small arms survive from conflict to conflict.”[3] 


Despite this international imperative for action, however, the US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, issued a statement on 9th July opposing the UN plan of action. Declaring that the UN plan was unspecific and would impinge upon the US constitutional right for the individual to bear arms, Hon. Bolton went on to say that some of the provisions of the proposed plan were, “beyond the scope of what is appropriate for international action and should remain issues for national lawmakers in member states.” [4] The US further objects to a clause that requires negotiations on the part of member states for binding agreements, stands against any mandatory follow up to the conference and does not favor monetary support for advocacy by international NGOs. Instead, the Bush administration advocates the strengthening of existing arms embargoes and the development of more stringent national policies against the illicit small arms trade on the part of member states. 

The UN, nevertheless, insists that the focus of the conference is “on the illicit trade in small arms, not the legal trade, manufacture or ownership of weapons.” It asserts that the conference’s aims are not in conflict with Article 2, Chapter 7 of the UN Charter which states that “the UN has no jurisdiction over any State’s national legislation, and that the proposals “will not interfere with any State’s internal laws or regulations and will not violate national sovereignty.” [5] Pointing to several UN reports for evidence, many member nations say that it is no longer sufficient for individual states to deal with the problem unilaterally, as the US had suggested: “Individual states are increasingly becoming helpless to disrupt the flow of illicit weapons to their countries. To regulate the arms pipeline to the region, only a multipronged integrated international response can work,?the minutes of a UN disarmament conference read. [6] Should the recommended plan of action otherwise known as the Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA) be enacted, it will facilitate tighter regulation of the legal small arms industry, increase export controls, enable the tracking of illicit arms through a uniform marking system, and create more stringent controls over access to small arms for military personnel and civilians alike. The US team has, however, maintained that it opposes UN controls on the transfer of small arms to non-state actors and that limits on the domestic small arms industry are unacceptable. 

With the world’s largest weapons producer effectively paralyzing global efforts to curb the illicit arms trade, the fate of the UN conference hangs in the balance. “By signaling its skepticism about small arms curbs, Washington may have stalled what little momentum there was toward broader international cooperation against the small arms trade,?an editorial in the New York Times reads. [7] It goes on to comment that the US “might as well have sent Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, to deliver its opening address.?Indeed, with the NRA being one of the most influential lobbies in Washington with a membership of over three million, it is no coincidence that the US has rejected the global arms stance. There are currently over 200 million privately held guns in the US and 1 million of these are student owned, undoubtedly contributing to the high homicide rate both in schools and on the streets. [8] 


While the US may argue for the right to bear arms domestically, it lacks the moral grounds to absolve itself from responsibility in the global small arms trade. It was the world’s major superpowers that first initiated the mass transfer of small arms during the Cold War; a movement that in the post Cold War era has resulted in large surpluses of arms falling into the hands of violent insurgents. As the 11th UN Regional Disarmament Meeting in Asia and the Pacific concluded, “Traditionally, the superpowers or their allies supported guerrilla and terrorist campaigns mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America against opposing states. Neither of the powers wished the Cold War to graduate into a Hot war and therefore the fighting was confined to the Global South. The superpowers also controlled the level of conflict mostly by providing small arms.” [9] 

The effects of the illegal trade in small arms on Asia have become more apparent after the end of the Cold War. “While Africa is most affected by contemporary conflict,” a UN report states, “in the mid and long term, the Asia-Pacific region is more likely to be affected by both internal and international armed conflict. Of the 14 high intensity conflicts in the world, six are in the Asia-Pacific region: four in South Asia (Assam and Bihar in India, Sri Lanka and Kashmir), Afghanistan and Myanmar. There are 17 low intensity and 35 violent political conflicts in the region.” [10] The civil war in Afghanistan best exemplifies the dangerous fallout of the small arms trade, with over 10 million small arms currently within its borders. The US government directed at least $2 billion in weapons aid toward the Afghan Mujahedeen during the conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, leaving many of the weapons unaccounted for once the pro-Soviet government fell. [11] 

Ultimately, the costs associated with the illicit small arms trade outweigh the benefits accrued therefrom. While an AK-47 can be obtained for the price of a chicken in Uganda, or a little over US$14 in the Philippines, the real price exacted by the trade runs into billions. As Keith Krause, the director of the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International Studies reports, the toll on the public health sector in the form of firearm deaths and injuries, and on the development industry where potential investors are scared away from conflict zones cost billions each year. The GIIS claims that in Latin America gun violence has consumed up to 12% of GDP.[12] Additionally, the use of illicit small arms often adds to the plight of the world’s millions of refugees who face violence and intimidation even in purported safe havens, and is a major factor in worldwide terrorism. Lastly, the GIIS notes the impact of the illegal trade on the operation of humanitarian agencies. Citing the 1998 homicide rate for the UN as being 35/100,000, a figure higher than that of Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war, the GIIS warns of the dangers posed to international agencies and their multinational staff. 


In the final days of the UN conference remaining, your urgent action is required. Sign the online Oxfam/Amnesty International/IANSA petition against the illicit trade in small arms at or write to the US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, expressing your dissatisfaction at the Bush administration’s stance at the UN conference: 

Secretary of State 
US Department of State 
Washington, DC 20520 


Fax: 202-262-8577 

Even though the current conference is now in its final stages, it is vital that the tide of global action on the small arms issue continues long after. 


Document Type : Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID : UA-24-2001
Countries : World,
Issues : Military, Police violence,