T he international trade in small arms more than doubled since 2006, growing into a stunning $8.5 billion a year industry. The latest Small Arms Survey by an independent research group in Geneva found that large-scale government spending and increased purchases by American civilians, in addition to steady sales to developing countries, contributed to the upsurge.
The reported increase can also be attributed to better information and more thorough research. The result, simply put, is that the world is potentially more dangerous now than ever before.
Though the survey was the most comprehensive ever, based on thousands of documents, reports and questionnaires, the figure is likely an underestimate. Much of the information is still kept secret by countries and companies.
The $8.5 billion figure also did not include the vast illicit trade in small arms, an area the research group said it would tackle next. The new survey estimated illegal sales in small arms and light weapons to be at least $2 billion annually.
The survey reported that the top exporters for authorized sales are, in descending order, the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Austria, Japan, Switzerland, Russia, France, South Korea, Belgium and Spain. Figures for China were not considered reliable enough to establish a clear ranking.
Not coincidentally, the top exporters were the same countries that delayed the Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations in July. Negotiations on that treaty will be taken up again in the fall to try to establish a worldwide consensus on small arms and light weapons. One of the main roadblocks to the treaty is the conservative establishment in the United States.
Gun-rights proponents there proclaim that any such treaty infringes on their right to bear arms. However, the real purpose of the treaty is to help monitor and restrain arms sales in the most heavily armed and most volatile regions of the world.
Those regions suffer the greatest from the presence of small arms, but few countries are unaffected by firearms violence. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pointed out that 500,000 people are killed each year by illicitly purchased small arms alone. The figure for legally purchased weapons is difficult to establish, but given the billions of dollars in sales it may be much higher.
Small arms do more than kill. They also prolong civil wars, facilitate organized crime and abet gang warfare. Small arms may not be the initial cause of conflicts, but they exacerbate them by making them much more deadly.
The presence of large numbers of light weapons also means that conflicts linger without resolution, and can quickly re-ignite. While many countries, including Japan, have helped to gather up weapons from post-conflict zones, without a worldwide consensus the arms will remain a danger since they are easy to transport, conceal and re-use.
The distinction between military use and illegal use may exist in theory, but becomes irrelevant after guns are sold and in the hands of individual owners. Small arms are also used in nearly every serious crime throughout the world. The civilian population bears the brunt of the violence. Kidnapping, rape, torture, maiming and other crimes typically involve small weapons.
The illegal drug trade, trafficking in human beings, corruption and organized crime all rely on the ready availability of small arms. In this sense, small arms pose a serious threat to human rights, stability, security, and development.
Japan has moved up in the rankings of small arms exporters, reaching sixth place in the world. Though its sales are roughly a third of the U.S., the top exporter, the Japanese government claims the country’s exports are primarily of hunting guns, sport guns and their parts and ammunition. If so, the survey’s estimated $249 million annual profit in Japan is an extremely high one.
The Japanese government should become a leader in transparency by keeping close tabs on the sales of small arms by Japanese companies. Part of the reason the new survey can only make estimates is that most countries conceal the real figures and categorize weapons in ways that appear acceptable.
Full and complete transparency about what kinds of arms, weapons, parts and ammunition are being sold, and to whom, is vital. Japan is better than most countries when it comes to numbering items and tracking sales, but more needs to be done.
Second, the Japanese government should extend its work in helping to enforce regulations and ensure that weapons are removed from post-conflict zones.
The Japanese government has provided financial aid for cleanup projects in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Sudan. This is important work and should be expanded. However, it is more sensible to ensure that arms do not arrive in potential war zones in the first place. Small arms are even hard to clean up than land mines or larger weapons.
And finally, the Japanese government should continue to push for a strong, verifiable treaty at the U.N., one that reduces exports of small arms and light weapons around the world. Without such a treaty, small arms sales will continue to profit a limited few by increasing violence for many more.
Continuing to flood the world with small arms only ensures that armed violence will be part of this century to an even greater degree than the last.