Since the turn of the century, and in large part due to the commendable efforts of the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, we have learned much about small arms, including handheld firearms. We now know much more about firearm users, firearm misuse, the consequences of firearm misuse, complementary products such as ammunition, and legal and illicit firearm supply routes and networks. Nonetheless, relatively little is known about the firearm industry itself—that is, its manufacturers.
While ferocious armed conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, Libya, and Syria dominate news headlines, the foremost United Nations (UN) process to combat the illicit trade in small arms appears to have lost its way. In 2001, UN member states hammered out a compromise program of action to be the foremost global map to tackle illicit small arms, which are widely used to injure and kill people both in times of war and peace.
Nearly all destabilizing arms transfers to conflict zones and areas targeted by UN or EU sanctions are clandestine in nature, making monitoring difficult and prevention harder still. However, instead of attempting to create new instruments to tackle these problems, more efficient use can and should be made of existing mechanisms to enforce EU and UN arms embargoes. A recent incident involving a Russian-owned flag of convenience ship that attempted to deliver helicopter gunships to Syria demonstrated the potential effectiveness of such mechanisms.
The MV Alaed was prevented from delivering arms to Syria because the British insurer of the ship withdrew coverage after its EU-embargoed destination was made public. In June 2012, the Alaed was forced to return to Russia, where its cargo of gunships and missiles was unloaded.
Private security companies (PMCs) employ twice as many people as police forces worldwide. Yet, PMCs only hold a fraction of the firearms possessed by law enforcement agencies.
This is one of the findings (pdf) presented in the Small Arms Survey 2011 published last week by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. This year’s theme is States of Security. In the introduction, Robert Muggah, research director at Small Arms Survey, writes: “scholars and policy-makers are revisiting certain fundamental questions about security provision in the 21st century: Who actually provides security, and under whose authority?”
Apart from this special focus, which resulted in one chapter on private security and small arms, and another on multinational corporations and private security, the volume features statistics on small arms and light weapons (SALW) transfers. There we learn that the US, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Switzerland are the top exporters of SALW. The biggest importers are the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia.
The Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer reveals that Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Serbia and Romania are the most transparent among the big small arms exporters. It does not come as a surprise that Switzerland, the UK and Germany are also among the biggest sponsors of the Small Arms Survey research project. Nor is it surprising that Iran and North Korea are the two least transparent exporters of SALW.
The publication of the Small Arms Survey is timely: