Image: Jeremy Alford (Unsplash)

The creation of networks that make up the black markets is a result of political pressure on economic activities that leads to the trading of goods that are not conventionally available. While the poor regulation of international small arms trade by countries has seen an arms industry that continues to boom and over the years has gained some political influence. This has led to the creation of a gun culture that we do not admit to despite the presence of arms in our daily activities. Small arms trade consists of small and light weapons which are considered to be destabilising in regions affected by conflict. Taking the security dilemma into consideration in which actions taken by a state to increase its security cause reactions from other states, which in turn lead to a decrease rather than an increase in the original state’s security. The world’s arms trade consists of billion-dollar transactions to increase security as a result of acquisitions by other countries. While illicit trading through, the United Kingdom decided to increase arms by $16bn over 4 years, while at the Atlantic Council Think Tank (ACTT) the pentagon called for increased weapons sales, to compete with Russia and China and ultimately enable industrial bases while limiting market space. The industries continued arms development and countries furthered commissioning of arms production contributes directly to increased illicit trading of arms. This takes place through traders who manage to get hold of arms to trade on the black markets. Most importantly, it is the creation of regulations by regulatory bodies that continue to inspire the world’s increasing illicit trade as regulation are inefficiently enforced in areas affected by past and present conflict. 

Arms today have become associated with economic and social progress and in Africa political instability.  Its these associations that make arms, seen as solutions to political instability in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where there are 14 peacekeeping operations whilst the world’s top arms exporting countries benefit from increased conflict. One of the issues is what happens when arms from these missions are left behind, lost during combat, or abandoned? More guns are manufactured and during transportation, illicit traders find a way to get a hold of these arms. In some countries, arms are stolen not only from manufacturers but from the police, and military as well. The regulations of trade implies placing restrictions on the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation and usage of arms is needed. This falls under the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which monitors the movement of arms. Of the UNSC members, the United States (US), China, and Russia are the biggest manufactures of arms and stand to benefit from these regulations. Over the years arms trade has increased despite the ratifications of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR)-1540 internationally and hardened gun laws domestically. How the arms trade became pivotal to global society lies in understanding the security and economic context of arms.

Briefly, for the US and UK, the arms industry during WWI and WWII saw the increased employment of arms that would be used to win the wars, while also contributing to economic growth. It was during these times that arms production improved the economic status of many and boosted the economy of the US who today dominates arms production. Till today, arms continue to play a role in the economies and societies with the arms industries gaining political influence. With 36% of arms manufactured in the US, making their way to 96 countries in 2019 and sees countries like Israel, China and India looking to increase their trade. In other parts of the world, arms have become associated with democracy and political stability. Focusing on the African continent, small arms have empowered countries just as much as they have destabilised them. This is mostly due to the illicit trade that is a result of economic sanctions with countries like Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan sanctioned. Porous African borders have made it difficult to regulate the influx of arms. As a result, militias and terrorist groups have ended up with firepower that rivals their governments’. There will always be a need for a constant supply of arms which sees illicit arms found throughout Africa from the US, Belgium, France, Russia, UK, and China. All of whom have political and economic influence within the region.

Within Africa, the non-existence of hard borders has created a conducive environment for the illicit cross-border movement of arms making the phenomenon an Ant-Trade. Through the porous borders, small arms are moved by foot, through modes of transport as they are flown in or concealed within vehicles. It is through these means that after the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011 that arms registered in Libya were found in Sudan. Illicit trading is not only done by individuals and criminal organisations but also by states who when involved approve deals but don’t associate or endorse the approved sale.

The Politics of Small Arms Trade

There are existing regulatory frameworks that are supposed to be binding and if enforced there is a direct regulation of illicit trading. The Certificate of origin, UNSCR-1540, UNSCR-2220, and the ATT are frameworks meant to control the arms trade and prevent the movement of arms from manufacturers which are found in the hands of civilians, militias and government. The UNSC efforts are called into question as increased trade has affected a myriad of areas in conflict as a result of illicit trade. In February, the UNSC small arms report conceded the need for an increased effort to control illicit trade which saw an increase in 2019. While increased sales of small arms has seen arms appear in neighboring countries, such as the case of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where an ongoing civil war has seen the involvement of multiple countries who are divided on the matter and have reported supplying the Yemeni factions with arms.

The idea that arms have become so synonymous with a countries approach to economic growth and conflict resolution is scary, because of how over-looked underlying issues have become. Currently, small arms trade regulation relies on the compliance of the leader of the International order who is also the world’s biggest manufacturer. Earlier on, we spoke of arms industries representing a symbol of economic prosperity and that companies only seek to increase profits. The regulation of arms is subject to this, for the worlds leading manufacturers, regulating trade means reduced profits and productions. With new technologies, countries and companies sometimes do not dispose of the old arms with their arms being traded illicitly. If the US were to reduce exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, it’s the biggest customer who accounts for 25% of US exports, companies like Lockhead Martin would have to retrench workers. Making the direct link between domestic politics and arms trade quite strong and the small arms trade dynamics within the UNSC, intricate.

The limited success associated with the regulation of small arms has seen increased illicit trading in parts of the world, has made arms trade an issue that can no longer be ignored. While the disruptive nature of small arms in the hands of non-state actors has had destabilising effects. Despite, the economic benefits that developed countries enjoy, the illicit trade has had destabilising effects on the democracies and contributes to pre-existing issues such as education, health, social development, and political stability. Most importantly, small arms contribute to the exacerbation of these issues or even the creation of issues. Conflict from the illicit arms trade has seen the killing and displacement of persons and is used by insurgency groups and non-state actors. With this, the response has been the manufacturing of more arms by countries looking to increase exports, and countries looking to secure arms for security purposes. We can see this occurring in the Middle East and Africa, however, whether this represents a sustainable solution, is questionable.  

Tshiamo Mariti has recently completed his honours in International Relations at the University of Pretoria. He is interested in humanitarian issues and international trade.

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