With each new terrorist attack, world leaders warn of the danger of weapons of mass destruction, which could devastate entire continents in the hands of malevolent militants.
The threat posed by unconventional weapons can't be underestimated. But those who study worldwide violence say the real and present danger is not the technically complex, expensive and hard-to-obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but small arms, which have proliferated in the past half century to kill millions of innocent people.
"Everyday terrorism is linked with small arms," says Keith Krause, program director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. "Most attacks are done locally, and local people are targeted. You don't need a high degree of sophistication if you want to kill."
It's not weapons of mass destruction that are the problem. It's small, conventional weapons.
Amnesty International's Ottawa campaigner Hilary Homes
Small arms include not only handguns but any weapon that can be carried and fired by one person: assault rifles, automatic weapons, hand grenades, land mines, shoulder-launched missiles and small explosives.
According to British police, the London bombs that killed more than 50 commuters last week weighed less than five kilograms each, compact enough to carry in a backpack.
Small arms are portable, easy to use, and so lethal that, every two years, they annihilate 1 million people — the equivalent of a city the size of Ottawa. With the aid of small arms, thousands of women are raped, children are forced into murderous militias, and weak states crumble.
Victims in every country are intimately aware of the damage done by small arms. But, until recently, these deadly weapons have failed to capture the attention of politicians.
This week at the United Nations, delegates met to review progress on the 2001 U.N. Program of Action on Small Arms — a project backed by Canada and created to reduce the flow of illegally traded weapons to international conflict zones.
"The proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons exacerbate crime and conflict, undermine respect for international humanitarian law, hamper provision of humanitarian assistance, hinder economic development and interfere with conflict prevention and peace-building efforts," said Tim Martin, head of the Canadian delegation to the U.N. meeting.
More than 20 governments have now signed up to a proposed legally binding Arms Trade Treaty, which would ban arms transfers likely to fuel conflicts and human rights violations, or undermine development — an event that has given campaigners new hope that the deadly trade can be reduced if not eliminated.
But, says Amnesty International's Ottawa campaigner Hilary Homes, "the issue still isn't getting the attention it deserves. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Ivory Coast, it's not weapons of mass destruction that are the problem. It's small, conventional weapons."
One of the major stumbling blocks to controlling the small arms trade is America's strong attachment to guns, and suspicion of attempts to control them, experts say.
Statistics show that the United States has 220 million guns, or almost one for every man, woman and child in the country. With less than 5 per cent of the world's population, America harbors one-third of the world's 640 million small arms.
Ryerson professor Wendy Cukier, president of the Canadian Coalition for Gun Control, says living next to the world's biggest stockpile has boosted violence among America's neighbors."In Canada, half of the handguns used in crimes are from the U.S. In Mexico, it's 80 per cent. The fact that the U.S. has inadequate controls fuels the illicit trade in arms worldwide."
Since Canada passed gun laws in the 1990s, Cukier points out, 90 per cent of gun owners are licensed and firearms deaths have dropped by about 40 per cent. But, she says, although deaths from rifles and shotguns have dwindled, "there has been no comparable reduction in handgun violence."
Ironically, Cukier says, Canada has been at the sharp end of complaints that dangerous terrorists can slip across its border to attack Americans. But although Ottawa has tightened security to meet Washington's demands, there has been scant interest in improving American control over smuggled weapons heading north to Canada.
"The fact is, many more American guns have killed Canadians than Canadian-based terrorists have killed Americans," she said.
About half of all murders with small arms — some 250,000 a year — are committed outside conflict zones. But analysts have documented a direct and deadly connection between the easily transported weapons and terrorist groups that operate in countries not fighting wars in their homelands.
"It's become a political policy for leaders to talk about the chemical or atomic threat of terrorism," says Loretta Napoleoni, a London-based economist and expert in the financing of international terrorism. "The truth is that small arms are what terrorists use."
She notes the invasion of Iraq provided a huge arsenal of new weapons flowing through the Middle East.
"Saddam Hussein had a very large supply of weapons, and they were looted during the war."
Some of the weapons, Napoleoni says, were handed over to Saddam's Baath Party supporters, others to militants fighting U.S. and British forces. They have also been smuggled out of Iraq and sold to other Mideastern countries.
"It's caused a big collapse in prices, and made weapons even more available. They include (shoulder-fired) missiles like Stingers, which used to cost around $200,000 and can now be bought for $5,000."
For rogue states, warlords, traffickers and international criminals, finding and acquiring small arms holds little challenge. According to international arms trade analysts, several hundred arms dealers are able to supply weapons whenever and wherever needed. Recycled arms are not the only problem. Dozens of countries continue to produce small arms for export, with the biggest sales made by the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany and Belgium, according to the Small Arms Survey's 2005 report. By 2001, it says, more than 600 companies in 95 countries were involved in some aspect of the small arms trade.
As a result, about 8 million new weapons a year are circulated internationally. Although many are officially destined for "legitimate" countries, they frequently turn up in the hands of abusive security forces and militias.
The most tragic result, human rights groups say, is the recruitment of child soldiers, 300,000 of whom are estimated to be fighting in conflicts in more than 30 countries.
"The weight and size of small arms makes them easy for children to use and encourages the use of children as combatants," says the International Action Network on Small Arms. "A child as young as eight can easily be taught to fire an assault rifle."
As in Afghanistan — armed by numerous countries — weak states of Africa have been further undermined by the infiltration of weapons. Once in control of a large supply, warlords can continue to defy efforts to make peace, and multiply human suffering.
With such a large and complex problem, the probability of a quick solution is remote, campaigners admit..
But new support for a legally binding treaty to ban arms transfers is a sign the tide of indifference toward the murderous trade might now be turning.
"Governments, at last, seem to be waking up to the fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are killed every year by armed violence," said Anna MacDonald, director of policy at Oxfam. "So many governments backing the treaty in just one week is a massive step toward enforcing stricter arms controls."
© Copyright 2005 Toronto Star