Assault rifles, machine guns, grenades, mortars, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons are among the most commonly used weapons in armed conflicts. They are often referred to collectively as ‘small arms and light weapons’ or just ‘small arms.’ Even though they are the weapons that are most frequently used to target civilians in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), there are few international rules to control their availability. As a result, a wide variety of actors have easy access to them: armed groups, criminal organizations, civilians and even children.
Small arms have certain characteristics that contribute to their wide availability and use.
- They can be carried and operated by a single person or by a small crew.
- Because they are easy to use, very little training is required to operate some of these weapons. They are widely used in conflicts involving combatants with little or no instruction, such as child soldiers.
- They are comparatively cheap. In some countries, an assault rifle can be bought for less than 15 US dollars, or even for a bag of maize. Small arms are produced all over the world and there are hundreds of millions of such weapons already in circulation.
- Because they are easy to maintain and extremely durable (an assault rifle may last for 20 to 40 years or more), such weapons are often passed from one conflict zone to another.
- Because some of them are easy to conceal, smuggling, or transporting, them across borders and into conflict areas is often quite simple.
The widespread availability of weapons can add to the suffering of civilians during armed conflicts in a number of ways. Easy access to weapons makes it more possible not just to kill and injure civilians, but also to intimidate, rape or coerce people to flee their homes and forcibly recruit children as combatants. Residents of refugee camps are often at risk from intimidation, assault and murder. Also, disease, starvation and violence often increase when humanitarian organizations are prevented from providing aid due to insecure conditions and threats against them. The availability of weapons and ammunition can also affect the intensity, lethality and duration of an armed conflict.
The unregulated availability of weapons can prolong the suffering of civilians after armed conflicts. Even after an armed conflict has ended, huge numbers of military weapons may remain in circulation among former fighters and civilians. This can add to and keep alive tensions among former warring parties, hamper efforts at reconciliation and make it more difficult to establish peace. Tension and mistrust may persist as long as people remain armed. The widespread availability of weapons can also undermine the rule of law; it makes it easier for criminal groups, for instance, to intimidate or harm others. In many post- conflict settings, there are, typically, few economic opportunities or prospects for employment. Out of necessity, people in such circumstances may use their weapons to commit crimes in order to earn a living.
However, it is not only during war or its aftermath that people are affected by the widespread availability of arms, armed violence and insecurity. They may be made insecure by high rates of crime, criminal organizations or gang violence. In certain areas regarded as being ‘at peace,’ the rates of death and injury caused by armed violence are among the highest in the world. According to the World Bank, violence is among the five main causes of death in Latin America, and is the principal cause of death in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela. Much of this violence is committed with firearms. Of these countries, Colombia is the only one in which an armed conflict is taking place.
In addition to its direct human costs, the armed violence and insecurity caused by the unregulated availability of arms also has serious socio-economic consequences, for the victims and their families and for the wider society. Its effects can be felt in many different areas, from trade and agriculture to social services like education and health care. Armed conflict and other forms of armed violence can hinder economic activity because people may be unable to follow their customary occupations. Armed violence in a country can also keep foreign investors and tourists away.
The treatment of injuries caused by weapons can place a heavy burden on a country’s health-care services. Victims often require expensive and specialized treatment, including surgery, prolonged periods of hospitalization and physical and psychological rehabilitation. Most countries affected by armed conflict and high levels of armed violence are developing countries where resources are already scarce.
The World Health Organization has documented the devastating consequences of armed violence on the health sector in general. Hospitals and clinics may be damaged, it may be difficult to find qualified personnel and the supply of medical equipment and medicine can be disrupted. This significantly increases the risk of infectious diseases, reproductive and pre-natal problems, malnutrition and other health problems.
There is no simple solution to the problem of the unregulated availability and widespread misuse of weapons. Therefore, a comprehensive response, at the international, national and community levels, is required. While responsibility for tackling the issue rests mainly with governments, other actors – including international organizations and civil society – can also contribute.
Stricter controls are required to prevent easy access to arms and ammunition for those likely to violate IHL. Possible actions may include:
- Implementing existing international and regional instruments, such as the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons; preventing the arms trade from reaching places where weapons are likely to be instrumental in violations of IHL, and punishing those who unlawfully traffic in weapons
- Reducing the number of weapons in circulation after conflicts by collecting and disposing of those that are no longer needed
- Ensuring strict regulations on the availability of ammunition, as this could have an even greater and a more immediate impact than regulating the availability of the weapons themselves
- Training those who use weapons for legitimate purposes, such as members of the military and the police, to do so responsibly and in accordance with international rules, including IHL
- Supporting the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, through education and job training that can provide them with alternative means of earning their livelihood
- Promoting non-violent methods of resolving conflicts
- Restructuring and strengthening the capacity of police and security forces to make them more effective and accountable and to build the public’s trust in them;
- Providing safe access to water, fuel and other necessities to groups at risk from armed violence;
- Supporting adequate care and rehabilitation for victims of armed violence to minimize the physical, psychological and socio-economic consequences they might suffer.