Rwanda is only the latest example of what can happen when small arms and light weapons are sold to a country plagued by ethnic, religious, or nationalist strife. In today’s wars such weapons are responsible for most of the killings of civilians and combatants. They are used more often than major weapons systems in human rights abuses and other violations of international law. Light conventional arms sustain and expand conflict in a world increasingly characterized by nationalist tensions and border wars. Yet the international community continues to ignore trade in those weapons, concentrating instead on the dangers of nuclear arms proliferation.
In the post-Cold War era, in which the profit motive has replaced East-West concerns as the main stimulus behind weapons sales, ex-Warsaw Pact and NATO nations are dumping their arsenals on the open market. Prices for some weapons, such as Soviet-designed Kalashnikov AKM automatic rifles (commonly known as AK-47s), have fallen below cost. Many Third World countries, such as China, Egypt, and South Africa, have also stepped up sales of light weapons and small arms. More than a dozen nations that were importers of small arms 15 years ago now manufacture and export them. But most of this trade remains unknown. Unlike major conventional weapons systems, governments rarely disclose the details of transfers of light weapons and small arms.
The resulting costs of such transfers are apparent. Small arms and light weapons have flooded nations like Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, not only fanning warfare, but also undermining international efforts to embargo arms and to compel parties to respect human rights. They have helped undermine peacekeeping efforts and allowed heavily armed militias to challenge U.N. and U.S. troops. They raise the cost of relief assistance paid by countries like the United States. Yet the international community has no viable mechanism to monitor the transfer of light and small weapons, and neither the United Nations nor the Clinton administration has demonstrated the leadership required to control that trade.