New Internationalist

Small arms, big trouble

Issue 375

NEWSPAPER headlines sometimes pass you by. I remember reading something a few weeks ago and thinking ‘how odd’. But I didn’t give it more attention than that until suddenly the news began to fill the pages of all our local newspapers.

The story was about scrap dealers in Delhi and elsewhere in whose yards bits of scrap metal suddenly started exploding - in one place the explosions actually killed a few workers. As the mystery unravelled it became clear that the scrap had come from Iran and Iraq and was actually the leftovers of war - metal shells, spent bullets, bits of shrapnel and so on. Not surprisingly it included some live ammunition.

The first explosion took place in a scrapyard, the second in a rubbish dump. The men who died were not even remotely connected with the wars from where these leavings came. They were poor workers, struggling to keep their lives together by earning a meagre wage. When death came, it left their families defenceless, resourceless and hungry. Who would have thought the long arm of war could extend so far?

But it does. Wars are no longer confined to those places where they are fought or to people who actually fight them. They cross boundaries, infiltrate people’s private lives, create fear and insecurity. And then people look for ways to feel more secure - some go out and buy guns, others hire security companies. And some, who cannot afford either of those, make up self-styled militias, using whatever weapons come to hand.

About the same time that I read those newspaper stories, I found myself browsing through The Small Arms Survey of 2004, a recently published document which reveals some startling statistics. Today there are at least 1,259 companies in more than 90 countries manufacturing small arms and light weapons. As production increases, managing stockpiles of small arms becomes a major problem and theft is rampant. The Small Arms Survey estimates that every year around the world at least a million firearms are stolen or lost from government armouries and from private homes. When wars end or well-armed governments collapse, these figures shoot up dramatically - as in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi people were said to possess between seven and eight million small arms.

'Wars are no longer confined to those places where they are fought or to people who actually fight them. They cross boundaries, infiltrate people’s private lives, create fear and insecurity'

But it’s not only that small arms are bought and sold. It’s also that when there’s excess, as after the US attack on Iraq, countries in the South provide convenient dumping grounds. Weapons find their way to us through legal and illegal routes and end up fuelling small wars and insurgencies. And the ‘waste’ finds its way to us through regular market channels. We’re willing to buy it because we have a use even for dangerous ‘scrap’. And the sellers are happy to get rid of it since it’s just one more commodity to unload.

Small arms are now so widely and easily available that they are believed to be adding to crime, as well as to injuries and suicides, in many different places. Police statistics from Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan show that homicide rates range from 8 per 100,000 in urban areas to 12 per 100,000 in rural areas. Roughly 90 per cent of these murders are the result of small arms and the weapons are also used in robberies, tribal disputes and sectarian violence. All you need do to purchase one is visit any of the 1,900 blackmarket arms shops in Peshawar.

There’s a gender dimension to this as well which is only gradually emerging. For example, in the US, firearms are used in 59 per cent of the murders of wives and partners by men. Even though studies show that women are more likely to be murdered by a gun than protected by one, more and more women are beginning to buy guns for their own protection - and the vicious spiral goes on.

Then there is the issue of security. Whether it’s the Philippines, Indonesia, India or Sri Lanka there are guards, gates and fences everywhere you look. In Ghana there are now more than 110 security firms while in Zambia the amount of money spent on private security is twice the budget of the criminal justice system.

The rich have security guards, the poor form militias. And some companies even help governments fight wars: in Bougainville, the Papua New Guinea Government hired a security company to quell an uprising and the company in turn farmed out the work to another security company. So the borders between war and peace become increasingly blurred.

Just because some of us may live away from war zones and sites of conflict doesn’t mean that violence will not come knocking at our door. The person in the scrapyard or at the rubbish dump could have been any of us. The long arm of war stretches far and wide and its leavings can be found in places quite other than those where wars take place.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

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