Lekan Akinosho a.k.a Scoro 8Friday, February 14, 2014
Toronto, Canada





his paper examines the control of small arms, light weapons and weapons of mass destruction within the context of treaties and agreements. The paper shows that it is more difficult to achieve agreements on SALW than on WMD- and argues that despite several agreements on SALW- these have not impeded the illicit trade in these arms compared to WMD. More so, this paper states that there has been more compliance on WMD when it comes to curtailment- as norms- and treaties have stigmatized the use of WMD as taboos. It concludes that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons should be more of a concern to the international community, especially by non-state actors.


The efforts to control arms are as old as the history of and preparations for war. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been rising anxieties about war munitions otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including nuclear weapons, atomic bombs, chemical and biological weapons. However, international attention has been focused on problems arising from worldwide proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) due to the mass scale of deaths associated with these weapons, and the potential dangers and threats of these arms. As noted by Kofi Annan, the proliferation of the weapons in recent years "had shaken the foundations of collective security and undermined confidence in the possibility of collective responses to common problems and challenges". Despite this statement, the subject of arms control, disarmament and proliferation has been on the agenda of United Nations since 1945.

The focus of this paper is to look at some of the reasons why it is more difficult to achieve agreements on small arms and light weapons than on weapons of mass destruction. This paper is situated within the context of some of the treaties that have put the proliferation of WMD in check and the reasons why these weapons have not been used for decades. More so, why has compliance been possible when it comes to WMD and not small arms and light weapons (SALW)? Why have some small arms and light weapons agreements and treaties not impeded the illicit trade in these arms? Why do countries acquire WMD, especially nuclear weapons? What is the role of deterrence on arms control? Finally, what has been United Nations' position on arms control and disarmament? The development of prohibiting norms that shaped these weapons as unacceptable weapons of mass destruction in turn needs to be part of the ideological construction of small arms and light weapons proliferation. In this paper, I argue that- unlike WMD- several agreements and treaties on the elimination of small arms and light weapons by the United Nations and state actors have not impeded the illicit trade in these arms compared to WMD. Furthermore, I state that there has been more compliance on WMD when it comes to curtailment -as norms and treaties have stigmatized the use of WMD as taboos.

What is Arms Control? And how it came about?

Arms control is compliance by state actors with restrictions on the production, acquisition or the reduction of stockpiles of weapons. This is usually done through the signing of treaties, convention or other agreements. Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin observed that, "Arms control is a promising, but still only dimly perceived, enlargement of the scope of our military strategy". This perspective according to Michael Wheeler, "is important. It reminds us that the arms control process involves a competitive dimension, as states engaging in arms control seek out a minimum to preserve, and ideally to improve their security". Arms control became an international discourse a decade after United States of America had used the first atomic bomb nicknamed 'Little Boy' and Fat man' in 1945 against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. The massive deaths and destruction due to this WMD forced Japan to surrender. This was the beginning of the nuclear age. Arms control as it relates to WMD, especially nuclear weapons, dominated the international agenda during the Cold War where the issue was to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but not disarmament by those who already possessed it. As Raymond Aron notes, "Attempts at disarmament in the past have always failed, but the attempt at atomic disarmament has even less chance of success because the nature of these weapons aroused additional obstacles to an agreement and even more to the supervision of such an agreement". In other words, devising and reaching an agreement on WMD was challenging, especially from U.S. and USSR, the two major superpowers and rivals during the Cold War era.

The Concern on the Effects of Small Arms and Light Weapons

There is an agreement amongst scholars on the nature of small arms and light weapons regarding the exacerbation of violence and collateral damage such as its major socio-economic consequences at local and international levels. According to Religions for Peace, "Small arms and light weapons are responsible for the majority of battle-related conflict deaths-an estimated 60?90 percent of all direct conflict victims are killed with firearm. Large numbers of men, women, older people and children die indirectly from the effects of armed conflict on the economy, ruined health and security infrastructures, disease and famine". More so, more than 500,000 people are killed by small arms each year. In comparison with WMD, especially the atomic bomb that was used in Japan, it has been estimated that the death tolls from small arms dwarfs it. These are weapons that cannot be traced easily, easy to manipulate by illicit traders and often move from state actors, private or individuals. In addressing proliferations of SALW, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General sees it as an integral part of a wider spectrum that should cover conflict and security, armed violence and crime, trade and human rights, health and development. What this connotes is that the world has seen and is still seeing the effects and danger of SALW.

Ironically, the use of these weapons is common to the global South. For instance, Africa is one of such places because of its vulnerability to different kinds of conflicts including ethnic and religious crisis. The continent is noted as a place where machine guns, rifles, grenades, pistols and other small arms have killed and displaced many civilians. Some of the examples were the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Angola, the genocide in Rwanda and Sudan, the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the terrorism by the Islamic Jihadist called Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and Northern Mali conflict led by the Tuaregs. The estimated 8 million small arms that are circulating throughout Western Africa play a central role in fostering instability and the demand for small arms in West Africa is motivated by weak governance, insecurity and poverty. This is a result of the fact that these weapons are easily accessible because they are cheap, manageable, light, and easy to trade, transport, conceal and also easy for child soldiers who are easily trained and equipped with it. Francis Keili notes, "SALW therefore remain the primary weapons of intra- and inter-communal feuds, local wars, armed insurrections, armed rebel activities and terrorism throughout the sub region. Currently almost all West African countries have experienced widespread violence in which small arms featured". The concerned about SALW has led to some international conferences to curb the proliferation, but most times agreements are reached without concrete implementation. Three notable conferences are: The United Nations Program of Action held in Geneva in 2001. The POA reflects that the problem of small arms transcends political borders, and that solutions must be multilateral and multilevel. The second is the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, their ammunitions and other related materials. This conference of Economic Community of West African States took place in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2006, and according to its report, it state that, "deeply concerned about the uncontrolled flow of small arms and light weapons into Africa in general and West Africa in particular, and aware of the need to effectively control the transfer of arms by suppliers and arms brokers". The major concern of West African Head of States is that the proliferation of these weapons constitutes a major destabilising factor in ECOWAS Member States and poses a serious threat to the peace and stability in the region. The third conference is the Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa. This conference was held in 2004. The conference agreed that

addressing demand is more challenging if weapons remain easily accessible for use or sale. A society with fewer weapons overall will naturally reduce the risk of them being diverted and used, and will help to build confidence in the rule of law. Therefore, reducing availability goes hand in hand with efforts to curb demand.

However, despite the attention on the proliferation of these weapons and the carnage they cause, there has been no deterrence on the use. This is why vast quantities of arms have flooded Africa and we have seen the rampant misuse by mostly non-state actors. Within the context of West Africa, it has been noted that the fragmentation of the political and economic space has shaped the availability and circulation of SALW. The deterioration of many West African states' capacity to enforce the rule of law has blurred the boundaries between legal and illicit markets, enabling a thriving trade in SALW.

Efforts to Curtail the Acquisition, Proliferation and Usage of WMD

While the term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) is a relatively new one, the effort to stop the spread of arms and weapons systems is by no means new. Discussing nuclear weapons, Ramesh Thakur argues that, "The barrier against the acquisition, spread and use of nuclear weapons include legal, conventions, norms, and the fact of their non-use for fifty years". Patricia Lewis and Ramesh Thakur on the curtailment and control of nuclear weapon argue that,

"Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, the goal of containing the spread and enlargement of weapons and arms stockpiles has rested on three pillar-norms- treaties -and coercion-each of which has been under attack in the last few years".

However, there have been successful treaties to stop the proliferation and non-use of these deadly weapons. These steps include:

  1. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which is a worldwide treaty signed by 167 countries in 1968. This treaty bans all members except the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and United States from having nuclear weapons and commits these five states to eventually eliminate their atomic arsenals. The NPT provides the norm and the foundation for an international regime to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Only 187 states subscribe to the NPT with the exceptions of India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea.

  2. Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was signed in 1972 and the first treaty to ban an entire class of weapons, established a norm against BW possession.

  3. Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was signed in Paris, France, on 13 January, 1993. It covers the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons, and their production within ten years. This made an internal contribution to international arms control because of its scope and ground breaking verification and inspection regime.

  4. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions in all environments either for military or civilian purposes and it was signed on September 1966.

The logic of deterrence which is an act of dissuading an adversary from doing something it otherwise would want to do (and is perceived as threatening) through threats of unacceptable act has had a pivotal effect on the non-use of WMD. Though the U.S. was the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, American leaders later came to define nuclear use as contrary to America's perception of themselves. Unlike small arms and light weapons, the agenda of nuclear arms control has always focused on two interlinked components: nonproliferation and disarmament. The threat of war and the potential use of nuclear weapons the world has ever witnessed were between the U.S. and USSR during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. On the Cuban missile crisis, Athur Schlensinger Jr. noted in 2006:

The Cuban missile was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in all human history. Never before had two contending powers possessed between them the technical capacity to destroy the planet. Had there been exponent of preventive war in the White House, there would probably have been war.

In other words, the basic argument here is that deterrence, which holds that the fear of devastating nuclear counterstrike prevents states from attacking other nuclear states has prevented nuclear war between nuclear states. President Harry Truman of the U.S. has been credited on the history of talks regarding nonproliferation that started in November 1945. This was when he joined with British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, to propose to the new United Nations that all atomic weapons be eliminated and nuclear technology for peaceful purposes be shared under strict international controls, and implemented by a UN Atomic Energy Agency. Base on these efforts, it can be argued that the world has seen remarkable progress in WMD within the context of treaties which has led to disarmament. The nuclear threat is less severe today and only eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons which are the permanent members, otherwise called the P.5, permitted under the NPT, India, Pakistan and Israel. In the 1960s, 23 states had nuclear weapons, were conducting weapons- related research, or were actively discussing the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Today, Joseph Cirincione, John Wolfsthal and Marian Raj kumar note, "the numbers of nuclear weapons have declined from a peak of 65,000 in 1986 to roughly 27,000 today".

Why do countries acquire WMD especially nuclear weapons? Five main reasons have been adduced for this. These are:

  1. Security: States acquire nuclear weapons to protect their own sovereignty.

  2. Prestige: To fulfill perceptions of national destiny or to be viewed as a "great power".

  3. Domestic Politics: A set of well-placed bureaucratic actors convinced political leaders of the need for them.

  4. Technology: This is because they have the technical ability to do so.

  5. Economics: Economics generally does not drive a state to pursue nuclear weapons. Advocates of nuclear weapons argue that a nuclear defense is cheaper than a conventional defense.

Apart from all of the above mentioned reasons, these nuclear countries see nuclear trends as part of a global domination and balance of power. It is also a tool for deterrence to powerful military forces and to maintain the status quo.

What has been the role of the United Nations on arms control? It has been argued that the UN has not been the chief architect of arms control as these treaties were negotiated outside the UN framework. What the UN does historically and politically is to accept these proposals and table them at the General Assembly meeting for a debate. Lewis and Thakur state, "The United Nations is the chief expositor of international norms. The international moral code is embodied in its charter. Generally Assembly regulations are the most commonly cited and widely accepted code of conduct". However, the problem here is on compliance, which the permanent security members have the absolute power and/or the final decision. They have been called the police of the world and most times they have used their veto power to disagree on many issues ranging from sanctions such as economic or military attacks on violators. However, despite the achievements of treaties, the only fundamental problem the world is facing on WMD is the lack of disarmament from the NPT members who have refused to comply on the destruction of these weapons. They have always used security threats as the only fundamental reason for their refusal to abandon these arsenals. This singular reason has made countries like North Korea and Iran to be emboldened in their nuclear acquisition and strategic reaction.


This paper concludes that treaties have been more successful on WMD than small arms and light weapons. The world has less information on small arms and light weapons due to the fact that they are mostly in the hands of non-state actors. Treaties success on WMD outnumbers failures and without it, the world would have seen a proliferation of WMD. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons should be more of a concern to the international community, especially by non-state actors. There has been too much focus on WMD by the international community compared to small arms and light weapons. In Africa for instance, it poses threat to peace and stability and there is a fundamental need for a framework on how to tackle arms brokers and suppliers.


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