The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


The Real Weapons of Mass Destruction – Part 1

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are primarily associated with “strategic” weapon systems like nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC). Preoccupations of governments with these systems mean that less attention is paid to the “real weapons of mass destruction”. According to the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan,

“The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as “weapons of mass destruction”.

Small arms and light weapons refer to weapons manufactured to military specifications for use as lethal instruments of war. Small arms such as revolvers, rifles and carbines, sub-machine-guns, assault rifles etc are designed for personal use. Light weapons on the other hand are designed for use by several persons serving as a crew. It includes heavy machine-guns, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems etc.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimated the number of people killed each day by small arms at 1,300 people (500,000 people annually). Small arms and its misuse, according to Small Arms Survey, effected human development in two ways. Direct effects include fatal and non-fatal injuries, the cost of treating and rehabilitating firearms casualties etc. Indirect effects include a rise in the incidence and lethality of criminality, a decline in formal and informal economic activities etc. The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development in a landmark study observed that at least 740,000 people die each year from armed violence, a large majority of them due to small arms.

Despite the destruction inflicted by small arms on individuals and societies, there is no legally binding global treaty to control their spread. Existing frameworks under the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs only facilitates the reporting and registration of global arms transfers. As a result, small arms continue to proliferate. As of 2007, there are at least 875 million firearms worldwide. Civilians owned approximately 650 million (75 per cent); gangs owned around 10 million (just over one per cent) and other non-state armed groups owned roughly 1.4 million altogether (less than 0.2 per cent) of which some 350,000 belong to groups that were actively fighting in 2009. About eight million new small arms, plus 10 to 15 billion rounds of ammunition are manufactured — enough bullets to shoot every person in the world not once, but twice.

There has been an attempt to negotiate a comprehensive legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aimed at establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms. The first Preparatory Committee meeting that was held in New York from 12-23 July 2010 confirms the possibility of an Arms Trade Treaty being adopted in the near future, most likely at the 2012 United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. Whether this would lead to the adoption of a legally binding treaty remains to be seen.

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