Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Small arms: not a happy birthday

Monday’s International Herald Tribune ran a front-page story about the 60th birthday this year of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifle:

“In cash-hungry Russia, Kalashnikov is now an informal brand. And as purchases of Kalashnikov rifles and their derivatives continue on foreign markets, Russian arms manufacturers and exporters worry not about ideology and world dominance, but over sales opportunities lost.”

To people in many societies around the world suffering the effects of the wide availability of small arms and light weapons - the Kalashnikov is its sinister poster-child - such concerns must seems a little strange, if not cynical.

The Kalashnikov first emerged with the most patriotic of intentions after Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Soviet tank commander, was wounded in combat in late 1941. While recovering in hospital he began sketching gun designs and then joined a depot workshop of the Moscow Aviation Institute. In 1947 Kalashnikov designed the AK-47 and two years later it became the Soviet army’s standard issue rifle.

Exported all over the world during the Cold War, the AK-47 and its variants became 20th century icons of communist struggle and revolution, famed for their durability and simplicity. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather it would have been if production and trade hadn’t spread further after the Cold War ended.

Interviewed in his placid retirement in October 2003 by The Guardian newspaper, the 83 year-old Kalashnikov displayed few qualms about how inextricably his name had become connected with “what was to become the world’s most prolific killing machine”.

But three years later, Kalashnikov announced that he backed UN moves to halt the illicit trade in small arms. “It is not the designers who must ultimately take responsibility for where guns end up - it is governments who must control their production and export”, he said.

According to figures quoted in a 2006 article in The Independent (“Global arms trade: Africa and the curse of the AK-47”), some 60 per cent of guns in the world are in civilian hands. Each year, the arms trade adds 8 million more guns to the 650 million already in circulation around the globe. Of these, Control Arms Campaign figures quoted in the story estimate about 100 million are AK-47s or variants. Significantly, “The majority of people who are killed by guns are not killed in situations of war but in those of crime and personal attack.”

One year ago last week I sat in on the UN review conference on the 2001 programme of action (PoA) to curb the illicit trade in small arms in New York, which closed without result. While a blow to international efforts to curb this trafficking and its human costs, the non-result was hardly terminal because PoA implementation will continue.

Moreover, last October the UN General Assembly voted through a resolution toward negotiation of an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Earlier this year the UN Secretary-General began consultations with member states on its possible content on which he’ll report this October.

Such initiatives suggest that the complaints of Russian arms manufacturers about unauthorized knock-offs of their Kalashnikovs aren’t likely to attract wide sympathy unless they show their commitment to strict controls to ensure the weapons they make don’t end up being exchanged illicitly.

And that doesn’t just apply to the Russians but to all arms producers. In October 2006, for instance, a U.S. government report revealed that the American military had failed to track hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces. Many weapons had gone missing. Some are turning up in the hands of the insurgency, others - including many American models - in the booming Iraqi black market in small arms.

Meanwhile, the arms trade - both legal and illicit - is a big global business. Global controls on arms to prevent them falling into the wrong hands are going to need real sense of commitment by arms producing countries, along with willingness to accept the financial costs of rules.

This is why civil society is so important and in particular the Control Arms Campaign and the International Action Network on Small Arms. They’ve already helped to build a lot of international momentum by highlighting the human costs of Kalashnikov and its ilk and encouraging governments to do what they see as the right thing on moving toward an ATT.

Serious demands will be placed on the ability of civil society actors to persuade and gently nudge countries during an eventual ATT negotiation - and to subsequently implement it. These are more subtle skills than cajoling or finger pointing at existing abuses, important as that is. But they’ll be vital skills if the world is to ensure future anniversaries of the AK-47 are less unhappy.

John Borrie


“Russia’s trademark gun turns 60 amid rumblings of profits lost”, International Herald Trib-une (15 July 2007), available online here.

“Kalashnikov backs weapons control”, BBC News (26 June 2006), available online here.

“Global arms trade: Africa and the curse of the AK-47”, Independent (6 April 2006), available online here.

“Black-Market Weapon Prices Surge in Iraq Chaos”, New York Times (10 December 2006), available online here.

“U.S. Is Said to Fail in Tracking Arms for Iraqis”, New York Times (30 October 2006), see here.

Information about the Control Arms Campaign is available here.

Picture retrieved from Flickr.com.