Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 6 September 2007

Arms and Non-State Groups

The biggest threat facing the world today, according to some, is weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of terrorists. A chilling enough scenario, granted, but how likely is it actually to transpire? And what about weapons other than WMD in the hands of non-State groups broadly defined? Shouldn't we be worried about that as well?

Indeed, there is plenty to be worried about, as was highlighted this week by a UNIDIR seminar on "Preventing the Spread of Weapons to Non-State Armed Groups." Interestingly, participants seemed to be less worried about the prospect of terrorists building or otherwise acquiring a nuclear device than they were about them getting their hands on such relatively low-tech devices as shoulder-fired guided missiles capable of downing commercial airliners.

It all seemed to boil down to a (albeit inexact) calculation of risk; understood as probability multiplied by consequences. One speaker rated the probability of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons as being so low as to drastically reduce the overall risk, despite the dire consequences of it actually happening. Another pointed out that - in the age of the biotech revolution, suicide bombings and global travel - a more effective way for terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction might be to infect themselves with a new strain of a deadly virus and travel on international flights, potentially unleashing a global pandemic.

For me, however, the most interesting part of the whole debate centered on the acquisition by non-State groups of conventional weaponry; something that happens all the time. Most States represented in the UNIDIR seminar came into being as a result of armed struggle - i.e. as non-state armed groups rising up against colonial powers or pre-existing States. Obviously, States existing today have a strong interest in maintaining the status-quo by crushing all non-State groups that undermine their sovereignty or threaten their very existence . However, some States still seem to reserve the right to arm non-State groups in other countries, using them as tool of foreign policy to promote regime change.

The debate on preventing the spread of weapons to non-State armed groups tends to become immediately polarized along the lines of "terrorist" vs. "freedom fighter." Although the UNIDIR seminar did not manage to avoid this completely, it did suggest some interesting nuances. For example, participants suggested that it is more useful to speak about terrorist "acts" than about terrorist "groups" and that, since there are many different kinds of non-State armed groups - e.g. aspiring or not to statehood; engaging or not in attacks on civilians - it is not useful to paint them all with the same brush.

The thorny issue of arming non-State groups did not feature very prominently in last week's international conference in Geneva on small arms transfer controls (see my posting of August 23), which is perhaps one of the reasons that the conference was so successful. The issue will have to be dealt with head on, however, by the nascent UN process leading towards the negotiation of a legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty regulating the transfer of all conventional weapons. I have a feeling it will be a difficult nut to crack.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo credit: Monohex on flickr