Arms:  The illicit arms trade

Did you know…

? Illegally traded arms are responsible for more than 1,300 deaths every day worldwide.

? Of the 639 million firearms in circulation today, 41% have been obtained illegally.

? Legally owned guns can end up in the hands of criminals: in the Central African Republic for example, a study has found that 72% of the guns used in crimes had at one time been legally registered.

What are illicit arms?

Illicit arms are weapons that have exchanged hands in such a way as to violate the laws or policies of one or more of the states where the transaction occurs- the source country, transit countries, or the recipient country. The magnitude of the illicit market is unknown, but it is assumed to be increasing, both because of the many on-going wars (creating demand) and the large supply of arms freed up with the end of the Cold War. Even the recent conclusion of several long-running conflicts (most notably in Central America and Southern Africa) has contributed to the flourishing of an illicit arms trade. This is because peace processes often fail to adequately disarm warring parties, leading to the recycling of weapons to other wars or to bandits.

How does the illicit arms trade operate?

Illicit arms trafficking usually takes place on a regional or local level- although we often hear about the multi-ton, inter-continental shipments simply because they are easier to document. In fact such shipments only actually account for a small fraction of illicit transfers. By far the most important form of illicit trafficking is the ‘ant trade’—numerous shipments of very small numbers of weapons that, over time, result in the accumulation of large numbers of illicit weapons in one place.

How are the licit and illicit trades linked?

The issue of the illicit arms trade is a complex one, and even reputable sources often confuse the facts and figures associated with the licit and illicit arms trades. This is perhaps understandable- the illicit and licit arms markets are closely associated and do drive each other. There is also the issue of what has been termed ‘grey market transfers’, where governments, agents and individuals exploit loopholes and intentionally circumvent arms legislation.  This often leads to a strange ‘third’ trade in arms that can be considered neither fully licit or illicit.

Social implications

The availability of small arms combined with the experience of  protracted armed conflict has resulted in the emergence of a “gun  culture” in certain African countries- a system of norms and values where gun ownership is highly valued and is linked to identity and status. In some societies, gun culture may even result in the perception of armed violence (or the threat thereof) as an acceptable and legitimate means of social interaction between people. This is particularly the case in areas where the state is weak, or absent, such as the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia.


Collect and destroy programmes: Collect and destroy programmes involve incentivising citizens to hand in arms and bullets. The results of collect and destroy programmes in the Great Lakes Region have been mixed. Often, projects have had only marginal impact on security, presumably because it is typically the obsolete weapons that are destroyed, and because affected communities do not always participate in the design and implementation of collection programmes. Also, disarmament programmes tend to focus on weapons rather than ammunition. Most importantly, many weapons collection programmes are not embedded within broader programmes to address violence reduction and reconciliation. However there have been some successes- the community focused Transforming Arms into Tools project has collected and destroyed over 600,000 weapons and offers useful tools in exchange for weapons. Farmers have received plows, schoolchildren have exchanged bullets for notebooks, and many people have received bicycles or building materials for turning in caches of guns and grenades.

The Bamako Declaration: An innovative feature of both the Bamako Declaration and the UNPoA has been the recommendation that states establish national focal points (NFPs), which are coordination bodies responsible for devising a national arms control action plan, as well as facilitating small arms control research, monitoring, and the formulation of policy and legislation. Many African states have created NFPs. Some of NFPs have been active in promoting and enabling small arms controls, such as in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia and Rwanda, while others exist in name only.

The Illicit Arms Trade – Resolution:Possible?

The illicit small arms market in Africa flourishes due to a combination of underdevelopment, insecurity, inequality and ineffective governance. As result, destroying small arms, reinforcing arms embargoes and bolstering national arms controls will not have a decisive effect on the illicit small arms economy unless the root causes of violence and conflict are comprehensively addressed through long term, multi-dimensional strategies.