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Definition: gunrunning from Collins English Dictionary


1 the smuggling of guns and ammunition or other weapons of war into a country

› ˈgunˌrunner n

Summary Article: Illegal Trade, Arms
from Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The selling, buying, and transportation of military technologies and products outside of the world's formal markets, law, and policies is one of the largest segments of the hidden illegal global economy. The term illegal arms trade refers to those transfers that are not authorized by either one or both of the states concerned in the transfers or are made in violation of the legislation of any of the parties concerned. Most often the recipient of the arms transport is barred from acquiring arms through legal channels, that is, states that are subject to UN Security Council sanctions or regional/subregional embargos, non-state actors, insurgent movements, rebel groups, criminals, or citizens who cannot obtain gun licenses.

However, the line between licit and illicit arms deals is often very tenuous. The UN Disarmament Commission defines illicit trafficking more broadly as trade that is contrary to the laws of states and/or international law. Recent studies suggest that the legal and illegal markets are inextricably linked. Illicit arms trade networks often involve legal arms purchases or transfers that are later diverted to unauthorized recipients or leaked from arms storage facilities. Arms smuggling is made possible by institutions and individuals who are not part of a criminal organization, such as national defense departments, other security agencies, banks, and legitimate arms dealers. Those transfers entail economic transactions, but they are often transactions governed by more than market forces. States and individuals transfer arms to one another for a variety of strategic, political, and economic reasons.

Black and Gray Markets

The illegal arms trade is divided into two categories: the black and gray markets. The black market in arms is driven exclusively by individuals and private companies outside the scope of state influence or control. Gray market transactions are made by, or with the complicity of, national agencies. Political authorities usually turn a blind eye to arms trafficking or intentionally facilitate the flow of arms to their proxies or allies. Transactions within this sphere are covert and are not subject to licit trade procedures: official export licenses, end-user certification, or delivery verification. Arms-smuggling operations conducted by intelligence services to insurgent groups and other kind of allies have historically been a major source of illicit arms.

During the Cold War era, the utilization of arms trade transactions as an instrument of superpowers’ foreign policies was one of the defining features of the market. Arms were delivered to terrorists and rebel groups involved in wars throughout the world. The list of recipients includes groups from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa. One of the most famous cases of gray arms sales was the “arms for hostages” plan carried out by members of U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration. It involved the U.S. government's covert arms sales operations to Iran. In 1985, arms (including 1,000 TOW missiles) were shipped from the United States to secure the release of seven U.S. citizens who were abducted in 1984 and 1985 by the Hezbollah organization. Sales were illegal under U.S. statutes and contradicted the Reagan administration's own stated policy of not negotiating or dealing with terrorists. Additionally, the profits from the sales were illegally diverted to Contra groups to finance their insurgency against a socialist regime in Nicaragua. The scandal became known as the Iran-Contra affair. During the 1980s, U.S. government agencies supplied weapons to guerrillas in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, massive amounts of arms became increasingly available through different regional markets. Ineffective monitoring, export controls, and official corruption left stockpiles available to individual arms traders. After 1989, the appeal of economic gains effectively overwhelmed security concerns in the international arms trade. The domestic economic and political considerations of the producers increasingly drove modern weapons onto the market. The practice of arms trafficking has been driven primarily by profit, not by security or political considerations.

Illegal Arms Transfer in the 21st Century

The illegal arms transfer in the 21st century involves three sets of factors: producers, recipients, and traffickers. Actors involved in the illicit commerce in prohibited goods have established sophisticated transnational networks for the procurement, financing, and delivery of items. For example, connections can be traced between governments involved in the illegal trade of diamonds, private arms smugglers, mercenaries, and drug dealers. The globalization of financial markets and communication systems has enabled buyers and sellers to easily identify and establish terms of cooperation. Sales are organized by a variety of means and through a number of different intermediaries. Arms brokers, disreputable transportation, and finance companies play a basic role in these networks.

In the era of globalization, a largely unregulated and highly competitive commerce in weaponry is believed to exacerbate the principal security threats, because the world's black markets—like the world's legal markets—have become increasingly integrated. The illegal trade in arms is driven by demand, which in many regions of the world has increased with the spread of ethnic and regional conflict and of lawless conditions in so-called weak or fragile states. As a result of the illegal nature of these transactions, little quantitative data exist on the nature of the black market in arms. The variety of actors and forms of transaction involved in the illicit arms trade presents a major challenge for any attempt to gather data in a systematic way.

Many of the most basic questions about illegal arms trafficking are still unanswered. How big is the market? Which countries illegally export weapons to areas of civil conflict? What are the consequences of such practices in the context of regional and global security? It is difficult to assess the value of the illegal arms market in financial terms, although such sales probably represent a small share of the total trade in conventional weapons. It has been estimated to be worth less than US$1 billion (10%-20% of the total trade). Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence that the consequences of this activity make the problem large and complex. Many attempts to smuggle nuclear, chemical, or missile-based technology to groups or regimes seeking to acquire them have been reported. Willingness to sell advanced weaponry to “rogue” states and terrorist organizations causes anxiety within the international community.

The black and gray arms markets also provide the weapons most likely to be used in conflicts. In both recipient and transit regions, such transfers generate a variety of interconnected threats to political, economic, and military security. Illegally sold weapons are playing an increasingly important role in destabilizing states and endangering civil society; they have the potential to fuel conflicts and may lead to the process of state breakdown. The flow of arms is believed to be among the causes of instability, violence, poverty, and human right abuses across the world.

In many cases where underdeveloped countries are involved in long-term conflicts or ruled by aggressive regimes, the purchase of arms drains the resources needed to improve social conditions. Military expenditure is often substantially greater than public investment in health, education, and infrastructure. Such transfers, which are financed directly or indirectly by organized criminal networks, have a huge social, cultural, and political impact. The ready accessibility of arms is closely associated with sociopolitical problems within societies, which in turn generates a demand for the means of violence and confrontation. Some factors driving the demand for arms include governance problems, militarization of social relations, weak law enforcement, social fragmentation, human rights violations, civil and ethnic conflicts, declining access to basic services, and corruption.

Arms not only dictate the forms and intensity of local armed conflicts but also affect the everyday life of people. Illegally provided and misused military equipment has become one of the key issues in global human security. Such trade increases cross-border crime and provides repressive regimes, criminals, and terrorist groups with the means to carry out or intensify civil rights violations. The international arms trade, in both its licit and illicit dimensions, enables and sustains violence and instability.

One of the most destructive aspects of the illegal arms trade is the trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALWs), which are the most common tools used in conflicts, repression, and crime. The diffusion of such military items in the post-Cold War period has become an important issue in the study of the security of developing countries and conflict zones. According to UN research, these arms have been the primary or sole tools of violence in most civil wars and other armed conflicts. It has been estimated that SALWs cause more than 1,300 deaths every day. The value of SALWs circulating internationally has been estimated at roughly US$4 billion per year, 10% to 20% of which occurs in the black and gray markets. Small arms have been purchased illegally by rebel groups, terrorists, and warring factions across Asia, Africa, and South America. They are easy to obtain, smuggle, carry, and use, even by poorly trained soldiers. In some parts of the world, a Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle, coveted for its simplicity and firepower, can be illegally purchased for US$6, and a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile is available on the black market for as little as a few thousand dollars. In many societies, the low cost and ready availability of firearms can promote a “culture of violence” that contributes to crime and public insecurity and hampers economic growth by forcing governments to redirect funding from social services to law enforcement.

Controlling Illegal Arms

Controlling illegally distributed arms is an important part of international efforts to provide security. However, the current system of transfer controls does not provide any consistent international mechanism to effectively prevent the illegal proliferation of arms, military equipment, and technology. Differences in legislation and enforcement mechanisms, combined with a lack of information exchange and cooperation at national, regional, and international levels, make the circulation of arms basically uncontrollable. That is why illicit trafficking in arms cannot be addressed unilaterally. Enacting strong export and border controls, safeguarding stockpiles, and dismantling trafficking networks may help to close gaps in arms export control systems that allow weapons to pass onto the illicit market. Thus, international cooperation to combat illicit arms trafficking needs to be embedded in broader efforts to combat transnational criminal networks and to prevent the excessive accumulation and spread of military items and technologies.

Contemporary threats permeating across borders, new features of civil and international violent conflicts, and the growing dynamic of interconnectedness have diminished the effectiveness of traditional means of arms control such as arms embargoes mandated by the United Nations or other bodies. Instead of restricting the flow of arms to the areas of conflict, they often create preconditions for the illicit arms trade to thrive. National and universal systems of arms control are inadequate when faced with the realities of modern arms trafficking. Problems posed by the black market in arms have moved rapidly up the international agenda in recent decades. Substantial steps taken by the international community to address the arms trade as a core security concern include the following:

  • In 2001, the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects was adopted.

  • In 2005, the United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, entered into force, ratified by 40 nations.

  • Since 1990, numerous countries have passed anti-brokering legislation, and steps are being taken to address brokering at the international level through UN panels and processes.

See also:

Crime, Transnational, Global Conflict and Security, Law, Transnational, Military, Trade, War, Civil, Wars, New, Weapons

Further Readings
  • Amnesty International & Oxfam International.(2003) Shattered lives: The case for tough international arms control. London & Oxford: Authors.
  • Farah, D.Braun, S.(2007) Merchant of death: Money, guns, planes, and the man who makes war possible. New York: Wiley.
  • Naylor, R. T.(1995) The structure and operation of the modern arms black market. In Boutwell, J.,Klare, M. T., &Reed, L. W. (Eds.), Lethal commerce: The global trade in small arms and light weapons(pp. 44-57) Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Website
  • United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs, Small Arms/Armed Violence:
  • Zachara, Malgorzata
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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