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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

The Social Impacts of Light Weapons Availability and Proliferation

As part of its activities for the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in March 1995, UNRISD commissioned a number of papers on problems of social integration. As countries confront the seemingly intractable problems of social conflicts, institutional breakdown and mass alienation, the topic of social integration has assumed increasing importance in public debate. This paper, by Christopher Louise, examines the social effects of the proliferation of light weapons on societies around the world. It identifies the factors and circumstances that are fuelling the growing trade and widespread use of small arms, and explores the social consequences of the increasing availability of such weapons.

The number of countries experiencing major armed conflicts has escalated sharply in recent years. A distinctive feature of contemporary warfare is the extent to which the parties involved rely on light as opposed to heavy weaponry. The majority of conflicts in the world today are conflicts within states, involving “irregular” as well as “regular” armed forces, and in these types of conflicts major weapons systems are of less significance than light weapons. Yet the international community has remained relatively indifferent to the control of small arms and light weapons, concentrating instead on restraining the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

A particularly disturbing aspect of today’s wars is the extent to which civilians are involved — both as victims and combatants. The reasons for this are varied and complex but, as this paper reveals, the situation has been fuelled by the rapid proliferation of increasingly deadly light weapons and the extreme ease with which people around the world can acquire them. In several developing countries, an AK-47 can be purchased for just a few dollars. In the United States, spare parts shops and mail-order magazines sell the components necessary to convert semi-automatic weapons into military-style fully automatic weapons.

The changed nature of contemporary warfare has contributed to a rethinking of traditional concepts of security. Ever since the collapse of communism, analysts, strategists and academics working in the field of international relations have been engaged in an intense dialogue concerning the shape and nature of the post-Cold War world. Within this dialogue the arms trade and its consequences are crucial for understanding the formation of environments that determine levels of security. More than ever before, the trade and use of light weapons have become associated with rising levels of violence and disintegrative trends, often involving ethnic conflict and crime, which threaten the fabrics of societies worldwide. In areas where violence is pervasive, the proliferation of light weapons and small arms accelerates societal dysfunction, political anarchy and the undermining of state authority.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1995
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD