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Consequences of illicit markets: producing, prolonging and exacerbating conflict and aggravating levels of crime and violence


According to Greene and Marsh (2012b: 250), small arms and light weapons including firearms represent " significant independent variables in processes of armed violence, conflict, security or development." They argue: " variations in the characteristics, availability and flows of arms can significantly affect the wider risks, dynamics, extent, and lethality of armed violence, conflict, insecurity and obstacles to development." Drawing together the otherwise seemingly distinct academic studies of conflict and crime, " the ready availability of handguns or automatic weapons can qualitatively affect the lethality, scale or implications of violence, with enduring consequences."

According to Boutwell and Klare (1999) in their collection of essays on the international trade in light weapons, " the widespread global diffusion of assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and other light weapons ... easily carried by an individual or transported by a light vehicle has greatly intensified the scale of conflict in countries and societies around the world." In the 1990s alone, such weapons accounted for the clear majority of four million deaths in forty-nine major ethnic and sectarian conflicts, which ranged from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Zaire, Rwanda to Afghanistan, and Tajikistan to Somalia (Boutwell and Klare, 1999). The same year, Laurance (1999: 185-6) went even further. They argued that a net increase in the global supply of small arms was directly responsible for the perpetuation of conflicts ' carried out by criminals, terrorists, and irregular militia and armed bands", representing a global security threat and thereby making the case for more coordinated international action to tackle the indiscriminate supply of small arms. Amongst several particular concerns identified was the diffusion of military specification weapons into civilian possession. " In the end," he noted, " people kill people, but when modern military weapons are used, the lethality escalates to inhumane levels." (Laurance, 1999: 193).

The availability of firearms/small arms and light weapons has been acknowledged as an aggravating factor in crime, in particular organized crime and terrorism, as several of the previous examples have also highlighted. It has been elevated as a source of concern also within the UN Security Council, in Resolution 2370/2017, highlighting, for example, the urge to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons.

There are important distinctions of scale and organization within the weapons trafficking arena. Larger scale transfers are often cloaked by the involvement of layers of brokerage companies and networks of contractors and sub-contractors. Griffiths and Wilkinson (2007), in their report on Clandestine Arms Transfers for SEESAC, point out that relatively few illegal weapon shipments have been detected or intercepted in transit, an issue often attributable to a combination of ' inefficiency, lack of resources and high-level complicity and corruption'.

The systematic analysis and detection of clandestine arms shipments, they claim, remains ' in its infancy'. Professional firearms dealers often operate on the periphery of financial and legal accountability, utilizing a range of covert connections, under-regulated offshore banking systems, and contacts with military and governmental personnel to evade proper scrutiny (perhaps underpinned by bribes and other inducements to regulators).  Intermediaries are also critical for the operation of the illicit market since their independent status is very useful for diversion of shipments. The SEESAC's study notes that brokers and transporters involved in clandestine markets tend to work on a ' just-in-time' principle, which minimizes the risk of detection whilst maximizing gain through a network of trusted suppliers and reliable carriers (Griffiths and Wilkinson, 2007). The expansion of global trade, the Internet, changing international business practices and, not least, the recent growth of private military companies, consultants and trainers providing and delivering military services and supplies, have further complicated these complex and often opaque international markets.

Bourne (2007: 131) has described many end-user certification processes as simple ' veils of legality' designed to conceal covert military aid, or by-pass trade embargoes. Problems with End-User Certificates (EUC) can fall into a number of types. EUCs can be forged; original documents can be altered and re-used; misleading or incomplete information can be provided on them; weapons can be diverted in transit to putative ' end users' and the ' end user' described in the documentation can fail to comply with the agreements and re-sell the weapons to a further party. Another weakness is the failure by export country authorities to verify that weapons reach their intended recipients.

The above-described situation has certainly improved a lot over the past two decades. Global awareness and efforts to prevent and counter the illicit trafficking in firearms/small arms and light weapons have increased, and new global instruments, such as the United Nations Firearms Protocol and the Arms Trade Treaty amongst others (see Module 5 on International Legal Framework), have emerged and entered into force.

Today, large-scale trafficking is less frequent, or less visible than in the late 1990s, due to a number of factors, including the appearance of new trafficking modalities and trends, based on the use of new and modern technology. Examples include the Internet/darknet, modern service delivery methods, and a certain ' democratization' of the trafficking activities, which can be carried out by single or smaller groups, making detection and interception very difficult.

This reduction of once larger trafficking networks into smaller, more agile and flexible structures is, in fact, common to many forms of organized crime, as can be observed, for example, in relation to the illicit drug trade. However, whether through sporadic large quantities, or frequent but constant flows, the consequences and impact of illicit firearms trafficking on security and development seem not to change.

Several conclusions follow sequentially from the preceding discussions. First, the arms trade and marketized weapon supply are major contributors to the globalization of crime and corruption (for more information, see the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption). Second, illicit arms deals and firearm proliferation both serve to undermine effective and accountable governance, simultaneously narrowing conceptions of the role of government while increasing global insecurity itself (Greene and Marsh, 2012a). Third, increasing global insecurity works to generate further demands for firearms. Fourth, the proliferation of firearms stimulates conflict and violence, which further weakens social, economic and political securities, and fifth, when social, economic and political security, that is, family and community structures and governance capacity, are weakened, young men often appear at the greatest risks of marginalization and most subject to the pull of gangs and weaponization. These are the ones most likely to be drawn, conscripted or coerced into embracing the norms of the gun culture (Squires, 2014: 243).

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