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Illegal Arms Trade: Issues and the Way Forward
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Sushil Chander | Date:29 Jan , 2018 0 Comments

Illegal Arms’ Trade also referred to as Arms Trafficking or Gun Running, involves smuggling of contraband weapons and/or munitions.

Weapons, equipment and munitions’ trade means big business in the present day world. As billions of dollars are at stake, there is no dearth of corrupt politicians, officials and criminal elements looking for ingenious ways to manipulate and take advantage of loopholes in the system to capitalise on the market and make money. The extent of money at stake can be easily gauged by having a look at the arms sales of the world’s 100 largest arms-producing and military services companies (the SIPRI Top 100), which stood at US $ 374.8 billion[i] in 2016. The average value of international arms trade is estimated at US $ 80-90 billion (excluding domestic sales) and the share of small arms stands at approximately US $ 10 billion[ii] per annum. The illegal arms market is estimated at 10-20 percent[iii] by value of the overall arms trade in the world. The value of ‘Trafficked Arms’ has been estimated to average around US $ 10 billion[iv] per annum, in which share (by value) of small arms and light weapons’ trafficking is approximately US $ 1 billion[v]. It is further estimated that about one million stolen/lost weapons end up in ‘Black Market’ every year. With a significant proportion of trafficked arms originating from legal transactions, it is indisputably a cause of grave concern for safety and security of the mankind.

Analysis of the ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers’ of major weapons from 1950-2016[vi]carried out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), indicates a surge in transfers in 1950s during the Korean War followed by another surge during Indo-Pak War and Vietnam War. The quantum of transfers continued an upward trend and reached at its peak in 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, where-after a relative downward trend was witnessed till 2002, with the exception of a sporadic increase in late 1990s. However, from 2003 onwards as the situation in Middle East and Afghanistan deteriorated, the arms sales began to look up again. The trends suggest that the arms sales shoot up when wars are fought and/or countries/regions face political uncertainty.

The history of ‘Illegal Arms Trade’ is as old as the ‘History of War’. The illegal arms trade mainly revolves around the small arms, weapons (other than small arms) and munitions. As per estimates, over 2 million people are involved in the illegal arms trade.

The current scenario amply displays that Africa, Middle East and South Asia (read Afghanistan and Pakistan) remain the most active markets for illicit trading of arms and munitions. The trafficking of arms is rampant from countries with large stocks, exceeding their own requirement to the regions that are facing crisis or political instability. The trafficking is greatly assisted by systemic corruption both at the suppliers’ and consumers’ end. Traffickers are able to use fake ‘End-User Certificate’ in the source country to show that the exports are legal. The documented destination(s) act as ‘transit points’ where the receipts are given and documentation completed, after which the weapons/munitions are diverted to their intended destination. As the arms have durable life and can be used without much hassle (requiring minimal repairs) for many years, the consequent danger to peace and security of states is rapidly increasing. In the current age, with the exception of North Korea, it is the non-state actors viz Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Taliban and several other big as well as smaller organisations that are threatening the World.


A number of issues of significance pertaining to the illegal arms trade are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Globalisation: It has facilitated the illegal arms trade by enabling informal and/or illegal transactions. The networks have had tremendous impact on the ability of the terrorist groups to organise, indoctrinate, unleash propaganda and act with impunity against states. The terrorist organisations are able to plan, move finances and execute operations from far off locations using networks. Using networks, the Pakistani handlers planned, directed and controlled the movement and attack by terrorists during the Mumbai Terror Attacks.

Gun Lobby: This is a major factor which dissuades the Governments of source countries from adopting tougher legislations on limiting the quantum of arms that can be produced and transferred to non-state actors.

Link between Illegal Weapons, Drugs and Wildlife Trade: An unmistakable link exists between the illegal arms trade, drug trafficking and wildlife smuggling. The illegally traded weapons and munitions are extensively used by terrorist organisations, drug cartels and wildlife smugglers. The illegally procured weapons and munitions provide much needed protection to the drug and wildlife cartels which, in turn, fuel the demand for more weapons and munitions. As these are extremely profitable commodities, the illegal trade continues to grow by the day.

Link between Politics and Arms Trade: The link between politics and arms trade (including illegal trade) is strong and unresolvable. The Politicians, Arms Industry and Gun Lobbies have formed an Iron Triangle which is difficult to breach.

Support by Governments: Governments of certain major arms producing countries also overtly/covertly supply weapons and munitions to non-state actors. Arming of Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Syrian rebels are cases that amply exhibit the role of Governments in fuelling the illegal arms trade for short term gains.

Action Taken

Significant measures to stop the illegal arms trade have already been taken by the United Nations and certain countries. Some of the noteworthy treaties / protocols are:-

•  The ‘Arms Trade Treaty’ that regulates the international trade in conventional weapons, entered into force on 24 Dec 2014.

•  ‘Firearms Protocol’, the United Nations Protocol against illegal manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts and ammunition, entered into force in July 2005.

•  ‘Trans-National Organised Crime Convention’ entered into force, in Sep 2003. It covers trafficking in firearms too.

•  Various other measures have also been taken by the United Nations Organisation and some states which have contributed in curtailing the illegal arms trade to a limited extent.

Suggested Way Forward

As the illegal arms trade is still continuing in a big way, certain additional measures are recommended as under:-

•  Collection of accurate information, processing and in-depth analysis would assist in deeper understanding of various nuances relating to illegal arms trade and formulation of plans to deal with the menace.

•  The illegal arms trade, drug and wildlife trafficking have to be dealt with as a single issue and not piecemeal. These three organised crimes complement and fuel each other and in turn, they fuel political instability pushing regions into chaos.

•  Cooperation among states needs to be strengthened. Once the countries, namely Pakistan, Ukraine, China and others evaluate and understand the curse of illegal arms trade, it would be easier to strangulate it and facilitate peace building efforts.

•  Globalisation needs to be regulated by all stakeholders viz, the United Nations Organisation and member states. Regulating globalisation is difficult, but serious action can help in significant regulation which, in turn, can assist in crippling the illegal arms trade and other organised crimes.

•  Export control regulations, especially those concerning the requirement of ‘End-User-Certificate’ for complete weapons, major/sensitive assemblies and munitions are required to be reviewed by all supplier countries to prevent diversion of weapons to undesirable elements. A consolidated ‘List of Military Stores’ on the lines of ‘Wassenar Arrangement List’ may be formulated by stakeholders (as a reference for the range of defence items) for strengthening of the export control regulations.


Illegal arms trade poses a serious challenge to mankind and will continue to fuel disruption of peace, causing turmoil in multiple parts of the world and pushing regions into chaos. In addition to the efforts being made by the United Nations Organisation, all member states need to initiate additional measures. Ensuring effective implementation of various treaties/protocols and measures recommended above, by all member states is likely to significantly assist in containing this menace and ushering an era of peace.


[i] Dr Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Dr Nan Tian, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, SIPRI Fact Sheet Dec 2017, “The SIPRI Top 100 Arms Producing and military services companies, 2016”,

[ii] Small Arms Survey, “Authorized Trade Annual Export and Import Data”, weapons-and-markets/transfers/authorized-trade.html

[iii] Matt Schroeder and Guy Lamb, “The Illicit Arms Trade in Africa, A Global Enterprise”,

[iv] Dr Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, “Innocent people the main victims of illegal arms trade”, filed on August 20, 2017, Khaleej Times, Opinion and Editorial,

[v] Havocscope: Global Black Market Information, “Value of Trafficking in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Transnational Crime”,

[vi] SIPRI Arms Transfers Database (20 Feb 2017),

Courtesy: With permission reproduced from

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