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Impact of SALW Trafficking

By Jamie Ledgister

Table of Contents


What is SALW?

Unraveling the Arms Trade

Corruption in Small Arms Trade

Corruption Masked by Intermediate Actors




While there are a multitude of arms that are trafficked, small arms and light weapons (SALW) trafficking has been instrumental in many of the world’s conflicts since 1990, with 90 percent of all war casualties since World War II being attributed to small arms weaponry. [1] [2] In addition to the casualties of war, the persistent presence of illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (“SALW”) in the hands of terrorist, criminals and organized gangs has been instrumental in promoting and sustaining violence domestically and amongst the international community. The violence caused by the use of illicit SALW undermines legitimate authority, destabilizes nations, exacerbates violence, contributes to the displacement of civilians, undermines respect for international humanitarian law, impedes the provision of humanitarian assistance, fuels terrorism and ultimately fractures the relationship between nations and sabotages the completion of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to “significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows…” in Goal 16.4.[3] To eradicate this epidemic, the United Nations has implemented the Programme of Action (“PoA”) – a series of measures drafted and implemented to regulate and eliminate the source and presence of illegal trafficking and possession of SALW. However, the cooperation and implementation necessary to achieve the goals of the PoA has and continue to be undermined by corrupt actors and states.

What is SALW?

SALW is defined in the UN Instrument Enabling ITI and in the General Assembly Document A/52/298 as any man-portable lethal weapon that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by that action of an explosive excluding antique small arms and light weapons, or their replicas manufactured after 1899. These two documents go further to define small arms as weapons designed for individual use and listing revolvers, self-loading pistols, pistols, rifles, carbines, SMG’s, AR’s and LMG’s. UN Instrument Enabling ITI defines Light Weapons as weapons designed for use by two or three persons serving as a crew, although some may be carried out by a singular individual. i.e. HMG’s, under barrel grenade launchers, mounted grenade launchers, anti-air and anti-tank guns, anti-tank missile & rocket systems, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-air missile & rocket systems and finally mortars of caliber less than 100 millimeters.

Unraveling the Arms Trade

The global arms trade is a vast lucrative business that has risen to unprecedented levels in recent decades. Warfare and instability have caused the arms trade to rise, over the past five years, to the highest volume since the end of the cold war, according to an annual report on arms sales from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).[4] Before we are able to take action on adjusting this horrific trend, we need to first understand how the arms trade works.

There are four markets for small arms sales: White, Grey, Black and Covert Military Transactions (“CMT”) [5].

  • White Market sales: legal sales of weapons by governments or private manufacturers to other countries or governments.[6]

  • Gray Market Sales: are similar to White Market sales but do not carry a same fully legal perception.[7] An example of this would be a straw deal. A straw deal is the legal sale of arms to one individual, party or state in which there is a reasonable assumption that the same will be sold, traded or gifted to another individual state or party with the intention of bypassing legal restrictions such as embargos. These deals are typically done through the use of proxy - i.e. individual brokers or insurgency groups.

  • Black Market Sales: are illegal by the covert nature of the transaction as well as through the illegal status of the buyer, seller, or transaction. Transactions can be hidden through the concealment of the weapons through mislabeling, forging of documents, and the laundering of the criminal proceeds.

  • Covert Military Transactions (“CMT”): CMT transfers from one state to another, specifically to insurgent forces due to their lack of transparency [8] [9].

Grey, Black Market and CMT sales are typically where we find concern over regulation of SALW trade. Stopping Grey Market sales poses great difficulty due to its portrayal as a White Market transaction. Thus, they are often able to be defended by masking the seller’s intention or even through the use of legal loopholes. Stopping Black Market sales is difficult due to the covert nature of the transaction and operations of the parties involved being unknown to regulators. CMT trades can be either a form of Black Market arms trade due to the limited amount of information on the parties involved or a Grey Market trade because of the perception of legality. For instance, international assistance and training can facilitate the movement of arms without an actual formal sale or “change of ownership”.[10] While Black Market sales are inherently illegal, Grey and CMT sales lack the necessary clarity to determine whether or not the sale is illicit. In search for such clarity, we are required to look at the intention of the nations involved in construing such an act and similar instruments. Under the UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, an illicit trade is defined as any unauthorized “...import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition...” across internal or state borders.[11] The term trafficking is also used to designate the intentional diversion of firearms from legal to illegal commerce, without involving the movement of items across physical borders. This is due to its close relationship to illicit manufacturing of SALW. Illicit manufacturing is closely tied to the act of firearm trafficking and thus the definition incorporates the “manufacture or assembly of firearms, firearm parts and components or ammunition”.[12] Further, the UN Instrument Enabling ITI defines illicit trade of SALW where the act is “(a) illicit under the law of the State or territorial jurisdiction the SALW is found; (b) transferred in violation of arms embargoes decided by the Security Council in accordance with the Charter of the UN, (c) not marked in accordance with ITI provisions; (d) manufactured or assembled without a license or authorization from the competent authority of the State where the aforementioned took place, or; (e) transferred without license or authorization by a competent national authority.”[13]

Corruption in Small Arms Trade

The Programme of Action inherently faces the difficult task of galvanizing nations to establish regulatory instruments, rules and procedures to discern which category SALW trade action belongs. Once established, the implementation of the preventative measures to inhibit the continuance of these acts becomes the efficacy of the regulatory prevention. Where it is implemented well, the varying scope of regulation often creates loopholes in which individuals may exploit for their personal gain. This form of exploitation undermines the efforts of the Programme of Action and is a form of corruption which if left unaddressed will negate any possibility of achieving SDG 16 by 2030.

What is Corruption?

Corruption is the act of a public official or fiduciary person who unlawfully and wrongfully uses his station or character to procure some benefit for himself or for another person, contrary to duty and the rights of others.[14] In Chapter III of the UN Convention on Corruption, it distinguishes corruption in the public from that of private individuals.[15] Within both forms there is a common theme of using your position to perform or refrain from performing an act, to the detriment of others, for a personal benefit. Transparency International simplified this concept to be focused on the misuse of entrusted power for private benefit. The most common reference for the conferred benefit is monetary in nature or denoted as bribery.[16] The Corruption Glossary of International Criminal Standards define bribery as a promise, offering or giving...directly or indirectly, of an undue advantage, for the benefit of the official himself or herself or another person or entity, in order that the individual act or refrain from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties. [17] [18]

Corruption Masked by Intermediate Actors

The difficulty of regulating the movement of SALW is exacerbated by the presence of corrupt individual actors. Often individual actors inject themselves into situations of disunity and chaos, such as civil and international war, and facilitate state actors who seek to influence the outcome of such an event. These actors use a litany of covert action, payoffs and loopholes to circumvent regulatory impediments to profit off the damaging nature of these events to the detriment of the innocent victims who are harmed.

The Angolan Civil War exemplifies both the tools used by these actors and the exceeding difficulty of keeping illicit SALW out of the world's bloodiest and most destabilizing conflicts.The Angolan Civil War was an ongoing conflict which began in the mid 1970’s and continued into the early 2000’s.[19]

The conflict between the Angolan government and the UNITA forces reached a bloody climax in the late 90’s after a tumultuous period of attempted peace between the parties was suspected of being violated. In 1993 the UN sought to prevent the continuing bloodshed in this longstanding conflict by instituting an arms embargo on the rebel force – UNITA.[20]

In spite of this embargo against UNITA, Zaire continued to be UNITA’s primary supplier and conduit of weapons.[21] Additional parties such as Ukraine along with individual actors in Albania and Bulgaria, were alleged to be major arms suppliers to UNITA. According to a March 2000 UN report, these arms sales were facilitated with the help of Congo-Brazzaville, Burkina Faso, Togo, and nationals from Rwanda and logistical support from South Africa.[22] [23] Cited in UN reports on the Angolan Civil war was as an individual actor and facilitator named Victor Bout. This is the first instance in which Bout would be implicated as an individual actor of corrupt arms sales, but surely would not be the last. He is one of many notorious individuals known as “embargo busters” contracted to facilitate the movement of illicit trade.

While there is no confusion as to which category Viktor Bout’s conduct and those like him belongs, it is worth a further analysis to discern the processes in which this former KGB soldier used to conduct illicit arms trade to such a grandiose extent as to receive the moniker of the “Merchant of Death.”

Front Companies

Front Companies are companies that are established under falsified names or created to facilitate illegal trade.[24] Among the most popular forms of these front companies are shipping companies, which are used to carry out the transport of goods. [25] Front Companies can be used repeatedly before they are caught. In a report by PBS: Frontline, it stated that a company in which Bout was affiliated named Air Cess had recently opened a branch in Swaziland.[26] This branch was, two years later in March 1999, reported to be regularly violating the arms embargo against Sudan “by using the services of former KGB major Viktor Bout, whose fleet of Antonov aircraft had been delivering arms to African war zones for many years.” [27] However, Mr. Bout’s exploits continued vastly in Africa as he was cited in the UN reports on the Angolan War for using this fleet to assist in UNITA’s acquisition of arms in spite of the embargo placed upon the UNITA years earlier.[28] United States was in full investigation of Mr. Bout and his illicit arms dealings to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (“FARC”). In an audio between Bout and US informant Carlos Sagastume, Bout provides informants advice on how to disguise arms sales by using his import/export business as a front.[29] The report states that when guerrillas arrived at a warehouse, Bout would order them to ‘load up sacks of flour [and] load up fruit’ to give the impression that it was a ‘normal operation’.[30] Further, Mr. Bout was again cited, and eventually charged, by both Thailand and the United States.

Size of Trade

A similar method used in disguising the illicit arms trade is reducing the size of the illicit shipments. In a study conducted by the Rand Institute on illicit trade in Colombia, they proposed that illicit SALW weapons are rarely trafficked or purchased in bulk because of the ease of which such size would be traceable.[31] Instead, they note that the illicit weapons slowly “trickle” into the country “by ones and twos or at most by a dozen, rather than cascading into the country by the thousands.”[32] This is facilitated using multiple ports and areas of contact to promote frequency of these actions. The plethora of trafficking venues underscores the vast dimensions of this market. The Rand report notes 21 known arms trafficking routes from Venezuela, 26 from Ecuador, 37 from Panama, and 14 from Brazil. Most of these routes involve small waterways through swamps or paths alongside the Amazon jungle or Darien Gap. Speedboats also regularly bring weapons into Colombia from coves along the Panamanian coast.[33] This small but frequent movement often involves payoffs to customs and port authority agents. (id)[34]

Corruption through Negligence

In the international community a great deal of deference is given to state sovereignty and security especially as a means of justifying international actions. Embargoes and limitation treaties notwithstanding, sovereign nations are able to make purchases of all the tools needed to establish and secure autonomy from other nations, international arms consortiums and individual arms manufacturers under an umbrella of legitimacy. However, a responsibility of the participating nations and actors are to assure these weapons are not acquired or disseminated in a manner contrary to illicit arms reduction. Where this obligation is consciously or capriciously neglected, it is tantamount to corruption.

Negligence is defined as the failure to exercise a standard of care that a reasonably prudent actor would have exercised in a similar situation.[35] (Black Law’s Dictionary) Corruption in internationals arms trade is largely defined as the lack of pertinent information on the participating parties. Thus, it is drawn from this understanding that nations participating in this trade should acknowledge the common trends and purposes of each other. An indifference to such trends or arbitrary attempt to fulfill such obligation can be defined as nothing less than negligent action. Participating with a nation known to have such a penchant to facilitate illicit movement of SALW is corruption.

Small Arms Survey have denoted “suspected or known significant exporters” of small arms which do not provide the international community sufficient information on their firearms exports. Notable nations to make this list are Iran, Israel, North Korea, and South Africa.[36] This list also however includes China, Pakistan, Singapore, and the Russian Federation. In a five-year span, beginning from 2010 to 2015, 80% of UK exports of major conventional weapons have been delivered to markets assessed by Transparency International to have high to critical corruption risk in their defense institutions, such as Saudi Arabia.[37] Similarly, the United States’ arms agreement with Saudi Arabia raises concerns over this similar issue. Saudi Arabia has been notoriously tied to the rise and sustenance of radical forces.[38] Yet, arms deals with this nation have been ongoing and frequent under the guise of “cement[ing] political ties” and “formalizing ‘Joint strategic vision declaration.’”[39]

In conclusion

The Institute for Economics and Peace, a leader in measuring peace scientifically, says of corruption in general:

“There is little doubt that high levels of corruption have a detrimental effect on society. Corruption is most commonly thought of as the ‘abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, encompassing such acts as bribery, fraud, extortion, embezzlement and kickbacks. Corruption affects the way governing institutions work and operate, supporting illegal trade and business, promoting personal political motivations before the national benefit and supporting an environment whereby immoral actions go unpunished.”[40]

The Institute then goes on to say:

"There is an empirical link between corruption and peace. Once countries reach a certain level of corruption there is a threshold or ‘tipping point’. At the ‘tipping point’ countries which experience small increases in corruption can experience large decreases in peace."[41] And one of the main ways that corruption hurts society is by facilitating the illicit trade in SALW, which itself devastates society by fueling violent conflict that destroys individual lives, families, and whole communities.

The solution is obvious - to regulate and carefully track the trade in SALW so that it’s illegal usage can be better controlled, such as with the PoA. The challenge is human political will - to implement political agreements like the PoA even in the face of powerful oppositional economic and criminal pressure to do the opposite. This is why all of us should join together to support civil society efforts working with governments to solve this problem. One such effort is the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).[42] Check out their website at, and lend them what support you can.


[1] Bassiouni 2010; Stohl 1999; Shah 2006






[8]Mouzos, J. (2002). Firearms theft in Australia. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 230. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology

[9] Rothe, L. D., & Collins, V. (2011). An exploration of applying system criminality to arms trafficking. International Criminal Justice Review.

[11]UNGA 2001: 4

[12] UNGA 2001:3

[14] (Cite: Black Laws Dictionary)

[20] Angola Unravels: The Rise and Fall of the Lusaka Process, Human Rights Watch, 1999; Update Angola, October 17, 1999; The Military Balance 1999/2000, p.250; and Report of the Panel of Experts on Violations of Security Council Sanctions Against UNITA, March 2000; SIPRI Yearbook 2002

[21] Angola Peace Monitor Issue 6, Vol V, Feb 26th, 1999 - full text can be found at

[22] “The UN Sanctions Committee on Angola: Lesson Learned?, Human Rights Watch Report, April 17, 2000 – full text can be found at

[24]Peterson, Barry. The Black and Grey Market in Support of Insurgencies. The University of Texas-El Paso: Intelligence and National Security Studies Capstone Study. – full text can be found at:

[25] Id.

[26] Bruwasser, Matthew. (2002). Victor Anatoylevich Bout: The Embargo Buster: Fueling Bloody Civil Wars. PBS: Frontline World. – full text can be found at:

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Alleged ‘Lord of War’ Viktor Bout Praised YouTube Video on FARC, McNabb & Associates P.C., Federal Crime Watch Daily, October 25, 2011 – full text can be found at

[30] Id.

[31] Cragin, K., & Hoffman, B. (2003). Arms trafficking in Colombia. Santa Monica: RAND National Defense Research Institute. – full text can be found at:

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Black Law’s Dictionary

[36] Small Arms Survey (2009). Sifting the Sources. – full text can be found:

[41] Id.


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