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The Humanitarian Costs of Small Arms and Light Weapons

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

By Daniel Kleschick (5 December 2017)

Table of Contents

Defining Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Humanitarian Costs of Their Use


Conflict Zones

Effects on Security

Effects on Long Term Development



Defining Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Humanitarian Costs of Their Use

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) is a class of weapons that are distinguished by their easy accessibility, low cost, easy operation, and portability like no other weapons. Thus SALW encompasses all hand-held, small-caliber firearms as well as medium-caliber and explosive weapons that can be operated by an individual, including

  • Hanguns

  • Automatic, semi-automatic,

  • Manual rifles and shotguns

  • Portable rocket- and grenade-launchers

  • Anti-personnel, anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets, guns and mortars, missiles

  • Grenades

Given the unique changes of warfare in modern times, SALW are more commonly used and are a more destructive force both in and outside of conflict zones than larger weapons. While these smaller, more portable arms are not capable of the instantaneous, colossal destruction of larger systems such as nuclear weapons, over time their abuse can arguably inflict equal or greater damage upon a society. Due to their ease of purchase and transport, combined with their difficulty to trace, SALW are utilized not only by large state actors, but also non-state combatants, civilians, organized crime and private security forces [8]. They are easily manufactured, and are produced and traded at an astounding rate. Due to their mass proliferation, these weapons systems are present in every corner of the modern world.

The humanitarian effects of these weapons systems appear as the direct human costs of their use and proliferation. The use and abuse of these weapons systems have significant immediate costs during conflict, as well as upon long term social and economic development occurring long after the resolution of the conflict.


There are currently more than 800 million SALW in global circulation today [9]. In 2014, the largest exporters of small arms were (listed in descending order): the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany, South Korea, Austria, Turkey, the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Croatia [8]. Each of these nations, along with Switzerland, Japan, Israel and Spain, routinely export more than $100 million worth of small arms annually [8]. In the same year, the top importers of small arms included: the United States, Canada, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, Iraq, France, the Netherlands, and the UK [8]. In total, the international trade of small arms alone totaled at least $6 billion during 2014, which amounted to roughly 38% of all international monetary transfers during that year [8].

While the data above indicates that the majority of small arms trades occur within highly developed nations, small arms still flood into developing nation, particularly during conflict [10]. Small arms typically flow from technologically advanced nations where they are produced to developing nations more prone to political instability, providing a two-fold incentive to producers; firstly, the profit motive of arms sales, and secondly a manner to influence political strength without committing military forces [11]. The mass proliferation of SALW from developed nations into politically volatile nations began during the Cold War, as the U.S. and Soviet Union were hasty to increase the military capabilities of allies, and has continued into modern conflicts with current examples including civil wars in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Mali [11].

Although weapon technology continues to improve and countries proceed with developing large weapons systems capable of mass destruction, SALW are the most commonly used weapon system utilized in modern conflict, particularly in regionalized conflicts characterized by smaller skirmishes and militia forces [1]. Of all global conflicts since 1990, all but three have relied on SALW as the only form of weapons used, and only one war, the Persian Gulf Conflict, has been marked by dominant use of heavier weapons systems [13].

Furthermore, it is estimated that between 35 and 60 percent of deaths in all conflicts since 1990 have been as a result of the use of SALW [13]. Conflict and the threat of war spur arms races between competing forces. For example, rising territorial disputes between India and Pakistan in recent years has seen a marked increase in both nation’s arms imports[12]. Similarly, yet at a smaller scale, political tensions within a nation tend to increase the flow of arms into the region as the threat of revolution increases the demand for weapons both from revolutionaries and defendants [11]. Particularly in developing, non-democratic nations, this severe escalation in arms can have catastrophic effects upon civilian populations both during and following conflict.

Conflict Zones

In the past half century, a subtle shift in the nature of war has occurred from interstate to intrastate conflict. Interstate warfare defines wars between two nation-states, whereas intrastate warfare occurs within a nation typically between a ruling government and one or several insurgent groups. With several exceptions (the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian intervention in Crimea and constant threats of war between the U.S. and North Korea and Iran, India and Pakistan) the threat of large scale war between two states has largely diminished [1]. This diminution, however, has not signified a decline in conflict as a whole.

Modern, intrastate conflict typically occurs between factions divided along ethnic or religious lines [2]. Political tensions within a nation reach a boiling point, and civic frustration and/or perceived persecution ignites into deadly warfare [1]. Many examples of conflicts of this nature are existent across the globe, and specifically in nondemocratic, developing nations. Several recent, formative examples include:

  • The Syrian Civil War, involving the ruling government of President Bashar al-Assad fighting against Syrian opposition dissident groups, as well as several other groups and nations invested either financially and/or with troops in the conflict. These include those who support Assad’s forces, such as Iran, Russia, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and those who oppose Assad’s rule, including the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Also involved in the conflict are those who benefit from political instability in the region, such as the Islamic State and the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit [3]

  • The Iraqi Civil War, between the ruling government and the Islamic State [4]

  • Libyan Civil War between warring factions vying for political power following the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, including the Islamic State [5]

  • The Kurdish-Turkish conflict between President Recep Erdogan and various Kurdish insurgent forces [6]

  • Various conflicts in Myanmar between either aligned rebel groups along the nation’s northern border with China and the ruling government, or the ruling government’s ongoing persecution and forced displacement of Rohingya Muslim minority groups, aggression which increases the risk of radicalization and violent pushback within the Rohingya [6]

This shift in conflict has increased the international demand for cheap, easily usable weapons and has moved the warfare from battlefields into cities and towns, thus endangering civilian populations. This has spelled a dramatic increase in the adverse humanitarian effects of SALW use.

Warfare undoubtedly has a high level of human cost from the militants killed on opposing sides. At least 108 million human lives were lost from war during the 20th century [32]. However, a horrifying trend has appeared in modern conflict in which civilian non-combatants are estimated at roughly 80-90% of those killed in warfare [1]. Comparing this to the rate of noncombatant killing of roughly 5% during World War I, and the caustic effects of modern warfare are starkly evident [1]. Earlier wars were fought along national lines, and thus the main targets of opposing sides where national militaries. In modern warfare, where much of warfare occurs within nations between warring political and ethnic groups, targets of opposing factions can include any member of society that falls within these groups, including women and children [33]. Thus, populations not directly enlisted in military forces or involved in conflict are susceptible to being targeted.

Of those civilian casualties resulting from the conflict, 52% were from the use of small arms [1]. Although small arms are overwhelmingly produced in economically advanced nations, violence stemming from the use of these weapons disproportionately affects developing regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa in which over half of the aforementioned deaths occured [1]. Specific examples of conflicts in this region becoming significantly exacerbated following a rise in the presence of SALW include:

  1. Kenya - where the introduction of firearms has turned formerly benign dispute over cattle raiding and banditry into violent conflicts [9].

  2. Sierra Leone - where following a invasion of the nation’s capital of Freetown in 1997 by the rebel group the Revolutionary United Front, over 7,330 people were fatally shot during just a single month in an act of ethnic cleansing [9]. In total, the conflict between the rebel group and the ruling government of the nation cost over 200,000 lives between 1991 and 2002. 60% of casualties in this conflict were due to gunshots, and 43% of victims were women. The conflict’s violence was escalated by the importation of guns to the region by foreign powers who desired political influence over who held power in the nation [9].

  3. Côte D'ivoire - where an electoral dispute in 2011 led to a conflict between incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent Alassane Ouattara. Both sides of the dispute committed human rights atrocities before the conflict was finally settled after over three months of conflict. An “anarchic” distribution of weaponry coupled with an influx of weapons into north and west Africa following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya greatly increased the human cost and ensured that a conflict that should have been resolved democratically was provided the firepower to turn into a massacre [9]. In total, over 3,000 people died from February to April, with most of them being civilian casualties [9].

Battles fought within cities and towns rather than in open battlefields, or urban warfare is another worrying trend of modern conflict. Whereas World War One was primarily fought along battlefronts far removed from civilian populations, current war is largely fought within cities, greatly endangering their civilian populations [14]. With fighting occurring far closer to non-combatants, civilians are far more likely to be killed or injured during battles. Although small arms provide greater precision in targets than airstrikes or other larger missile technologies, whenever civilian populations are close to armed conflict they are in danger from stray bullets and/or being used in conflict as human shields or hostages [34]. SALW use not only inflicts a physical cost upon a society, but also a psychological one. Both combatants and civilians exposed to violence and death stemming from SALW use are susceptible to suffer lasting psychological trauma [1].

One specifically horrific result of modern SALW easy use is the rise of child soldiers in armed conflict. Due to their lightweight capabilities and rather simplistic operations, these weapons can be easily handled and operated by children as young as eight and ten years old, turning the youth of developing, war-torn countries into soldiers [1]. These children are often forced into service and face not only a grave risk to their lives as young members of military forces engaged in conflict, but also significant post-conflict psychological trauma. Militia’s need for shear numbers in fighting against established governments leads them to enroll these children into their forces.

At a base level, the presence of SALW has not been proven to have a statistically causal effect on the level of violence within a nation [1]. However, although SALW do not cause conflicts, their availability and ease of use in conflict zones exacerbate existing conflicts by allowing greater lethality and duration of combat, and promoting a precedent of violent resolution rather than a peaceful one [1]. Due to their relative cheapness and ease of use and trade, SALW can flow into a nation on the brink of conflict at an alarming rate [11]. Thus, the proliferation and availability of SALW provide both an incendiary force in igniting violent conflicts as well as firepower to sustain war and greatly increase its human costs.

Effects on Security

Even when conflict dissipates from a region, the weapons used in the conflict often remain [11]. The SALW utilized during war are thus susceptible to being abused even following a conflict’s resolution. Without proper collection, stockpiling and destruction, these weapons can come to be used by criminal and corrupt forces to further inflict human rights abuses.

Mass destruction of SALW, due to their size, are far more difficult to track and confiscate than larger weapons systems [15]. These smaller arms can be easily stockpiled and hidden away for future use. While increased tracing technology has gone some way to tracking the flow and possession of weapons, this technology has been combated by competing technological innovations in weapons production and manipulation. Modular weapons, meaning weapons whose various parts can be interchanged, allow those who wish to maintain control of their weapons to remove parts of the weapon that can be traced for untraceable parts while still maintaining the major structure of weapons [16]. 3-D printing has allowed criminal and terrorist organizations to produce weapons illegally at an alarming rate [35].

The difficulty in tracing weapons means that these weapons can easily remain in the hands of former combatants following conflict, thus increasing the fragility of peace agreements and ensuring that conflict can reignite at any time. If former combatants do not maintain control over the arms, they can potentially be sold to other militant, terrorist or organized crime groups [9]. Thus, while conflict may end in one region, the destructive and incendiary potential of weapons is simply transferred from one party to another. Similarly, the potential for violent conflict is not truly extinguished but rather simply transferred from one group to the next. Once in the hands of criminals and terrorist groups, the effects resulting from the abuse of these weapons can be just as devastating upon civilian populations as when they are utilized in formal warfare.

Terrorist attacks such as the 2015 Paris massacre, a 2017 ambush upon workers of the Nigerian Petroleum Corporation that left 69 dead by Boko Haram, an attack upon a military hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan by ISIS gunmen with 100 fatalities [24] and the recent massacre of a Sufi mosque in Egypt exemplify the immediate damage that small arms can have in the hands of these groups. Criminal and terrorist cells obtain small arms through a multitude of avenues, such as:

  • Corruption within military forces: Corruption within organized military forces can lead to the illegal sale of arms for personal gain, exemplified in the Iraqi military forces in particular. The Iraqi military has been supplied massive amounts of weapons and funds by the United States to combat the Islamic State. However, corruption is so great within the forces that often times these weapons actually end up in the hands of the terrorists they were initially intended to inhibit. High-ranking military officials seeking personal gain sell these weapons directly to the Islamic State [17].

  • Direct supply from Nation States: Some insurgent groups directly supplied by official states seeking political gain. This is exemplified by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is supported with arms by Iran. Hezbollah, in turn, commonly sell weapons to other militant groups in the Middle East [18].

  • Sales from current or former insurgent forces: Revolutionary militias who purchased or were supplied with weapons in order to overthrow governments may sell weapons to criminals for financial gain. Until its recent disbandment, the Colombian guerrilla rebel group FARC commonly traded weapons with other Latin American drug cartels [19].

  • Seizing of weapons following war and the fall of governments: Boko Haram dramatically increased their weapons capabilities by stealing and smuggling weapons from Libya during the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2012, upgrading their armory from basic AK-47 machine guns to highly technical anti-aircraft and grenade weapons, many of which were originally imported to Libya by NATO nations [20]. In a similar fashion, ISIS captured a large portion of Iraqi weaponry following Saddam Hussein's fall from power [21], as well as several stockpiles in their conquest of Syrian territory [22], and black market sales of weapons surged after the Ukrainian conflict [23].

  • Robbing of stockpiles: Even when earnest attempts to stockpile weapons in a secure manner is made, stockpiles of weapons are susceptible to attacks and robberies from criminals. Large stores of weapons potentially secured at no monetary cost is a tempting target for terrorists and criminals.

No matter the procurement method of weapons by terrorist or criminal groups, their access to weapons is facilitated by a generally wide distribution and availability of arms, and their increasing difficulty to track and manage. Even when not used in wide-scale terrorist attacks such as the above, SALW represent a destructive force upon societies outside of inflicting lethality. Drug cartels utilize weapons to ruthlessly assert their dominance over local populations [25]. The mere control over weapons by these groups can be enough to force populations into submission [25].

SALW pose a threat to society far beyond formal conflict. Conflict typically spurs arms production and initiates an influx of weapons into a region, yet following the resolution of a conflict,

retrieval, management and disposal of weapons has been proven a difficult task even for a dedicated government. When these weapons are accessible to criminal and terrorist organizations, their use affects civilian populations in an arguably more erratic and dangerous fashion.

Effects on Long Term Development

The presence of SALW not only poses immediate dangers to civilian populations through the physical harm they can cause, but has long term adverse effects upon sustainable development. Again, this particularly inhibits underdeveloped nations both from internally building sustainable economies as well as receiving outside resources and aid. A vast and unequal distribution of SALW has been linked with the inhibition of [26]:

  • Internal economic development

  • Access to and provision of education, medical supplies and outside fiscal resources

  • Basic human rights and access to safe territory

  • The creation of democratic systems

The proliferation of small arms has a direct cost on local economies due to the forced closures of local schools and businesses [26]. During internal conflict, local commerce halts almost entirely, unemployment rises and people’s access to economic resources dwindles. Furthermore, conflicts in which SALW are utilized have lasting destructive effects upon infrastructure necessary for a thriving local economy. Bridges and roads are destroyed, causing issues for transporting goods and people, and buildings once used for housing or businesses are demolished [26].

Armed forces also inhibit development through the mass displacement of people during and following conflict. Control over resources, territory and populations is paramount to forces engaged in interstate warfare. Civilian populations are thus at-risk of having to evacuate their home territories to avoid persecution or death at the hands of rival forces. The mass displacement of refugees from conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among many others, have demonstrated the massive displacement civil war can cause. Refugee displacement is currently at an all-time historical high, with one in every 122 people globally being either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum [27].

This level of mass displacement inflicts a loss of human capital upon nation’s economies and puts displaced people under significant danger and instability. Rarely do these populations completely return to the areas from which they were forcefully expelled [27].

Outside of conflict, an unequal distribution and control of weapons can adversely affect the provision of economic opportunities to persecuted minority groups [26]. In developing nations where ethnic rivalries and prejudices continue outside of war times, those who control weapons often times also control who has access to developmental opportunities.

Adequate schooling and funding opportunities are only provided to the groups viewed favorably by ruling governments, inhibiting a democratic process and free economy. Finally, small arms in the hands of criminals inhibit private economic development through crimes such as burglary and increased black market economy.

Not only does the presence of SALW inhibit a nation’s internal economy from thriving, it also inhibits outside resources from the reaching the populations desperately in need. Private investment typically halts almost entirely during and immediately after conflicts [26]. Investors seeking returns on providing financing are highly unlikely to make such a risky investment as to channel funds into nations where conflict halts development.

While private investment seeking financial returns tends to dramatically decrease during and following conflict in which SALW are utilized, perhaps more worryingly humanitarian aid is also inhibited from reaching its intended recipients. Medical supplies and healthcare, as well as basic human necessities such as clean water and food, are crucial both during and following conflicts.

However, humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations, Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations attempting to aid those persecuted populations are inhibited from providing these resources by warring factions attempting to impede their opponent’s access to these resources [26]. Resources often fail to reach their intended recipients, and humanitarian workers can become the target of combatants [26]. This in turn creates an environment in which it is difficult to attract professionals with necessary skills that can aid at-risk communities such as doctors and teachers [26].

This impediment of supplies and human capital to a region does not abate with the conclusion of conflict. Following a conflict, the losing side is at risk of further persecution from ruling governments due to lasting tensions not completely resolved following conflicts. The winning side of a conflict will maintain a lasting control over the majority of nation’s arms, and can thus exert their control over their opponents far after war has been resolved. Supplies and aid can be inhibited from reaching persecuted groups by ruling, unsympathetic governments [26].

Even in nations where funds and aid are provided, either internally by governments or from foreign institutions, conflict ensures that financial resources are diverted from long term development goals to the immediate concerns of communities recovering from war. Instead of investing in education and supporting small business growth, monetary funds are directed towards rebuilding infrastructure destroyed during war, basic medical supplies, and general recovery purposes [26]. While these concerns are undoubtedly necessary following internal warfare, without the destructive force of small arms conflict, these funds could go towards the improvement of local and national economies.

Finally, the proliferation of SALW significantly inhibits equality within a society. Once conflict has ended, as explained above, the losing side is still at risk of political persecution from the winning side. Democracy is not likely to occur following revolutions or conflicts along ethnic lines [13]. SALW not only affect equality on a political scale, but also in a gender and social scale. Males statistically hold weapons in far greater numbers that females [13]. This ensures that males can utilize weapons and the power they convey in order to maintain sexual and social power over females.

It is essential to understand the intrinsic link between sustainable development of national governments and economies and peaceful proceedings. Peace feeds the growth of society by ensuring an uninterrupted flow of resources, people and ideas. A wide distribution of SALW endangers peaceful societies. Armed conflict, often times spurred by access to these smaller weapon systems, not only keep a growing economy stagnant through interruption of education, resources and services, but actually sets it back through structural and psychological destruction. When SALW are present in a society already affected by poverty, inequality and a lack of democracy, the likelihood of conflict turning violent as well as the lethal capabilities of conflict dramatically increase.


The proliferation of SALW is a modern reality that increasing on a daily basis. The production and use of these weapons systems is a multi trillion dollar global industry, and regulating it poses a tremendous challenge to policy makers and international organizations. There do exist, however, several pieces of international legislature aimed at limiting the illicit flow of SALW:

The first is the United Nations Program of Action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in SALW in all its aspects. The UN PoA is a politically binding instrument aimed at reducing the illicit flow of arms, calling upon member states to ensure ethical trade of weapons at a regional, national and international level [28]. It seeks to create a political environment which compels sellers of arms to ensure weapons they trade are to actors who will not abuse them. It also created the International Tracing Instrument, a method to improve tracing capabilities on SALW. Parallel to this legislature is theArms Trade Treaty, passed in 2013, which is a legally binding instrument that also focuses on the illegal circulation of conventional arms. The treaty, creates international legal regulation around the proliferation of conventional weapons [29].

While these two pieces of legislation go a long way towards providing guidelines for nations to follow in the trade of arms, there remains much grey area in how well countries implement them in actuality. The UN, along with other non-governmental groups such as Control Arms and the Small Arms Survey are making efforts to ensure greater oversight over how well the two instruments are implemented. However, the spread of small arms is far outpacing these efforts to stymie their mass proliferation [1].

Overall, these pieces of legislature represent a shift in approach for those involved in disarmament affairs, from political disarmament to humanitarian disarmament. Humanitarian disarmament, rather than focusing on the fiscal and legal nature of the arms trade, seeks to create a global movement that recognizes the significant humanitarian costs of the use of SALW [30]. Proponents of humanitarian disarmament contend that a global understanding around the the harm SALW cause can reduce their use and trade without the arduous process of creating international regulations and laws in which each UN member states would have to agree upon specific language.

Most importantly however, is the promotion of democratic systems globally. Democracy leads to the overall economic and social development of nations, which profoundly increases the protection and possibility for peace [31]. Democracy reduces corruption, ensures that resources are distributed in an equal and fair manner, and abates gender, ethnic and political persecution. Perhaps most paramount, it creates a platform in which societal conflict can be resolved in a political and non-violent manner. As previously noted, small arms do not have a causal effect upon the level of violence in a nation. But when conflict is present, and conflict within society is a constant, global reality, a wide distribution of arms facilitates this conflict shifting to violence. Democratic systems can combat this effect by offering a peaceful and fair alternative to violent conflict. Disagreement within a society is inevitable, however, democracy provides a platform with which these disagreements can be debated, discussed and ultimately solutions can be enacted through voting, not violence.


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