UNITED NATIONS – The legal international trade in small arms, light weapons, their parts and ammunition is worth at least $8.5 billion annually — more than double the previous estimate in 2006, according to a survey by independent researchers released Monday.
The Small Arms Survey 2012 said the increase from the last estimate of $4 billion is due to several factors — large-scale government spending especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, increased purchases of small arms and ammunition from foreign countries by American civilians, and better information and improved methods of calculating the value of transfers.
Eric Berman, managing director of the survey, said at a news conference at U.N. headquarters launching the 367-page report that it took four years to review the government-authorized international trade in small arms and researchers are now working on a multi-year effort to examine the illicit trade.
"We think the authorized trade is larger than the illicit trade, although the illicit trade may do more damage or be more problematic," he said. "So it's not just a question of total value, but I think we can clearly say that the two combined would be over $10 billion."
The Small Arms Survey, established in 1999, is an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. It is supported by the Swiss Foreign Ministry and contributions from the governments of the United States, Australia and eight European countries.
The first survey was published in July 2001 when U.N. member states adopted a plan of action to accelerate national regional and international efforts to tackle the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. It reviewed what was then known about supplies of small arms, control efforts, and the effects of their use.
The new survey's release was timed to Monday's opening at U.N. headquarters of the second conference to review progress in implementing the action plan.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message to the conference that more than half a million people are killed each year by illicit small arms, mainly poor civilians.
While some progress has been made since 2001 to tackle the problem, he said there is still limited cooperation among countries in tracking illicit weapons, "and in many countries, insecure stockpiles continue to be a source of arms and ammunition for armed groups, terrorists and organized crime."
Last month, the U.N. General Assembly failed to agree on a new U.N. treaty to regulate the global arms trade. Ban urged the 193 U.N. member states to adopt a "robust treaty" as soon as possible, saying it is long overdue and "would definitely make a big difference in addressing the havoc small arms — and other conventional arms and ammunition — are causing."
Berman said the research project leading to the new estimate of government-authorized international arms transfers included a review of tens of thousands of records, customs reports and government data. The survey examined small arms in 2009, ammunition in 2010, light weapons in 2011, and parts and accessories in 2012.
Based on the findings of the four-year study, the survey estimated the annual value of the international trade to be at least $8.5 billion — $1.662 billion in small arms, $811 million in light weapons, $1.428 billion in parts, $350 million in accessories, and $4.266 billion in ammunition.
Berman said the $8.5 billion figure "is almost certainly an underestimate" because researchers looking at parts and accessories for weapons only covered sights, not range finders, fire control systems and items for anti-tank guided weapons and shoulder-launched missiles.
One surprise, Berman said, was that ammunition accounts for half the total — "and that underscores how important the aspect of ammunition is in government dealings with arms control issues."
The survey also looked at top exporters and identified 12 countries in 2009 that exported at least $100 million in small arms and light weapons, led by the United States and including France and Japan for the first time. The U.S., with $1.75 billion, also led the list of seven countries that imported at least $100 million.
Researchers also reported their initial findings on the illicit use of small arms and light weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
The survey said one conclusion in all three countries is that armed groups are almost always using older-generation weapons except for a significant percentage of Iranian weapons seized from insurgents in Iraq, which were manufactured relatively recently.
As part of a new effort to look at trends, the survey also examined rising homicide rates in many Latin America and Caribbean countries.
The global average of firearm homicides is 42 percent, but "firearms were used in an average of 70 percent of homicides in Central America, in 61 percent in the Caribbean, and in 60 percent in South America," the survey said. It singled out El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Puerto Rico for high firearm homicide rates.
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