Illegal arms trade

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The illegal arms trade is the transfer and dealership in arms and weapons (whole or their components), in violation of existing national and international regulations. It involves the unlawful or unauthorized manufacture/procurement and uncontrolled circulation of arms and weapons within and across national borders.

The international network of illegal weapons traders is not only wide and extensive but also lucrative. But even estimates of its worth are difficult to make. What is clear, however, is that economic aspects play the most important role while morals and human rights are purely marginal.

What activities are illegal weapons used for?

Illegal weapons can be used in different circumstances:


Illegal weapons are used to commit crimes. Their 'advantage' is that these weapons cannot be traced back and, as a result of this, it is more difficult to find the perpetrators. There are also no restrictions on the illegal market, such as for types of weapons or calibres in contrast to the German law on weapons.

Armed conflicts

International norms and laws regulate the trade with weapons into regions of crisis and war. The European Union, for instance, established a code of conduct in 2008, the so-called Common Position that also applies to German arms exports. The illegal trade in weapons, on the contrary, offers actors in areas of conflict the opportunity to replenish their supply with weapons and ammunition, paying large sums of money or exchanging them for precious natural resources, such as gold and diamonds. This results in profitable business for traders in illegal weapons.


In modern constitutional states, such as Germany, the state has the monopoly of violence. This means that the state alone is allowed to (threaten to) use physical violence in the framework of the governing law—and only by institutions created specifically for this purpose (prosecutor's office and police), intended to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands for revenge.

The need of citizens for self-defence arises when they consider that the state alone is not able to protect them. The degree to which such 'self-defence' is accepted by society differs from country to country. The weapon laws in the United States, for instance, grant greater 'freedoms' that the laws of most European countries do. In any case, self-defence opens up further profitable avenues, such as in countries whose monopoly of violence has totally collapsed and the people are at the mercy of armed parties to the conflict. The illegal trade in weapons is the only winner here, as more often than not, violent actors, as well as the affected civilians, are recipients of its weapons.

Who is involved in the trade?

In principle, the same actors are involved in the illegal weapons trade that are also involved in the legal trade in weapons: producers, traders, government officials and end-users. However, clandestine networks are typical for the illicit trade in weapons. These networks consist of producers, arms brokers, those hauling and selling arms to the end-user.

Where do illegal weapons come from? Since the end of the Cold War, large numbers of used weapons are available on the world market that used to be destined for the warring parties in civil wars in east and west. Often, weapons are also stolen from state stockpiles and re-sold. With the help of corrupt state officials, weapons traders also succeed in 'diverting' and re-declaring legal and registered weapons destined for export. Sometimes, weapons are also manufactured locally as artisanal weapons.

These illegal arms deals are often concluded in exchange for natural resources, agricultural goods and drugs. Warring parties gain access to oil fields, mines or tropical forests, sell the produced goods on the international market and thus secure a constant inflow of money with which they can purchase war material, such as weapons and ammunition.

Arms brokers in particular who 'merely' establish contacts are the real profiteers. The lack of prohibitive laws at national and international levels make it difficult to clamp down on and prosecute these brokers, as they serve as mere facilitators of the crime and do not personally carry out any transactions. In an age of electronic communication, it is easy for them to conclude deals or to transfer money across continents.

But other participants in the criminal networks, such as manufacturers, hauliers and corrupt state officials also profit from this.

Initiatives against the illicit arms trade

Public awareness of the devastating effects of the illicit arms trade has increased in the past few years. As a result of this growing awareness, the United Nations founded the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) in January 1998, whose task it is to contribute to the disarmament of various types of weapons, in particular of conventional weapons.

UNODA develops norms and promotes disarmament in post-conflict regions in particular, including the investigation of the illegal flow of weapons.

The EU Common Position on arms exports mentioned above ensures that no arms are exported to areas in danger of conflict. Furthermore, in each case, the end user must be clearly defined and is, under no circumstances, allowed to pass on the arms received to others.

There are some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that also work on the topic of arms trade. Most of them, however, also deal with the legal aspects of the arms trade. The Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft - Vereinigte KriegsdienstgegnerInnen (DFG-VK) for instance has the focus on 'banning small arms and light weapons' and 'stopping the arms trade'. Internationally, one also has to mention the International Action Network on Small Arms - IANSA. But despite national and international efforts of creating stricter laws to impede access to illegal trade routes and to get crime under control, the illicit arms trade remains attractive and lucrative. Until any international cooperation includes a high level of commitment and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and border officials as well as a more effective fight against corruption on the national and international level, the global illegal arms trade will continue to undermine peace, stability and security.

Sources and further information:

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