War in peace: the big toll of small arms

Global peacemaking efforts have focused on armed conflicts and weapons of mass destruction, yet many more are killed in the slow drip of deaths via firearms in societies nominally at peace.

Daniel Mack
21 October 2014

Civil society and governments seeking to reduce the world’s obscene levels of armed violence should make firearms, as the main vector of death and injury, their principal focus. This is no “silver bullet” but, particularly in the Americas, it can enhance public safety through more control of the tools of violence. 

Only 10% of armed-violence deaths worldwide between 2004 and 2009 occurred in an armed conflict or terrorist attack. The gruesome Syrian imbroglio may be shifting this fraction but the vast majority of people today who die, are injured or otherwise suffer from armed violence still do so in countries “at peace”—which questions the conceptual dichotomy widespread in the international community separating “war” and “peace”.

In numbers, some 526,000 people perished from armed violence in 2011, the estimated 55,000 direct conflict deaths dwarfed by 396,000 intentional homicides. Recognising that many of the 21,000 “legal intervention killings” were also actually “intentional homicides” by police would augment the latter number and most of the 54,000 “unintentional homicides” also took place in nominally peaceful countries.[1]

The wider context is “a long term decline in both the number of wars and of battle deaths in those wars”.[2] Another clear trend is that “war” itself is less often a military contest between nation-states but rather an internal conflict—that is, civil war. Indeed, civil conflict “has been the most prevalent form of warfare since the end of the 1950s”, responsible for the overwhelming majority of direct casualties of war from the 1980s and accounting for over 90% of battle deaths between 1990 and 2002.[3]

The reducing incidence of even internal wars is expected to continue and possibly intensify, with one forecast predicting a halving of the proportion of the world’s countries experiencing them from about 15% in 2009 to 7% in 2050: “The decline is particularly strong in the Western Asia and North Africa region and less clear in Africa south of Sahara.”[4] Some go further, noting a “long-term worldwide reduction in all forms of violence”, as argued by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined—though such generalisations may be overly ambitious and demand caveats.

Wreak havoc

Although the patterns and prospects are encouraging, explosive weapons and other conventional arms do wreak havoc in internal conflicts and terrorist attacks—particularly in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Small arms are also heavily responsible for deaths in those hotspots, as well as in Africa, where the AK-47 has probably accounted for more loss of life than any other type of weapon in history.

The exact proportion of small-arms deaths in conflicts vis-à-vis other weapons is not known. But Kreutz and Marsh found that firearms caused 20-55% of deaths and injuries in most cases they examined—albeit with outliers like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where firearms accounted for 93% of casualties.<[5] Each conflict has its peculiarities.

During war, other forms of violence however continue—and are often exacerbated—all the while heavily dependent on small arms. For example, in Colombia in 2002 there were reportedly almost seven times as many homicides committed with firearms as civil-war deaths.[6]

The role of armed conflict certainly should not be minimised, often displaying the worst of humanity, with mass atrocities and the utter destruction of communities or even entire countries. And the instruments developed to address it are relatively robust and mature. So with the UN’s institutional, military and conceptual involvement in issues of “international security”—think Security Council mandates, blue helmets and the “responsibility to protect”—and the associated media coverage the primacy of attention to conflict violence over the criminal and interpersonal is not surprising.

Moreover, the development and operationalisation of international humanitarian law (IHL) has for decades provided the conceptual and legal framework for most important efforts to curtail armed violence in situations of conflict. In controlling the atrocious human effects of weaponry, the lens of “war”—and civil society’s adroit use of it—has been essential in informing many of the most important efforts in arms control over the last two decades. The notion of “indiscriminate effects” underpinned efforts to ban anti-personnel landmines (1997) and cluster bombs (2008), as has the concept of “unnecessary suffering”.

“Humanitarian disarmament”

This tradition is set to continue with the crystallisation of a “tentative community”[7] around the notion of “humanitarian disarmament”. Defined as “the prevention of human suffering through the prohibition or regulation of weapons that are indiscriminate in their effects or cause unacceptable harm”, this concept “covers a range of weapons and technologies that inflict civilian harm and particular risk to civilian populations”.[8]

Banning weapons that cause unacceptable harm in conflict is essential to protect not only civilians caught up in war but all of us from those weapons under other circumstances (such as unintentional use or their diversion into the hands of terrorists). Perhaps most urgent and transcendent, given its game-changing nature, is the campaign to ban nuclear weapons—bizarrely the only weapons of mass destruction not outlawed.

A robust legal tradition, a strong conceptual framework and an energised civil society frame the current scenario for the “rules of war” and those conventional weapons and WMD (biological, chemical and, hopefully soon, nuclear) which unequivocally violate them. But what of the weapons that cannot realistically be banned, even if they account for most of the world’s armed violence?

The international campaign on the use of explosive weapons seeks to constrain practice by drawing the line (even if not legally-binding) against their use in populated areas. Bombs, unacceptable in virtually any country against its civilian population, are nonetheless a main tool of all armed forces. Given relative complacency with the notion that these are just part of the “ways of war”, it is arguably unrealistic to seek an outright ban. Likewise, in the case of small arms—the “real weapons of mass destruction”, a cliché reportedly initiated by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in 2000—the aspects of “distinction” and “rules of proportionality” cannot be ascribed to the arms themselves but rather to their misuse.

So what can we do about weapons mostly used not in war between belligerents (and thus covered by IHL) but by and against civilian populations “at peace”? How can we attempt to minimise their misuse, to best reduce armed violence around the globe? If indeed a renewed focus on firearms is needed, what are the best conceptual frameworks and advocacy demands to achieve results? Where should the lines be drawn?

Much easier posed than answered, these are the “what next?” questions civil society and governments need to tackle with a sense of purpose and urgency. Whether through better integrating gun violence into human-rights and development frameworks and fora, conceptually extending IHL to cover urban violence, refocusing on national gun-control public policies and laws, attempting to reduce levels of firearms production and stockpiles or tackling cultural issues of demand, the time has come for getting back to the basics of armed violence across the globe: guns, guns, guns. The question is how.

[1] Geneva Declaration Secretariat (2011), Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011: Lethal Encounters, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Marsh, Nicholas (2013), “Ambition and Activism on the Arms Trade”, World Peace Foundation, July

[3] Marsh, Nicholas (2011), “The tools of insurgency: a review of the role of small arms and light weapons in warfare”, in Owen Greene and Nicholas Marsh (eds), Small Arms, Crime and Conflict: Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence, London: Routledge Studies in Peace and Conflict, 13

[4] Hegre, Havard; Karlsen, Joakim; Nygard, Havard; Strand, Havard and Urdal, Henrik (2011), “Predicting Armed Conflict, 2010-2050”, International Studies Quarterly 55, 2: 1–21

[5] Kreutz, Joakim and Marsh, Nicholas (2011), “Lethal instruments: small arms and deaths in armed conflict”, in Small Arms, Crime and Conflict, 49

[6] Marsh in Small Arms, Crime and Conflict, 19

[7] Keynote speech by Susi Snyder (PAX) at the Berlin Sessions on Humanitarian Disarmament, 2014

[8] For further details see: and

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