Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the position of JLIA, Penn State Law, School of International Affairs, or Pennsylvania State University.
In examining modern history, the tools that have been responsible for the majority of combat related deaths are small arms and light arms. Small arms are man-portable weapons like rifles, pistols, and light machine guns, light arms are weapons operated by crews of people like mortars, recoilless rifles, and heavy machine guns.[i] The king of small arms and the rifle—AK or Avtomat Kalashnikov rifle—has been in nearly every conflict since 1950. It is the brainchild of Mikhail Kalashnikov, a soviet tank commander who envisioned a soviet army equipped with a nigh unstoppable rifle. The AK is an eight-pound amalgamation of wood and steel that can operate in mud, sand, dust and similar conditions that would make competing western rifles fail. The operation and maintenance of the rifle is so simple that child soldiers are often equipped with it.
In the years following its adoption in 1947, the production of the AK and its variants were spread out among the Warsaw Pact countries and “licensed” to other nations as well. The AK rifle and the cheap and effective power it could lend to small groups was as much a Soviet export and component of Soviet foreign policy as was the spread of communism. In the eyes of the Soviet Union, the rifle was the chief tool by which the proletariat could rise up in communist insurrection around the world. The devastating effect of the AK was first seen by the world during the Vietnam war. The deadly reputation of the AK was solidified in the jungles of Southeast Asia and has been and still is reinforced in conflicts around the world. From the killing fields in Cambodia to the massacres in Yugoslavia and in the hands of terror groups worldwide, the AK is a mainstay in modern conflicts. The abundance of AK sightings in conflict zones is mainly due to the war doctrine of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s battlefield policy was not to repair but to replace as the need arose, as a result of this doctrine, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations produced a staggering amount of AK rifles for a war with the west that never came. As of 2004, of the nearly 500 million firearms in the world 100 million are AK or AK variants produced by nations, failed states, and even insurgent groups.[ii]
Since the fall of the iron curtain and the primary purpose of toppling the west was lost, the rifles have seen varying uses around the world. Envisioned by Mikhail Kalashnikov as a tool of liberation, the AK has ended up becoming the symbol of tyranny, crime, and terror.[iii] Most modern stockpiles of AK rifles used by terror or criminal groups come from unlicensed productions being produced today or leftovers from the Cold War era. AK rifles are still being produced today, nations like China, Iran, North Korea, India and many others produce near identical rifles that have indigenous names. These rifles, while officially for state use only have seeped into black markets and ended up in the hands of criminal and terror organizations around the world. Beyond the currently produced rifles, many of the rifles used in crimes across western Europe come from Eastern bloc stockpiles. After the fall of the iron curtain, former Warsaw Pact nations were extremely poor and had one chief export: arms and armor from the cold war.
The effects of the sell-off of cheap rifles made for war are felt today. While western European nations are fearful of firearms and impose stricter and stricter gun laws, terrible attacks like the one on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the concert in Paris, and the constant attacks in Sweden are becoming more common. The AKs used in the Paris attacks were supposedly leftover rifles from the fall of Yugoslavia, leftovers from the communist era that still carry their deadly purpose.[iv] Most of the AK rifles seeping into Western Europe make their way from the Balkans.[v]
The legal issue here is how to create governmental restrictions and impositions that would better protect the people of the world and in particular western Europe. Simply setting limitations within the sovereignty of nations is clearly ineffective. Weapons seep through the borders of nations that lie next to former soviet satellite states, and the free travel within the European nations allows for easy transport of weapons once in the union. The UN has not remained idle on this issue either, in 2014 the landmark treaty named Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force.[vi] Signed by nearly 92 nations worldwide, the ATT is a near global attempt to set standards on the import and export of small-arms and other more conventional weapons worldwide. The purpose is to curb the regional and international insecurity that is caused by unregulated arms trafficking. So far, the efficiency of the treaty remains in question, many attacks have happened and continue to happen with weapons that originate from nations that have signed the treaty.
The ATT’s substantive language states that the goal is to “create a safer environment for the United Nations and other organizations.”[vii] This goal is supposed to be achieved by the “regulation of cross-border trade of conventional arms.”[viii] This goal is admirable but ultimately seems insufficient to stop the spread and usage of AK rifles and other soviet arms that have been left behind in the wake of the Cold War
The answer to preventing more weapons from ending up in the “wrong hands” is not a simple one. The issue lies with understanding the motivations of those who sell the firearms illegally. Many of the groups currently selling illicit firearms to western European buyers are motivated by money. The average price for an AK rifle is about $1200 in Belgium.[ix] Lack of economic opportunities leads to the transaction of the only goods that seem to hold value: weapons. Perhaps the answer lies in creating a multinational organization that has the sole purpose of finding and purchasing Kalashnikov rifles and preventing them from falling into the control of nefarious groups in the west.
While the solution suggested in this article is far from one based in a legal basis, the current solutions presented by passage of legislation or treaties does not seem to be stemming the tide of deadly relics of the Soviet Union making their way into Europe.
About the Author: Hojae Chung is a 2L at Penn State Law.
[i] Klare, Michael, Small Arms Proliferation and International Security, Hampshire College
[ii] Chivers, C.J., The AK-47: ‘The Gun’ That Changed The Battlefield, NPR https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130493013
[iii] Franko, Blake, The Gun That Is in Almost 100 Countries: Why the AK-47 Dominates, NationalInterest.com
[iv] Bajekal, Naina and Walt, Vivienne, How Europe’s Terrrorists Get Their Guns, Time.com
[v] Ask not from whom the AK-47s flow, Economist
[vi] The Arms Trade Treaty, UN.org
[vii] Module 1: Arms Trade Treaty Implementation Kit, UN
[ix] McCarthy, Niall, The Cost of An AK-47 On the Black Market Around the World, Forbes.com