Embargoes are the most common economic sanctions and are frequently imposed to limit arms transfers to countries involved in armed conflicts or to autocratic regimes which do not respect human rights.

The spread of Small Arms and Light Weapons (hereafter SALW) has drawn increased attention from scientists and experts. First, SALW has become a key component in the wave of civil conflicts the world experienced since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, the spread of small arms appears to be associated with the intensity of violent crime and the increase in suicide by firearms.

SALW Definition: The definition of SALW derives from a UN panel of experts, “small arms are those weapons designed for personal use, and light weapons are those designed for use by several persons serving as a crew. Small arms include pistols, rifles, carbines and light machine guns; light weapons include heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, and mortars of less than 100 mm caliber. This category of weaponry also includes ammunition and explosives: cartridges, shells and missiles, anti-personnel and anti-tank grenades, landmines and other explosives”1.

In the paper “Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons: Are embargoes effective?, we investigate the impact of arms embargoes on the trade in SALW between 1990 and 2017. Embargoes are the most common economic sanctions and are frequently imposed to limit arms transfers to countries involved in armed conflicts or to autocratic regimes which do not respect human rights. However, as acknowledged, embargoes and other types of sanctions often fail because of sanctions-busting, i.e., practices that overcome the prohibitions. In fact, sanctions-busting is the basis for the main argument that sanctions lack effectiveness in relation to political objectives.  

In the case of arms embargoes, it could be suspected that non-compliant exporters take over the business of compliant exporters by providing the embargoed weapons to an importer subject to the embargo, also referred as the ‘target country’.  Then, trade diversion and other sanctions-busting practices are often cited to explain their failure.

Whether an embargo is effective or not is a crucial question, particularly with regard to SALW. Indeed, it is believed that SALW can be easily diverted, and sanctioned countries often acquire small weapons from neighboring countries through porous borders. This appears to be confirmed particularly for ammunition.  

Therefore, we first verify whether multilateral embargoes appear to be effective in limiting SALW transfers to target countries and then look for sanctions-busting mechanisms. For this, we initially investigate whether countries with neighbors under an embargo increase their SALW imports, interpreting this as a warning signal of likely sanctions-busting. Next, we look at export labels, because of the likelihood, in some cases, that arms embargoes are evaded by dispatching SALW as “sporting arms”. These weapons originally designed for sporting purposes can be misused, which may be another warning signal of sanctions-busting.  

Regarding our methodology, we use a gravity-model framework as commonly applied in the international trade literature. In line with this strand of literature, our model combines traditional economic variables with political and military factors. Our analysis relies on an unbalanced panel of 79,245 observations reporting SALW transfers between 9,275 pairs of countries and territories from 1990 to 2017. The analysis relied upon UN Comtrade data provided by the NISAT project. 

The results show that embargoes are effective in reducing SALW imports in target countries, specifically by 33%. Interestingly, the findings show that EU sanctions decrease trade by 37%, whereas UN embargoes are ineffective. In addition, we found no evidence of sanctions-busting. First, countries do not seem to import a larger number of SALW if neighbors are under an embargo. Hence, there is no warning signal of arms diversion to neighboring countries. Secondly, the findings show that embargoes have no statistically significant effect on the trade in sporting arms. The latter result confirms the effectiveness of embargoes and the lack of consequential sanctions-busting.  

This research suggests that international cooperation in limiting the SALW trade may be effective but cohesion among states and the proper categorization of different types of arms are crucial.

The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace.

Further Reading:


1. United Nations 1997. Report of the panel of governmental experts on small arms. Report A/52/298, pp. 11–12


Roberto Ricciuti

Professor Department of Economics, University of Verona

Economists on Peace

Economists on Peace is an editorial collaboration between the Institute for Economics and Peace and Economists for Peace and Security that aims to stimulate global discussion and shared learning on economic aspects of peace and conflict leading to appropriate action for peace, security and the world economy. Economists for Peace and Security is an international network of economists, set up to establish economics of peace and security as a fundamental part of the academic discipline of economics.