Black Markets and Arms Trafficking

An article in today’s NY Times implicitly asks whether the popular uprising against Col. Muammar Quaddafi poses a threat to the United States.  The rationale is that the Libyan Government has lost control over a large number of relatively sophisticated weapons (including assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and shoulder launched heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles) that have fallen into the hands of rebels.  The worry stems from the fact that these weapons are sought-after commodities.  So the temptation is high for rebel fighters to sell them, especially once the violence eventually dies down.  And once they have made their way onto the black market, there will be no way to keep them out of the hands of terrorists who harbor ill intentions towards the United States.

Does this line of thinking strike anyone else as incredibly cynical?

The implication is that it’s okay for Western countries to sell weapons to Muammar Quaddafi, who is currently using them to slaughter Libyan civilians in an effort to re-assert autocratic control over the country.  That’s fine.  The weapons are under control.  The real danger is if those weapons should make it into the hands of people who might turn around and aim them back at us in North America and Europe.  Now, I should be careful here.  I don’t know for sure how Quaddafi acquired his stockpile. But according to The Guardian, after the embargo against selling arms to Libya was lifted in 2004, EU countries exported something on the order of 800 million Euros’ worth of arms to the North African state.  In 2009 alone, exports amounted to over 300 million Euros!

What’s the history of science question here?  Just this: what distinguishes a black market or underground economy in the arms trade?  That’s obviously not a *historical* question in the first order sense, but it is the kind of question that historians of science are good at thinking about.  So I’m curious to hear other people’s take on it.

I must admit that my own feeling is primarily one of confusion.  My understanding is that black markets are those that are not sanctioned by a state.  So one way to distinguish them would be a failure to pay tax on the transactions (this assumes we’re talking about a state that does leverage taxes on commercial transactions).  Another way is if the economy consists of trade in a good or service that the state wants to prohibit or eliminate, such as drug trafficking or, in the United States, prostitution. 

But what about international arms trafficking?  Here there is no state that can fail to sanction the transaction.  Of course, there are international treaties and agreements.  The UN or NATO, for example, can regulate arms trafficking (in theory at least).  As I said, my own feeling is one of confusion, but I’ve always wondered about how to interpret the legal status international agreements.  From whence does an international body like the UN derive its normative power and political legitimacy?  What distinguishes a NATO decree from the outcome of traditional negotiations between states, each of which is working to satisfy its own self-interest.  That seems to me exactly what has happened here.  Since 2004 there was no problem selling arms to Libya because it did not pose an immediate threat to us.  But now that we’re not sure at whom those weapons will be pointed we’re calling it a black market.  As I said, this strikes me as a very cynical way to do business!

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