A Disturbing Visualization of Global Small Arms Trade

Countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa are witnessing a surge in violence. But as this astonishing interactive infographic reveals, many of the countries trying to curb this violence are also the ones making it possible by selling small arms and light weapons to the aggressors.

While overall rates of gun violence are declining in most of the developed world, certain developing regions are facing a crisis of epidemic proportions. Homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, together with Central and Southern Africa, are between two to 10 times higher than the global average. Meanwhile, the majority of people killed since 2011 in Libya and Mali have died as a result of assault rifles and explosives, not missiles or tanks.

According to the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO):

A big part of the problem is that authorized transfers of arms between states end up being illegally diverted on route. In some cases, arms are illegally transferred from states to armed groups. One way to limit dodgy dealings is to increase the transparency of arms and ammunition exports and imports. Efforts led by the United Nations, together with regional organizations and research organizations, have shed light on the scope and scale of the authorized arms trade.

Some have argued that the complexity of the global arms trade makes it nearly impossible to map. But the Igarapé Institute in Brazil, in collaboration with PRIO and Google Ideas, has done just that. By scrupulously compiling information from 38 different sources — such as national arms export reports, customs records and the UN Register of Conventional Arms — the organizations have documented the global transfer of firearms and ammunition from more than 262 states and territories between 1992 and 2011.

The culmination of this research is the Mapping Arms Data (MAD) project, an interactive data visualization tool (best viewed in Chrome or Firefox) that illustrates the scope of the arms trade and highlights major shifts over the past two decades, such as the increasing role of many European Union countries in exporting and importing arms and ammunition.

The graphic assigns color codes to the data according to imports and exports, weapons and ammunition, and whether the sales have been conducted by civilian or military agencies.

A Disturbing Visualization of Global Small Arms Trade

According to PRIO, the data visualization project has other applications:

It shines a light on hot spots and allows historical trends in imports and exports to be more easily examined. For example, MAD documented spikes in military small arms exports to Libya in 2009, some two years before the 2011 intervention....

What is more, it shows how imports to Sudan from Iran skyrocketed in 2003, the year the Darfur genocide [began]. Meanwhile, MAD illustrates the massive increase in arms and ammunition imports by Mexico since 2006 when then-President Calderon announced a war on drugs. It is only by visualizing these trends and opening them up to the public that real scrutiny can begin.