Intended for healthcare professionals

Troubled Planet

Empty arms: the effect of the arms trade on mothers and children

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1457
  1. David P Southall, professor of paediatrics,
  2. Bernadette A M O'Hare, consultant paediatrician (
  1. c/o Child Advocacy International, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire ST5 1ND
  1. Correspondence to: D P Southall

    Trading in arms, both legal and illegal, is highly detrimental to the health of mothers and children in the countries where armed conflict occurs. But do the powerful arms trading countries want to address the problems they are causing?

    Aid workers have no doubts about the impact of armed conflict on the death and suffering of mothers and children. To prove that trading in arms makes a major contribution to poor health is challenging, because it coexists in poor countries with massive debt, corrupt bureaucracies, and natural disasters. We report on the devastating effects of legal and illegal weapons exported into poor countries in conflict in Africa and Asia.

    Summary points

    More than 85% of the major conflicts since the second world war have been in poor countries

    During the 1990s the poorest countries of the world became saturated with arms, with brokers often supplying both sides of a conflict

    Between 1986 and 1996, a major proportion of those dying as a result of armed conflicts were civilians, particularly women and children

    Huge differences in the health of mothers and children exist between the poor countries undergoing conflict and the predominantly rich countries exporting arms to them

    Legal trading in arms should be a responsibility of a newly configured United Nations, and much more regulation of arms manufacturing companies is needed

    International laws and their aggressive enforcement should stop illegal arms trading, including its support systems


    Drawing on the work of international organisations,w1-w4 we conducted the following analyses:

    • A review of literature on conflict and arms trading

    • The mechanisms by which major weapons and small arms exported during 1990-2000 reached the 10 poorest countries engaged in armed conflict in 2000

    • The health status of mothers and children in these countries compared with the 10 largest arms exporting countries.

    Armed conflict

    More than 85% …

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