Illegal trade in small arms and light weapons

When the media report on weapons transfers, they are mostly talking about weapons systems, such as tanks, submarines and fighter planes. There are few reports on the category of weapons known as SALW – small arms and light weapons, often referred to by their brand names Kalashnikovs, G3 or Uzi. These weapons can be found in any kind of war or armed conflict in this world; this is why a number of experts call them the ‘most dangerous weapons of mass destruction’.

Small arms and light weapons are portable guns with a caliber of up to 100mm. They range from revolvers and pistols to assault and machine guns and mortars and MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems). Small arms have been developed for one person to handle and have a caliber of up to 12.7mm. Light weapons are of a larger caliber (12.7 to 100mm) and are handled by a team of two to three persons.

SALW are responsible for the death of more people than any other type of weapon. According to the Small Arms Survey, hundreds of thousands of people die every year through SALW; and more than one million are wounded. According to its estimations, there are about 875 million SALW around the world. These figures may even be short by hundreds of millions, as the proliferation of small arms and light weapons is extremely difficult to track. An estimated 75 percent of all SALW are outside the control of a state. In other words, they are in the hands of armed gangs, militias or criminals.

An estimated 700,000 to 900,000 SALW are manufactured every year. One of their most dangerous features is that they are robust and long-lasting. An AK-47, also called Kalashnikov after its inventor, is still murderously ‘effective’ after decades of use. In addition, Kalashnikovs and G3 assault guns are easy to operate and repair. Child soldiers also carry them when they go to fight. The easy design and functionality of small arms makes it possible to replicate and produce these weapon with very little expertise. Rebel and guerilla groups in particular take advantage of that fact to easily obtain weapons.

The easy availability of SALW contributes to the violent escalation of conflicts in many developing countries. Whenever the government has no control over the possession and use of weapons, security and stability can hardly be attained. Long after the end of violent conflicts, peace efforts can be hampered because the proliferation of small arms can endanger political, social, and economic reconstruction.

SALW only captured the attention of international arms control efforts at the United Nations in the early to mid-1990s when they played a devastating role in the violent conflicts in Croatia (1991–1995) and Bosnia Herzegovina (1992–1995), the civil war in Somalia (1991–1995) and in the genocide in Rwanda (1994). In spring 2001, this attention finally led to two concrete results. In May, the UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (a.k.a. The Firearms Protocol) was adopted as part of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). The Firearms Protocol is a legally binding agreement in which the signatory states undertake to carry out certain measures, such as the prosecution of illegal production of and trade in weapons, or the marking of firearms at the time of production and import. Unfortunately, countries such as the United States and Egypt—amongst the largest manufacturers of SALW—have not signed the Protocol. Other countries such as Austria, China and Germany, have signed the Protocol but not yet ratified it, meaning that they are not yet legally bound by its provisions.

In July of the same year, the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (a.k.a. the Programme of Action or the PoA) was adopted. The Programme of Action is a purely political instrument relevant to all UN Member States, but it is not legally binding. It calls for a biennial meeting of states to review the implementation of the PoA and to discuss new activities. The PoA goes beyond the regulations of the Firearms Protocol and advises strict controls of weapons held by the state, the destruction of surplus weapons and clear marking of all weapons upon their production. Incidentally, the UN General Assembly agreed upon an International Tracing and Marking Instrument (the ITI) in December 2005 to highlight the need for more marking and tracing of small arms. Again, the ITI is a political instrument and not a legally binding document.

Marking SALW helps to trace the journey of weapons from their country of origin to areas of conflict. Three parties are always involved in the international trade in weapons: a seller, a trader and a buyer. One or more of these parties can be state actors, but often they are non-state actors. In the age of globalisation, generally a larger number of actors are involved that operate in diverse places around the world. It is therefore highly difficult to follow the path the weapons are taking and whether they are diverted from official channels. It is clear, however, that nearly all illegal weapons originate from legal state-to-state deliveries. This is a weakness of existing instruments for the control of the international trade in SALW: they concentrate on transfers that are considered illegal from the very beginning, rather than on legal transfers from one state to another that end up being diverted to illegal channels. Another weakness is the fact that is the ITI does not require the marking of ammunition, without which even the most dangerous weapon would be useless.

These weaknesses are in part a consequence of the varied interests of UN Member States that have to agree to the regulation mechanism. It is not surprising that the regions that suffer most from the effects of an unregulated proliferation of SALW are those that make the greatest effort in controlling them. In Africa, for instance, the UN Instruments are complemented by three of the strictest and most comprehensive regional agreements on SALW control in the world. Besides the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Convention that is particularly exemplary, the Nairobi Protocol and the South African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Firearms are some of the most comprehensive and strictest regulations. What is more, the Central Africa Economic Community (CEEAC) is currently working on a convention for the control of SALW as well.

There are nevertheless positive developments on SALW control on the global scale. Every two years, the Member States of the UN Programme of Action get together to review the progress of the control of SALW and to discuss new efforts. While the first three meetings did not succeed in finding a common ground, the fourth Review Conference in June 2010 resulted in Member States’ adoption by consensus of an Outcome Document.

In 2013 an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was finally adopted of the international community. Since then, 130 states have signed the treaty and 69 states have ratified it (state June 2015), and the Treaty entered into force on 24 December 2014. The Treaty will apply to battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopter, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and SALW.

Sources and further information:

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