Illegal Trafficking in Small Arms

Getting a Grip_________________

Controlling the illegal trade in small arms does not lend itself to easy answers. The illicit trade in such weapons is estimated at 30 to 40 per cent of the legal trade. Yet a momentum has begun to grow to tackle the many sides of the problem—their manufacture, brokering and transport and, most importantly, their use.

The Conference came about as a result of two major United Nations studies carried out by small arms experts who presented their findings and recommendations to the General Assembly in 1997 and 1999. The U.S. experts highlighted the major role that illicit trafficking in small arms plays in the violence that permeates some societies perpetuating a variety of social ills in countries or in regions. Excessive flows of illegal small arms destabilize Governments, encourage crime, and foster terrorism. They are tied to drug trafficking, mercenary activities and a plethora of human rights violations.

International co-operation in arresting the problem is crucial. Some States need help at the national level in developing or strengthening legislation to control the flow of these weapons, while others need to build capacity in creating more effective law enforcement mechanisms. Over the last year, regional declarations, such as those in Brasilia, Bamako and the OSCE in November and December 2000 described the dire situation from those regions’ perspectives and sought common approaches to this politically sensitive security issue.

Cooperation allowed for the adoption of the legally binding 1997 Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American convention against the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition and explosives. That convention went a long way to developing a common language, methods and approach for the countries in the region. The moratorium on the import and export and manufacture of small arms in Western Africa, declared in 1998, also served as a tool of raising awareness, security capacity-building and mutual information exchange among the countries of that conflict-prone region. Civil society has championed the human costs and humanitarian disaster of the over-abundance of small arms. Men constitute the majority of the killers and killed. Civilians, especially women and children, are now the majority of victims of conflicts and they endure the ravages of crime and abuse with weapons or under the threat of weapons. Children suffer all round, victims of war or recruited by force into war. Families and entire communities are made refugees at the threat of the violence of illegal guns. In the lead up to the Conference, non-governmental groups organized effective activism and advocacy for better control over these weapons.

At the global level, the United Nations Conference will be open to all the members of the General Assembly, observers, inter-governmental organizations and UN agencies and programmes. Representation at the Conference will be at the ministerial level. Three preparatory sessions took place, the latest finishing its work on 30 March and forwarding a draft programme of action for consideration and adoption by the Conference.

The draft, prepared by the Chairman of the Preparatory Committee, Ambassador Carlos dos Santos of Mozambique, received much commentary. Governments may suggest amendments to the document in written form. The Conference will negotiate the final text.

Marking and registration of small arms may now be facilitated with the adoption on 2 March 2001 of a draft legally binding Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, designed to supplement the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime signed in Palermo, Italy in December 2000. The Protocol, which will be submitted to the upcoming General Assembly this year, deals with criminal activity in the civilian sector. It will require such measures as marking and record keeping to support identification and tracing and will criminalize illicit manufacturing, trafficking and defacing of firearm markings. The adoption of such measures in the draft Protocol may have a significant impact on measures dealing with military-style small arms and light weapons in the context of international peace and security, under consideration by the upcoming United Nations Conference.

The debate on measures to tackle the problem starts with the reaffirmation of the legal and protected right of each Member State to individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against it. However, it did not stop there. That aspect must be balanced by the threat to international peace and security which the excessive amount of small arms poses to a country or region. The draft programme of action suggests action at the national, regional and global levels and recommends how States can follow through with such measures, individually and together.

Some of the measures include stockpile management and reduction of the illegal weapons available through collection and destruction. Measures aimed at tracing weapons, including record-keeping, export-control measures, exchange of information, and controlling weapons transactions by dealing with brokering and financing activities, as well as control through marking are also among the suggested measures. Follow-up to the Conference will take on a great deal of importance in order to have effective and sustained results. Biannual meetings and reviews of implementation are envisaged, as well as future consideration of new international legal instruments on supply lines and manufacturers.

At the third session of the Preparatory Committee, it was announced that Ambassador Camilo Reyes, the current permanent representative of Colombia to the United Nations Office at Geneva was endorsed as the sole candidate to preside over the United Nations Conference. For further information and documentation in preparation for the Conference, see DDA website.