Insurgents, armed gang members, pirates, terrorists - they can all multiply their force through the use of unlawfully acquired firepower. The illicit circulation of small arms, light weapons and their ammunition destabilizes communities, and impacts security and development in all regions of the world.
A worldwide scourge
The illicit trade in small arms, light weapons and ammunition wreaks havoc everywhere. Mobs terrorizing a neighbourhood. Rebels attacking civilians or peacekeepers. Drug lords randomly killing law enforcers or anyone else interfering with their illegal businesses. Bandits hijacking humanitarian aid convoys. In all continents, uncontrolled small arms form a persisting problem.
Weapons of choice
Small arms are cheap, light, and easy to handle, transport and conceal. A build-up of small arms alone may not create the conflicts in which they are used, but their excessive accumulation and wide availability aggravates the tension. The violence becomes more lethal and lasts longer, and a sense of insecurity grows, which in turn lead to a greater demand for weapons.
Most present-day conflicts are fought mainly with small arms, which are broadly used in inter-State conflict. They are the weapons of choice in civil wars and for terrorism, organized crime and gang warfare.
Taking their toll, violating rights
The majority of conflict deaths are caused by the use of small arms, and civilian populations bear the brunt of armed conflict more than ever. Also, small arms are the dominant tools of criminal violence. The rate of firearms-related homicides in post-conflict societies often outnumbers battlefield deaths. These weapons are also linked to the increasing number of killings of UN employees and peacekeepers, as well as workers from humanitarian and non-governmental organizations.
Small arms facilitate a vast spectrum of human rights violations, including killing, maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed groups. More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon. Furthermore, where the use of armed violence becomes a means for resolving grievances and conflicts, legal and peaceful dispute resolution suffers and the rule of law cannot be upheld.
Contemporary armed conflict is the main cause of people fleeing their homes, and is now the most common cause of food insecurity. Armed violence can aggravate poverty, inhibit access to social services and divert energy and resources away from efforts to improve human development. Countries plagued by armed violence are behind in attaining the Millennium Development Goals. High levels of armed violence impede economic growth. According to the World Bank, nothing undermines investment climates as much as armed insecurity.
Less information on small arms than on nuclear weapons
Reliable data sets on small arms can only be built if countries provide information on production, holdings, trade, legislation and use. But of all transparency measures on weapons systems, those on small arms are the least developed. According to the Small Arms Survey, "more is known about the number of nuclear warheads, stocks of chemical weapons and transfers of major conventional weapons than about small arms".
There are no accurate figures for the number of small arms and light weapons currently in circulation globally. Sources estimate the total to be at least 875 million. The majority of small arms - generally the only category of weapons not falling under Government monopoly of possession and use - are in private hands.
How do small arms become illicit?
Sources of small arms supplies to areas of crisis and conflict are varied. Domestically, small arms can enter illicit circulation through distribution, theft, leakage, divergence, pilferage or resale. Shipments of small arms to conflict zones from abroad are most often small-scale consignments - a steady trickle of weapons across porous borders. The cumulative destabilizing force of such small-scale trade is not to be underestimated, particularly in unstable regions where small arms are traded from one conflict to another.
Small arms and the UN
Governments have a responsibility to ensure public safety and they have an interest in providing human security and development to their citizens. So they should ensure that small arms from Government stocks or from private ownership are not misused and do not enter illicit circuits, where their use may contribute to instability and to exacerbating poverty.
To attain those goals, within the UN, countries have agreed on several commitments on small arms control: the Firearms Protocol, the Programme of Action on small arms - including an Instrument on marking and tracing - and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
The topic of small arms comes up in other discussions as well. Countries are giving separate attention to closely related issues, such as armed violence, child soldiers, the protection of civilians in armed conflict, ammunition, the arms trade treaty and the UN register of conventional arms.
The small arms industry appears to be fragmenting, bringing manufacturers closer to potential markets. More than 1,000 companies in about 100 countries are involved in some aspect of small arms production, with significant producers in around 30 countries. Conservative estimates mention 7.5 to 8 million small arms being produced per year.
Licensed production is now a common feature worldwide, sometimes leaving questions as to where responsibility lies with regard to the export of production techniques. Craft production, carried out in private workshops, is practiced in some regions and remains largely outside of control systems.
Marking and tracing
If national law enforcement officials were able to trace small arms back to their last legitimate owner, who might then be held accountable, this would form an effective measure against illicit trade and diversion. For that purpose, it is essential that the weapon be marked upon production and import, and that appropriate records be kept. Existing stocks should also be marked. Although many weapons are marked upon production and import, international cooperation in marking and tracing of small arms is in its infancy.
Traders and brokers
The vast majority of small arms are sold and transferred legally, but global patterns of supply of small arms and light weapons have changed profoundly over the past few decades. This has complicated controls. In the past, arms markets were relatively easy to survey, with far fewer supply outlets and less intermediate activity. Typically, closing a deal and delivering the goods were done by State authorities or Government agents. The use of private intermediaries has become common practice. These actors now routinely arrange transactions for defence industries, armed forces, law enforcement agencies and suppliers to Government as well as private entities, operating in a particularly globalized environment and often from multiple locations.
Contemporary traders, agents, brokers, shippers and financiers may well combine activities, making it difficult at times to distinguish small arms trade from brokering. Governments must assure that the shipments handled through these often complex networks are regulated according to the rule of law.
Investigations of arms embargo violations by the monitoring groups of the Security Council have exposed some international networks involved in the illicit trade and brokering of small arms. These brokers and dealers exploit legal loopholes, evade customs and airport controls and falsify documents such as passports, end-user certificates, cargo papers and flight schedules. Illicit activities by certain brokers and traders - and by the Government officials they collude with - have violated every UN arms embargo, with small arms and ammunition as the main items transferred.
A recurring problem concerning the proliferation of small arms, in particular in zones of crisis and conflict, is the absence of a normative framework for all States to guide decisions regarding arms transfers.
Information on global ammunition flows is difficult to obtain. More than 80 per cent of ammunition trade seems to remain outside of reliable export data. However, ammunition forms a key component of tackling the small arms topic in all its aspects. In contexts of sustained use, ammunition stockpiles are rapidly depleted. Preventing their resupply in unlawful situations should be a matter of prime concern. Furthermore, these stockpiles present a two-fold problem of security and safety - research shows that much of the non-State actors' ammunition are illicitly diverted from State security forces, and ammunition warehouses located in densely populated areas have exploded in a number of countries, causing thousands of casualties. Therefore, security as well as safety measures with regard to ammunition stockpiles need to be urgently addressed.
Stockpile management and control is one of the most acute small arms problems. "Leaking" Government stockpiles are prominent sources of illegal small arms in circulation. Generally, surplus and obsolete weapons are better destroyed than stored. In post conflict settings, the immediate destruction of surplus weapons and ammunition removes possible fuel for new instability.
The results of collection and destruction programmes are mixed. Often, projects have had only marginal impact on security, presumably because it is typically the obsolete weapons that are destroyed, and because affected communities do not always participate in the design and implementation of collection programmes. Also, disarmament programmes tend to focus on weapons rather than ammunition. Most importantly, for weapons collection programmes to have a lasting effect, they must be embedded in robust efforts linked to violence reduction, reconciliation, security sector reform and peacebuilding.