Illicit flows of small arms and light weapons undermine security and the rule of law. They are often a factor behind the forced displacement of civilians and massive human rights violations.
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Small arms: use & misuse
States have an inherent right to self-defence. They may use armed force in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations and International Humanitarian Law.
Weapons are force multipliers, assisting armed forces and police to generate order and security.
But the same weapons may instead bring havoc on a massive scale, when
- government forces start misusing the arsenals at their disposal;
- arms from legal stocks are diverted into illicit use;
- already existing illicit arms arrive in crisis areas.
Small arms: Armed violence
The excessive accumulation of small arms has been instrumental in shaping the onset, severity and duration of armed violence, and its negative consequences. Because they are widely available and easy to use, firearms are the most prominent tools in armed conflicts – and in criminal and interpersonal violence in non-conflict settings.
Small arms: Stockpile management
Many States lack thorough planning and consistent attention to safe storage, handling, transportation and disposal of weaponry. Poor national inventory practices mean that surpluses cannot be identified, leading to build-ups of frequently unnecessary stockpiles.
Stocks are susceptible to diversion if they are not appropriately secured and managed. Weapons diversion – also a key concept in the Arms Trade Treaty – tends to sustain armed non-State actors, terrorist organizations and organized criminal networks.
Small arms: New technologies
New technologies in small arms manufacturing and management are often established technologies with a history of application in other industries. Those include the use of non-traditional materials, such as polymers, the use of 3-D printing, and modularity in weapon design.
These developments in weapon design and production could have consequences for international efforts to address the illicit trade in small arms.
The marking, record-keeping and tracing of small arms is affected by new technology applications, such as laser markings, microstamping, automatic information and data collection and tracking technologies. Many of those technologies have the potential to profoundly influence the way weapons are marked and traced, as well as how records of weapons are kept.
Innovative ways for governments to address the management of weapons have become technologically feasible. Such technologies have already been put to broad use in commercial sectors such as the parcel business or the food industry.
Small arms: Marking & recordkeeping
When law enforcement officials are able to trace small arms back to their last legitimate owner – who might then be held accountable – this forms an effective measure against the diversion of weapons. For that purpose, it is essential that the weapon be marked upon production and import and that appropriate records be kept.
Also existing stocks should be marked.
Most weapons carry official markings. These chronicle their history from production to the last legal owner.
Small arms: Tracing
Most illicit small arms and light weapons begin as legally manufactured or imported weapons that are subsequently diverted to the illicit realm.
Tracing is the systematic tracking of illicit small arms or light weapons from their point of manufacture or most recent import, through their lines of supply, to their last legal title-holder, in order to determine the point, in space and time, at which they became illicit.
Small arms: Collection
In post-conflict environments the presence of large numbers of small arms, light weapons and their ammunition can contribute to an upsurge in violent crime, as well as interpersonal and intergroup violence.
Countries not engaged in armed conflict – or emerging from it – can also suffer from high rates of violent crime. In such settings, the voluntary collection of illicit and unwanted weapons and ammunition can be an effective means of strengthening social cohesion, promoting community development and creating conditions conducive to reducing armed violence and crime.
Even in countries not suffering from high rates of armed violence or violent crime, weapons collection is sometimes carried out after national laws relating to small arms possession are tightened, sometimes in response to mass shootings.
Small arms: Destruction
Destruction is an effective method of reducing the actual number of weapons on the illicit market, as well as the potential supply of weapons to the illicit market. In contrast to other methods of disposal such as sale or gift, destruction ensures that small arms and light weapons will not find their way (back) into the illicit market and can thus build confidence in overall efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate their illicit trade.
Destruction can involve weapons relinquished by the civilian population as part of a weapons collection programme, recovered in crime, or identified as being surplus to the requirements of the armed services of a State.
Small arms: Border controls & law enforcement
A prerequisite for preventing, combating and eradicating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is ensuring that law enforcement agencies – in particular customs, immigration and border police – coordinate and cooperate with one another. Both within their own countries and with their counterparts on the opposite side of the border.
Small arms: Ammunition
Ammunition supply patterns in areas of conflict are often distinct from arms supply patterns. Small arms, which are often recycled from conflict to conflict, typically have a lifespan of several decades; however, their value depends on an uninterrupted supply of ammunition.
The extent of the destruction caused by unregulated ammunition flows has become increasingly evident. Expert panels monitoring Security Council arms embargoes have suggested that the popularity of certain types of weapons among armed groups corresponds to the availability of their ammunition.
Conversely, in some cases lack of ammunition has prompted combatants to seek to resolve their disputes peacefully. Preventing resupply in situations of high risk to civilian populations should be a priority.
Small arms: Trade & brokering
Because of the immense havoc weapons and ammunition can wreak, any government that decides to export them must realize the profound international responsibility it has for every transfer it authorizes. Conversely, a government importing or procuring from national production must ensure that it will use these weapons only to provide for the safety and security of its citizens and that it has the capacity to safeguard all weapons and ammunition within its possession throughout their life cycles.
The trade in small arms is not well regulated and can be considered the least transparent of all weapons systems. In many countries, because of a lack of regulation and controls, it is too easy for small arms to fall into the hands of recipients who use them to commit violations of international humanitarian or human rights law or divert them to the illicit market through theft, leakage, corruption or pilferage.
Small arms: End-use verification
End-use certificates form a line of defence against the diversion of authorized small arms transfers. These documents help to ensure that legally transferred small arms and light weapons
- reach their authorized end-user;
- are used in a manner consistent with their authorized end-use;
- are not diverted to the illicit market.
Small arms: Gender
The causes and consequences of the use of weapons are highly gendered. Across all affected societies, young men are the most common perpetrators of armed attacks, as well as the most likely direct victims. The phenomenon is of particular concern in societies with a high percentage of young people combined with high youth unemployment.
Small arms: Children and youth
Children are disproportionately affected by hostilities, both directly as victims and through their association with armed forces and armed groups. Child protection actors within the United Nations continue to note with concern that the character of and tactics used in armed conflict pose unprecedented threats to children.
Protecting children affected by armed violence in the community
Resource book on the use of force and firearms in law enforcement