Arms availability: questions and answers



 1. What is the problem from a humanitarian viewpoint caused by the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons?  

As weapons have become more easily available, the promotion of respect for international humanitarian law has become vastly more difficult. The unregulated availability of weapons, in particular small arms and light weapons, to groups with no knowledge or respect for international humanitarian law has outpaced efforts to ensure compliance with the basic rules of warfare and has led to a deteriorating situation for civilians caught up in armed conflicts. Studies show that the number of civilian casualties in wars has increased dramatically since the First World War. Indeed, civilian deaths outnumber those of combatants in many of today's ethnic and other internal conflicts.

The widespread availability of arms not only makes conflict much more lethal, it also obstructs relief efforts and hinders the reconstruction of society once fighting ends. Disease, starvation and abuse increase when humanitarian workers must suspend their work or leave the country altogether owing to security incidents. Suffering can continue for years after the end of conflict as easy access to weapons fuels continued violence, undermines the rule of law and impedes reconciliation between the former warring parties.

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 2. What are small arms and light weapons?  


When we use the term " small arms " we are primarily referring to rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and other weapons designed for military use by an individual combatant.  

Light weapons are portable weapons designed for use by several persons serving as crew, such as heavy machine-guns, mounted grenade-launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, por table launchers of anti-tank missiles, and mortars. Anti-personnel and anti-tank mines are also included . These categories of weapons have been defined by a UN Panel of Governmental Experts.

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 3. Why is the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement involved in the small arms debate?  


The widespread availability of arms, combined with their frequent use in violation of the most basic humanitarian rules, poses a direct challenge to the Movement's work to help the victims of conflict, to promote respect for international humanitarian law and to work towards the reconstruction of affected societies. The Red Cross / Red Crescent has witnessed first hand the effects of arms proliferation, can raise public awareness of the price paid in human terms for the widespread availability of arms and urge governments to better control their arms transfers. .

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 4. Why does the ICRC speak about "arms availability" while most other organizations, such as the UN, refer to "small arms and light weapons"?"  


We use the term " arms availability " deliberately because we are speaking from a position of principle which should apply to all arms. However, it is without doubt the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons that has caused the most severe problems from a humanitarian standpoint. These weapons are also of particular concern because, unlike major weapons systems, their availability is subject to few internationally accepted rules.

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 5. Why worry about small arms and light weapons, when there are weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear and biological weapons, which are much more dangerous?  


While not wishing to play down the past and continuing threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, small arms and light weapons have been the real weapons of mass destruction since the Second World War. The vast majority of those killed or injured in conflict since that time have been the victims of assault rifles, grenades, mortars and other small arms. And they have all too often been used, not against soldiers in combat, but instead to target civilians.

Despite these facts, small arms and light weapons were until the late 1990s almost entirely overlooked as a subject of arms control. Politicians and researchers have traditionally focused on nuclear and chemical weapons, missiles and major conventional weapons when drawing up arms control policies. Meanwhile, countless small weapons have spread unchecked across the globe, taking the lives of millions of civilians in the last decade alone. The easy access to small arms has kept certain areas of the world in a quasi-permanent state of war.

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 6. Why have small arms created such a major problem in humanitarian terms?  


Small arms and light weapons have special characteristics that facilitate their widespread availability and use. First, they are extremely easy to use. Unlike major weapons systems which require training of the user to be handled effectively, an assault rifle can easily transform a young schoolboy into an efficient killer. Small arms are also relatively cheap and widely available. There is an abundance of suppliers around the world and the hundreds of millions of such weapons in circulation have caused their prices to drop well below the cost of manufacture. In some African countries, it has at certain times been possible to buy an assault rifle for less than 15 US dollars, or for a bag of maize. Another feature of small arms and light weapons is that they have proven durable. A cache of submachine guns, for example, may well remain readily usable after years or even decades of storage. Such arms are often recycled, from one conflict zone to another. Finally, small arms are easy to conceal, making them simple to smuggle and transport across borders and into conflict areas.

All the above-mentioned characteristics of small arms and light weapons make tackling the virtually worldwide proliferation of these weapons a particularly challenging problem. When considering restriction on arms availability it should be borne in mind that this proliferation is not only geographical: highly lethal arms are becoming available to new and broad segments of societies, common criminals, undisciplined rebel groups, and even children.

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 7. But isn't the problem how the weapons are used, and not the weapon itself?  


Yes and no. The primary responsibility for compliance with international law is certainly borne by the user. However, arms-producing and -exporting States, as well as companies, bear a degree of political, moral and in some cases legal responsibility for the use made of their products. The ICRC feels very strongly that weapons should never be viewed as simply another commercial item and would like to stress that State responsibility for respecting and ensuring respect for humanitarian law requires that arms transfers to those who violate the law of war should be stopped. Many count ries have already recognized this, and some organizations, like the European Union, have begun strengthening restrictions by adopting regional guidelines for arms exports. Other organizations, including the Organization of American States and the Southern African Development Community have adopted legally binding treaties to prevent the illicit manufacturing of and trade in firearms.

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 8. Does the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement want to ban small arms like anti- personnel mines?  


No. The States have a sovereign right under the United Nations Charter to procure arms for their self-defence, and most small arms are themselves perfectly legitimate under humanitarian law. But there are many political and technical measures that States can adopt at national, regional and international levels in order regulate the current – almost completely uncontrolled – pattern of international arms transfers and the spread of military-style weapons within individual societies. Doing so could save many thousands of lives and enhance compliance with human rights and humanitarian law.

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 9. So what should be done to reduce the human cost of unregulated arms availability?  


The supply of arms and ammunition must be strictly controlled, in order to prevent weapons from ending up where they are likely to be used to violate international humanitarian law. Among others, States should establish strict arms transfer laws and policies that provide for an assessment of the recipients'likely respect for international humanitarian law and require the refusal of transfers when there is a clear risk that the arms will be used for serious violations. States should also work to develop international agreements to regulate the activities of arms brokers and to establish common standards for arms transfer decision-making. 

Achieving a significant and sustainable decrease in armed violence against civilians also means influencing the behaviour of those who bear weapons. While most small arms and light weapons do have legitimate uses, steps must be taken to ensure that they are employed in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. Measures that can contribute to this goal include adequate training of military, policy and security forces in the application of international humanitarian law and human rights law and the dissemination of humanitarian law to others bearers of weapons, as well as the establishment of mechanisms to ensure accountability.

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 10. What about the hundreds of millions of weapons already in circulation?  

The long'life expectancy'of small arms and light weapons means that it is of utmost importance to take practical measures to reduce the numbers of weapons already out there. It has been estimated that there are more than 600 million such weapons in circulation. These weapons can remain operational for 40 years or more with minimum maintenance. In post-conflict situations it is therefore indispensable to ensure disarmament and demobilization of former combatants and effective collection and destruction of surplus weapons in order to ensure that weapons are not recycled from conflict to conflict.

Because so many arms are already in circulation, it is also important to consider controls on the availability of ammunition. The shelf life of ammunition is shorter than the useful lives of the weapons themselves. Moreover, ammunition stocks are consumed over time, and as a result there are far fewer sources of new ammunition than of weapons. Therefore, efforts to limit the availability of ammunition can have an immediate and significant impact on the level of weapons-related death and injury.

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 11. What is the Movement doing to address this problem?  


The ICRC documented the relationship between arms availability and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the study “Arms availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict”, published in 1999. Endorsing the study's findings, the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement committed [1 ] to reducing the human suffering resulting from the unregulated availability and misuse of weapons and called on States to strengthen controls in this area. The ICRC and several National Societies have actively promoted responsible arms transfer decisions on the part of governments and arms suppliers, particularly the development and implementation of arms transfer criteria based on respect for international humanitarian law. The ICRC has also supported the negotiations of a new global instrument on the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons, and has called for increased efforts by States to prevent illicit arms brokering activities (see below). 

A number of National Societies have been actively raising awareness of the issues of humanitarian concern arising from the easy availability and proliferation of weapons. In addition, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies undertake a range of educational activities order to promote adherence to and respect for humanitarian law by arms bearers. Among others, the ICRC is actively engaged in the training of armed forces, police and security forces in international humanitarian and human rights law.
1. Council of Delegates 1999, Resolution 12, "Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict and post-conflict situations"; 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Plan of Action, Final Goal 1.5; 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Agenda for Humanitarian Action, Final Goal 2.3.
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 12. What is the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms?  


At the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in July 2001, States adopted a Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. While not a legally binding agreement, the Programme of Action encourages governments to take a variety of measures to exert better control over small arms and light weapons, primarily on the national level. These include stricter controls on arms production and transfers, effective management and security of weapons stockpiles, the implementation of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes in post-conflict situations, measures against violations of UN arms embargoes, and the development of legislation to regulate arms brokering activities. Biennial Meetings were held to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action in 2003 and in 20 05. In July 2006, a global conference was convened to review the UN Programme of Action, yet States did not succeed in agreeing on an outcome document. 

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 13. What is the ICRC's position on the possible development of an international arms trade treaty, supported by a majority of States at the UN General Assembly in 2006?  


The ICRC welcomes the decision of the UN General Assembly to establish a group of governmental experts that will examine this proposal. We believe the development of strict controls at all levels—national, regional and global—is necessary to effectively prevent arms from ending up where they are likely to be used to violate humanitarian law.

To ensure consistent standards for arms transfer decision-making among States, the ICRC supports the development of common standards for arms transfers at the global level, including in the form of a legally-binding agreement. Any international arms transfer agreements developed must take full account of States'existing obligations under international humanitarian law by establishing a requirement for States to assess the recipient's likely respect for humanitarian law and not to authorize arms transfers which are likely to be used for serious violations of humanitarian law. 

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 14. What is the ICRC's view with regard to the problem of illicit arms brokering, which is currently being considered by a Group of Governmental Experts?  

The ICRC believes the prevention of illicit arms brokering should be a priority for States. We hope that the work of the Group of Governmental Experts, which was just established within the UN framework to examine this issue, will result in the development of a global framework that can effectively regulate arms brokering activities.

In recent years, investigative reports from the United Nations have exposed the crucial role played by arms brokers in violations of UN Security Council arms embargoes. Member States usually impose arms embargoes on a Party to an armed conflict where persistent and grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights have already occurred. The UN investigative reports have demonstrated the extent to which the activities of a few unscrupulous individuals have contributed to prolonging and aggravating particular armed conflicts and facilitated continued violations of international humanitarian law. Far too often, even when those responsible have been identified by name, they are able to continue illicit arms trafficking activities with impunity because they operate in a legal vacuum. This situation should not be allowed to persist.

The development of comprehensive regulations of arms brokers at the national and regional levels are vital components of an adequate regulatory regime, but they will not be fully effective without strict controls also at the global level. The transnational manner in which illicit arms brokers operate, exploiting loop holes and inconsistencies in national and regional mechanisms, has been well documented. Successfully countering these activities will require the establishment of an effective legal framework at the global level.