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Illicit small arms: ICRC stresses need to focus on consequences for civilians

17-06-2004 Statement

Statement by the ICRC to the Open-ended Working Group to Negotiate an International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, United Nations, New York, 14 - 25 June 2004. ICRC says the threat posed by these weapons often outlives conflicts, making the return to peace and the rule of law more difficult.

Mr. Chairman,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appreciates this opportunity to address this first session of the Open-ended Working Group. The ICRC strongly supports all measures that can contribute to reducing the human suffering resulting from the uncontrolled proliferation of small arms and light weapons. As many of you know, the ICRC's mission is to protect the lives and dignity of war victims, and to promote and strengthen international humanitarian law. This work is made much more difficult by the combination of inadequate controls on the transfer of arms and the frequent use of weapons in violation of humanitarian law, which puts civilians at increased risk of abuse during and after conflicts, and undermines the legal norms designed to protect them.

We are therefore encouraged by States'increased recognition that the strengthening of controls to reduce the unregulated spread of these weapons is also an urgent humanitarian concern. We see the General Assembly's decision to launch negotiations on a new international instrument to identify and trace illicit small arms and light weapons as a manifestation of the heightened awareness among States in this regard, which we naturally welcome.

The ICRC acknowledges that the widespread availability and misuse of weapons is a complex and multifaceted problem, which no single measure or solution can effectively prevent. It will require a combination of responses, through a variety of initiatives at the global, regional and national levels. While it would be naive to think that a new instrument to identify and trace illicit small arms would, in itself, suffice to eradicate their illicit trade, we deem that the establish ment of common standards to ensure that they can be effectively and reliably identified and traced will be a tangible step -- not sufficient alone, but absolutely necessary -- in helping ensure adequate control at the global level.

We further hope that reliable marking systems and effective tracing mechanisms will foster greater accountability and responsibility amongst arms suppliers. While the primary responsibility for compliance with international humanitarian law falls upon the users of weapons, it has been widely recognised that States and enterprises engaged in the production and export of weapons have a political, moral, and in some cases, legal responsibility for the use made of their weapons.

This view was prominently expressed at the most recent International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, in December 2003, which was attended by States Parties to the Geneva Conventions and the components of the Movement. The " Agenda for Humanitarian Action " , adopted by consensus, provides that, in order to " reduce the human suffering resulting from the uncontrolled availability and misuse of weapons " , and " in recognition of States'obligation to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law, controls on the availability of weapons are strengthened – in particular on small arms light weapons and their ammunition – so that weapons do not end up in the hands of those who may be expected to use them to violate international humanitarian law " .

The ICRC urges Governments to seize this opportunity to establish rules that will effectively make it harder for those who, without regard for the law or for human life, continue to supply weapons to areas affected by armed conflict where the fundamental rules of humanitarian law are being consistently violated.

It is time to make sure that the effects of the progress made at the diplomatic level in recent years are also felt on the ground. The severe c onsequence of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons on civilians and communities around the world have been well documented in recent years, including by the ICRC. It may therefore seem redundant to repeat why States should act with urgency in this regard. Yet, as negotiations progress and legal issues and technical details become the centre of attention, it can be easy to lose sight of the ultimate purpose of the exercise. The ICRC therefore asks this Group to remember the countless civilians who every day, in armed conflicts world-wide, are killed or injured, raped, or forced to leave their homes at gunpoint, or who live in constant fear that such fate should befall them or their loved ones. Often, these threats persist for years after hostilities have ceased as widely available weapons undermine the rule of law and continue to make people and communities insecure. This is the reality witnessed by the ICRC in all too many environments where we work.

As long as we are still far from reducing the death, injury and suffering perpetrated with illicit small arms, this is not the time to reflect on what has been achieved, but to focus on what needs to be done. The ICRC urges States to keep this ultimate objective in mind during the negotiations ahead.

The ICRC warmly welcomes the mandate given to this Group and hopes that it will succeed in bringing global efforts one step further in strengthening controls over international arms transfers. We encourage States to conclude their work at the earliest possible time with the adoption of rigorous new international legal rules, which will enable States to effectively trace illicit small arms, light weapons and their ammunition.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.