• Send page
  • Print page

Meeting of States on the the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, 7-11 July 2003: ICRC report

10-07-2003 Report

First Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, United Nations, New York



The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has since 1864 worked to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and internal violence. Under the specific mandate conferred upon it by the 1949 Geneva Conventions and its 1977 Additional Protocols, it also endeavours to reduce suffering by promoting and strengthening international humanitarian law. Through its humanitarian field operations, the ICRC is a regular witness to the devastating impact that unregulated arms availability has on civilians both during and after conflict.

As small arms and light weapons have become easily available to a wide range of new and often undisciplined actors, violations of international humanitarian law have become more pervasive and their effects more deadly. The use of weapons in incidents threatening and costing the lives of our staff is increasingly common, and our efforts to assist the civilian population are regularly delayed or suspended because of armed security threats. When humanitarian agencies are denied access to populations in need of assistance as promised by the Geneva Conventions, disease, starvation and abuse further increase. Due to the institution's profound concerns with the effects of uncontrolled arms availability, the ICRC has joined others in calling on States to address this pressing humanitarian problem. The UN Programme of Action is an important first step in this direction. The ICRC, as well as many National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies promote and contribute to the implementation and objectives of the Programme of Action in a number of different ways: 

1. Arms transfers 

The ICRC has in a variety of national, regional and international fora urged States to integrate consideration of respect for international humanitarian law into arms-export decision-making. When military-style arms are transferred, a State is providing the recipient with the means to engage in armed conflict – the conduct of which is regulated by humanitarian law. In fulfilment of the obligation of States " to respect and ensure respect " for international humanitarian law, the ICRC believes that all national laws and policies, and regional and international norms on arms exports should include a requirement for and an assessment of respect for humanitarian law by the recipient.

Where the ICRC has been effective in its efforts to promote criteria of this type, as with the Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in November 2000, it encourages States to effectively implement the criteria at the national level and ensure that the established criteria become part of national decision-making. A list of selected humanitarian law commitments in recent governmental documents on arms transfer is attached to this report (see Annex I). The ICRC also encourages the inclusion of specific indicators into national laws and regulations on arms exports, international legal instruments and codes of conduct that can be used as tools to assess a recipient's respect for international humanitarian law. A list of proposed indicators is attached to this report (see Annex II).

2. Research 

The ICRC has continued to disseminate the findings of the ICRC study Arms availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict , which was first published in 1999. The study examines the relationship between arms availability and violations of international humanitarian law. The key findings of the study include that the unregulated transfer of weapons and ammunition can facilitate violations of humanitarian law, increase tensions, heighten civilian casualties and prolong the duration of conflicts. The study proposes a variety of measures to improve control over arms transfers and reduce the human suffering caused by the misuse of weapons. These include stricter controls on the export of weapons, effective management and security of weapons stocks, the inclusion of provisions in peace settlements for the control and disposal of weapons after an armed conflict has ended, and reinforced mechanisms to ensure respect for international arms embargoes. In particular, the study highlights the responsibility of States to ensure that weapons do not end up in the hands of those likely to violate humanitarian law.

The entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, consisting of the ICRC, National Red Cross and Red Cre scent Societies and their International Federation, has endorsed the findings and recommendations of the study. It serves as the basis of the work of many National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with regard to small arms and light weapons. The study is available in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish, thus making it accessible to a large audience through ICRC’s field delegations and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies all over the world. 

3. Public awareness 

Much of the civilian death, injury and suffering caused by the misuse of small arms and light weapons could be prevented if international humanitarian law were fully complied with by those taking part in armed conflict. As part of its prevention activities, the ICRC and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies undertake a range of activities in the area of public awareness-raising, in order to promote adherence to and respect for humanitarian law. The objectives are three-fold: to prevent violence by strengthening the foundations of peace at the national and international levels; to prevent violations of humanitarian law during conflict; and to prevent the resurgence of conflict by helping to establish conditions conducive to reconciliation and social reconstruction. Enhanced respect for existing norms and principles, such as human rights and humanitarian law, can increase people's safety and security and reduce the risk of small arms misuse. Consequently, it can also contribute to reducing the demand for weapons in those cases where demand is a response to insecurity.

Tools employed by the ICRC and the other components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in its preventive work include:

 I. Humanitarian diplomacy  

The ICRC is actively involved in humanitarian diplomacy on the issue of small arms and light weapons availability. In various international fora, it has called attention to the human costs of widespread arms availability, in particular through disseminating the findings and recommendations of the ICRC study. ICRC staff at headquarters and in the field have highlighted these concerns in contacts with governments and regional organisations, at international seminars and conferences, and to the general public. One such example is the ICRC's participation in the Geneva Process, an informal group with representatives from several governments, international organisations and NGOs, which meet regularly in Geneva to discuss the implementation of the Programme of Action.

 II. Public education  

The ICRC and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies engage in educational activities and programmes to promote understanding of humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law among the general public. Since 1994, spreading knowledge among young people has been a priority. The aim is to teach young people that human dignity must be respected at all times - during peace as well as war – and to introduce them to the basic legal provisions protecting persons not or no longer taking part in an armed conflict.

This is done for example through the programme " Exploring International Law " , an educational programme for young people between 13 and 18 years of age. At present, more than 70 countries around the world have taken specific steps to integrate this programme into their national educational systems. The ICRC has also worked closely with the authorities in seven countries in the Commonwealth of I ndependent States (CIS) to introduce a special secondary school programme. Every year, the programme reaches out to 2.5 million young people and tens of thousands of teachers in secondary schools, including military school cadets, in the Russian Federation, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Of particular relevance to the small arms and light weapons issue, are efforts to ensure that young people at risk of being recruited or already taking part in armed conflict respect the basic rules of humanitarian law and facilitate humanitarian assistance. This presents specific difficulties, among others because young weapons bearers or those at risk are seldom enrolled in educational institutions. Reaching these groups and gaining their confidence are therefore among the key challenges.

 III. Risk education  

The ICRC and many National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies undertake awareness programmes that aim to inform populations at risk about the threat of mines and other explosive remnants of war and to support affected communities in changing behaviour as a means of reducing the risk of casualties. At present, the ICRC conducts such programmes, directly or through National Societies, in about 22 countries. The ICRC and National Societies have built upon its experience with mines and unexploded ordnance awareness to develop awareness programmes for other remnants of war when appropriate, including abandoned ammunition stores and small arms and light weapons. ICRC mine/explosive remnants of war awareness programmes, for example in Croatia, the Kosovo region of Serbia-Montenegro and most recently in Iraq, have incorporated messages related to small arms. These efforts have aimed at informing communities in affected areas about the potential dangers for example of handling weapons or storing them at home, in particular the risks this may pose to children. Risk education of af fected populations may significantly reduce the number of accidental small arms deaths and injuries, which are both regrettably predictable and often preventable in areas with high levels of small arms and light weapons availability.

 IV. Training of armed, police and security forces  


Training those who bear weapons to act in accordance with international rules is a crucial means of encouraging responsible conduct and reducing the risk of misuse. The ICRC is actively engaged in the training of armed forces, police and security forces in humanitarian and human rights law. To assist States in fulfilling their obligation to educate their militaries in the law of armed conflict, the ICRC has traditionally supported States in the training of armed forces in international humanitarian law. Because the task distinction between armed forces and police/security forces is not always clear, with police and security forces frequently involved in the conduct of hostilities and armed forces involved in the maintenance of public order, the ICRC has since 1996 expanded to provide training also for police and security forces. It focuses on rules of human rights and humanitarian law relevant to professional law enforcement practice, including those established in international human rights treaties and key " soft-law " instruments like the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms Adopted by the 8th UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, 1990.

and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials Adopted by General Assembly Resolution 34/169 of 17 December 1979.. The ICRC has produced a manual " To serve and to protect: Human rights and humanitarian law for police and security forces " , which is presently translated into 21 languages for use throughout the world .


4. The protection of vulnerable groups 

 I. Children  

The tragic fate of children in war has been and remains a constant concern for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which in 1995, led it to adopt a Plan of Action to assist children affected by armed conflict. In it, the Movement expresses its commitment to promote the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation in armed conflict of children under the age of 18. The ICRC promotes the implementation of both the general and specific protection awarded to children under humanitarian law, among others by spreading knowledge of that law as mentioned in the previous section. In addition, the ICRC`s Advisory Service provides governments with assistance in drawing up national laws for the implementation of humanitarian law, and can support them regarding the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 38) and its Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict adopted in 2000.

In accordance with the Plan of Action, all components of the Movement are committed to taking practical steps to protect and assist child victims of armed conflict – children who in one way or another are victims of small arms violence. For the ICRC, such efforts include the protection of unaccompanied minors through identification, tracing of missing persons, reuniting families and promoting respect for the right to education. The ICRC, together with its Red Cross and Red Crescent partners, provides assistance to schools, sometimes through rehabilitation of schools damaged by fighting. It also monitors and aims to improve detention conditions and to bring about the release of detained children. An illustration of the work that is being done comes from 2002, when the ICRC registered 3,833 children who were unaccompanied or separated from their families, and successfully reunited 1,162 with their families. In addition, the ICRC provides food aid and non-food relief, health care and psychological support, and physical rehabilitation services for disabled children. Many of the children assisted suffer weapons-related injuries or disabilities. While the ICRC acts impartially to assist all victims of armed conflict, it acknowledges that children have particular needs that must be specifically addressed. 


 II. Women  


The ICRC study " Women Facing War " (October 2001) examines the specific impact of armed conflict on women and the vulnerabilities they confront. As such, it provides further details with regard to the negative impact of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons on women referred to in the Programme of Action. Though women are sometimes combatants, those who belong to the civilian population are increasingly suffering the direct and indirect effects of war in the same way as other civilians, including their deliberate targeting by parties to a conflict. Women are also uniquely targeted and abused using heinous tactics such as sexual violence including rape. Furthermore, women are affected by separation from their loved ones, widowhood, loss of livelihood and entitlements, and displacement.

At the same time, women are increasingly taking up arms as combatants and participating in support roles, sometimes against their will. Through its ongoing Women and War Project , the ICRC aims to increase awareness of how armed conflict affects women, and to promote compliance with humanitarian law as it applies to women. One of the main conclusions of the " Women Facing War " study was that women suffer the effects of armed conflict, not due to shortcomings in the rules protecting women, but because the rules are all too often not observed.

 III. The elderly  

With regard to the elderly, the ICRC seeks to provide protection and assistance, as it does in the case of all conflict victims. While doing so, it nevertheless attempts to address the specific problems facing this group and to meet its particular needs. The situation of the elderly may deteriorate disproportionately during periods of armed conflict, in many cases becoming dependent on humanitarian aid for their very survival. Several provisions of humanitarian law request that the parties to conflict take age into account and encourage them to grant special treatment to this particularly vulnerable category of civilians, who due to their age cannot take part in the fighting. As is the case with women and civilians more generally, the lack of implementation and/or respect for existing provisions constitutes one of the main obstacles to ensure adequate protection of the elderly.


5. Efforts of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole has voiced its concern with the widespread availability of arms and ammunition, its implications for humanitarian law and the situation of civilians in armed c onflict. A number of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have undertaken activities to raise awareness of the humanitarian concerns arising from the proliferation of weapons and to promote stricter control over the production, transfer and availability of weapons. The following are some examples of National Society activities since the adoption of the Programme of Action:

  • The Belgian Red Cross has effectively promoted the incorporation into national Belgian legislation of the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. Belgium passed new legislation to this effect in March 2003. As part of the Belgian Action Network on Small Arms, the Belgian Red Cross is engaged in national and international efforts to promote strong government control over arms transfers and other measures aimed at reducing the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons. During the Global Week of Action against Small Arms in June 2003, the Belgian Red Cross participated in a press conference aimed at sensitising the authorities and public in the lead-up to the Biennial Meeting of States in July. 

  • The Mali Red Cross co-sponsored -- together with the Programme for Co-ordination and Assistance for Security and Development in West-Africa -- a public awareness campaign in connection with the 2002 African Cup of Nations in football, among others using posters, t-shirts and spots to publicise their messages. The Mali Red Cross has also been active in the Mali Action Network on Small Arms

  • The Norwegian Red Cross has, as part of the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), organised and co-sponsored seminars, disseminated NISAT publications and research findings, and been in dialogue with the Norwegian government on domestic and international small arms issues. Most recently, it hosted an international conference in April 2003 -- organised jointly by the government s of Norway and the Netherlands -- on how to enhance international co-operation in order to prevent illicit arms brokering.

  • The Spanish Red Cross has organised a public awareness campaign called " Thousands of weapons, millions of victims”. The campaign focused on the human costs of uncontrolled arms availability and measures that could mitigate these effects, including States'implementation and promotion of humanitarian law and human rights, social and economic development, and the promotion of tolerance and peaceful means of conflict resolution. The campaign included an art exhibition featuring paintings by various Spanish artists, reflecting on the consequences for civilian populations of excessive arms availability. 

  • The Slovenian Red Cross has raised issues related to small arms availability in their humanitarian law dissemination activities when appropriate. It has discussed the topic with Slovenian authorities within the Interdepartmental Commission for International Humanitarian Law prior to the " UN-OSCE Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects in South Eastern Europe " , which was co-organised by the Slovenian Government in Ljubljana, Slovenia in March 2003.

  • The Swedish Red Cross commissioned a survey examining the attitudes of the Swedish population to the use and availability of small arms and light weapons, which was presented to a meeting bringing together government representatives, police, and a variety of civil society groups in December 2002. The idea was to start tackling the issue of arms availability by identifying and addressing domestic challenges as the first step in the Swedish Red Cross'action plan on small arms and light weapons. The Swedish Red Cross is also engaged in national and international efforts to address small arms and light weapons issues as part of the Swedish Action Network on Small Arms.

  • The Serbia and Montenegro Red Cross has undertaken a public awareness campaign " For life – without weapons " , which focused on the dangers arising from the easy availability of weapons in society after years of war and public insecurity. The campaign, which was launched in 2001, sought to highlight that arms can be a source of insecurity rather than security, and to offer people alternatives to a so-called " culture of violence " . It targeted children and young people in particular. It was carried out in co-operation with the national authorities and government officials participated in events, helped to provide data and emphasised the importance of the initiative to the public. A series of public stands, discussions and roundtables were organised and key messages were conveyed through schools, at musical events, in bars and in discotheques. National " opinion leaders " such as sports stars and actors helped disseminate the messages, including in TV and radio spots broadcast through national media. 

  • In addition, a number of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies on all continents have continued to raise this issue with government officials and parliamentarians through bilateral meetings, in national International Humanitarian Law Commissions, and through their regular dissemination activities when appropriate.

The issue of arms availability will also be on the agenda the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2003, which brings together the 191 States Party to the Geneva Conventions, all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the ICRC, and the IFRC. This topic has been raised in previous International Conferences and in the Plan of Action adopted at the 27th International Conference in 1999, commitments aimed at strengthening controls on arms availability and raise awareness of the human costs of unregulated arms transfers were made. The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent provides a unique forum to address th e problem of small arms availability and misuse from a distinctly humanitarian perspective.

Conclusion and challenges 

While the humanitarian, health and development dimensions of the small arms and light weapons challenge are recognised, they are not developed further within the Programme of Action. If the objective is “to reduce the human suffering caused by the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons” and “to enhance the respect for life and the dignity of the human person” ( Preamble, para. 4 ), full attention must be devoted to all dimensions of the problem in order to identify and employ the most effective measures to reduce small arms violence. So far, the majority of the efforts have focused on the weapons themselves. While this is essential, the full and effective implementation of the Programme of Action requires that all recognised means be employed. This includes tackling the problem from both a supply and demand perspective as emphasised in Paragraph 7 of the Preamble. Addressing the problem from a " demand " perspective will include further examining the dimensions mentioned above. More specifically, it will require extensive action-oriented research, as called for in Section III ( para. 18 ) to understand the complex factors that drive the demand and misuse of small arms and light weapons and to identify means of addressing these.

To enable the 2006 Review Conference on the Programme of Action to fulfil its task, it will need to be in a position to measure the impact of the Programme of Action on the ground. This will require significantly increased involvement from humanitarian, health, development, crime prevention and other sectors. Rigorous and systematic research will be needed to determine whether the " human suffering " resulting from the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons has been reduced. This assessment will require the development of appropriate measures of long-term success and extensive collection of reliable data, for example in the form of health and crime statistics. Those with pertinent expertise should be invited to contribute actively to the implementation and possible future development of the Programme of Action.

The reduction of death, injury and suffering perpetrated with small arms should be the ultimate benchmark of success for the Programme of Action. The ICRC considers that the only way to achieve this is through a comprehensive approach that truly examines and addresses the problem in all its aspects.

Reference documents 

Arms availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict: A Study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, June 1999.

Cees de Rover, To serve and to protect: Human rights and humanitarian law for police and security forces , International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 1998.

Children in War, Information kit, International Committee of the Red Cross, 2003.

Charlotte Lindsay, Women facing war, International Committee of the Red Cross, 2001.

Related sections