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Unregulated arms availability, small arms & light weapons, and the UN process

26-05-2006 Report

Background paper


The human costs of unregulated small arms availability  
  What are small arms and light weapons?
  The term "small arms" refers to:  
  • assault rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and other weapons designed for military use by an individual combatant. The definition also includes commercial firearms such as handguns and hunting rifles.

      The term "light weapons" refers to:  
  • 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, portable launchers of anti-tank missiles, and mortars.   These categories of weapons have been defined by a UN Panel of Governmental Experts.    
      [1] On the basis of its experience from conflict and post-conflict situations around the world  , the ICRC has concluded that widespread availability of weapons, in particular small arms and light weapons:
  • facilitates violations of IHL;

  • increases civilian suffering;

  • impedes assistance for the victims;

  • increases the lethal effects and duratio n of conflicts;

  • hampers the delivery of humanitarian assistance, reconstruction and reconciliation.

A number of studies by other organizations have confirmed these conclusions and further examined the human costs of unregulated arms availability. They have found that:

  • The easy availability of small arms exacerbates the effects of armed conflicts and armed violence in a variety of contexts around the world. Small arms are not only used to kill and injure, but also to intimidate, coerce, rape, forcibly recruit children as combatants, or force people to flee their homes. While most of those killed or injured are men, women and children suffer disproportionately in other ways. 

  • Millions of people have been forced to leave their homes in an attempt to flee from areas affected armed conflict and armed violence, becoming refugees or internally displaced. Many refugees and internally displaced continue to be at risk from armed threats even in so-called safe areas, as weapons are easily available and commonly used to intimidate, assault and kill even within refugee and IDP camps. 

  • Small arms violence also has a range of indirect effects on health and development. The World Health Organization has for example documented the devastating effects that armed conflict can have on health, significantly increasing the risk of infectious diseases, reproductive and prenatal health problems, malnutrition and psychological disorders. [2]  
  • Small arms violence puts a heavy burden on the health sector in many countries affected by armed conflict or other types of armed violence. Victims often require expensive and specialized treatment, including surgery, prolonged hospitalization and often physical and psychological rehabilitation. The majority of countries most affected by armed violence are developing countries where resources are already scarce.

  • Armed conflict or high levels of armed violence can be a serious detriment to socio-economic development. The impacts are often wide-ranging, affecting infrastructure, basic services, agricultural production and industry. Large-scale insecurity can hamper normal economic activity and reduce external revenues by discouraging foreign investment and tourism.

The rates of death and injury due to small arms violence in certain areas thought of as being " at peace " are among the highest in the world. According to the World Bank, violence is among the five main causes of death in Latin America, and is the principal cause of death in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela.  [3] The Inter-American Development Bank has estimated that the cost of armed violence
  • in Latin America in the 1990s was equivalent to 14 per cent of the region's gross domestic product (GDP).  [4]  
The UN process on small arms 

In 2001, the UN held the first global Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. The meeting resulted in the adoption of 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 me asures to exert better control over small arms and light weapons, primarily on the national level. Among others, States undertake to:

  • establish adequate national controls on arms production and arms transfers

  • develop legislation to regulate arms brokering activities.

  • ensure effective management and security of national weapons stocks

  • implement disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes in post-conflict situations, including effective collection and destruction of small arms and light weapons

  • address the special needs of children affected by armed conflict

  • take measures against violations of UN arms embargoes

The focus of the Programme of Action is on measures aimed at restricting the supply of weapons. Efforts to reduce the misuse of weapons and to address the causes driving the demand for illicit weapons have so far received limited attention in the UN process. Two Biennial Meetings were held to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action in July 2003 and in July 2005.

In June 2005, as part of the follow-up to the UN Programme of Action, governments agreed on another global instrument—again in the form of a political declaration and not a legal framework—to enable States to identify and trace illicit small arms and light weapons.

A global conference will be convened in July 2006 to review the UN Programme of Action.


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


  • Small arms are highly durable, easy to use, carry and maintain, and with minimal training become highly lethal tools. Combined with their low cost and widespread availability all around the world, these features have made them the weapons of choice fuelling international humanitarian law violations and insecurity in many parts of the world.

  • Unlike major weapons systems, the availability of small arms and light weapons is subject to few internationally recognized rules and their regulation poses particular challenges. In contrast to weapons that have been banned because they violate the basic norms of international humanitarian law—such as anti-personnel mines—small arms are not in themselves unlawful weapons. Most small arms have legitimate uses, including for law enforcement and national defence. A prohibition is therefore not a solution. What is required instead is adequate regulation of their availability and use.

Production and trade 
  How many small arms are in circulation?

  There are no accurate figures for the total number of small arms currently in circulation.
  • Records on the number of weapons produced and transferred have not always been maintained or disclosed to the international community. Also, given their durability, which can be upwards of 40 years, many of the small arms in existence today are in fact remnants of the Cold War period. Another difficulty for estimation is the largely unknown number of illegal and unlicensed weapons in circulation.
  • The most cited estimate on the number of small arms currently in use and in stockpiles around the world comes from the research project Small Arms Survey. It places the number at almost 640 million.    
 According to the Small Arms Survey, there are an estimated 90 countries in the world currently involved in some aspect of small arms production. [5]  
  • The United States, the Russian Federation and China are the world's largest producers of small arms and light weapons. Significant producers are otherwise found in almost every region, with the majority in Europe and Asia [6]
  • While the global small arms market seems to have declined since its peak in the 1980's and 1990's, an increasing number of countries and companies are involved in small arms production, making adequate regulation all the more challenging.

  • The total annual value of global legal trade in small arms is estimated to be about USD 4 billion [7][8][9] . In addition to these legal transactions, small arms are regularly traded on the black market. The illicit trade may be worth about 1 billion USD per year . This constitutes only a small proportion of the total value of the conventional arms trade (possibly between 5-13 percent) , yet these weapons account for the majority of casualties in most current armed conflicts.
International arms transfers 

There are a variety of ways in which small arms can move across (or within) borders: 

  • Legal arms transfers: generally defined as those approved by all the governments involved in the transaction (importing, exporting and possibly transit countries) and which are in accordance with both national and international law.

  • Illegal black market arms transfers: those that clearly violate either national and/or international law, and that take place without official government authorization.

  • Grey market transfers: transactions of questionable legality, which do not belong clearly in either of the other categories. A variety of transactions fall into this category, for example those that are authorized either by the supplying or the receiving government, but not by both.

  • Many of the weapons that contribute to international humanitarian law violations have probably ended up in the wrong hands by way of grey market transfers, most often through diversion. Diversion is the process by which weapons moves from the legal to the illicit sphere, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Among the most common methods of diversion are government supplies to non-state actors, violations of arms embargoes and end-user commitments, as well as thefts from state or private stockpiles.

  • Due to the vast numbers of weapons in circulation, many locations are already saturated with weapons. A key source of weapons is therefore existing stocks, recycled from previous armed conflicts in the same or neighbouring areas. The vast majority of weapons used in today's conflicts have crossed international boundaries, often many times over.

Reducing the unregulated availability of weapons 

To enhance the protection of civilians during and after armed conflicts, stricter controls are required to prevent easy access to arms and ammunition by those likely to violate international humanitarian law. There is no simple solution to addressing the unregulated availability and widespread misuse of weapons. To ensure adequate regulation, States will need to take a comprehensive range of measures at the national, regional and international levels.

ICRC and National Society activities
  The ICRC documented the relationship between arms availability and violations of international humanitarian law in the 1999 study “Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict”. The entire International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent endorsed the study's findings and committed itself to reducing the human suffering resulting from the unregulated availability and misuse of weapons:

  • The ICRC and many National Societies promote 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 Movement does not engage in public discussion of specific arms transfers to specific recipients, as this could compromise its neutrality and capacity to assist victims of armed conflict.

  • Since 2001, the ICRC has participated as an observer in the UN meetings on small arms and lights weapons, stressing the need for increased efforts to reduce the human suffering resulting from the unregulated availability and misuse of small arms and light weapons.

  • The ICRC has supported the negotiations of a new global instrument on the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons, called for increased efforts by States to prevent illicit arms brokering activities and to establish common standards regulating arms transfers based on States' responsibilities under international law, including international humanitarian law.

  • National Societies carry out a variety of activities addressing armed violence and the unregulated arms availability, including in the areas of awareness-raising, education, youth violence, and other violence-prevention activities.

  • The ICRC and many National Societies 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 law and human rights law.    
These include measures aimed at restricting the supply of arms and reducing the number already in circulation, such as:
  • adopting national and international arms transfer laws and policies that include requirements to assess the recipients'likely respect for international humanitarian law, and refuse transfers when there is a clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations. The ICRC has developed guidelines for conducting such assessments, and these could be incorporated into national or regional regulations;

  • enhancing implementation of existing agreements on small arms, including the UN Programme of Action and relevant regional agreements.

  • strengthening surveillance and enforcement mechanisms to ensure respect for international and regional arms embargoes,

  • establishing strict national and international regulations to prevent illegal arms brokering;

  • developing an international agreement defining common standards for regulating arms transfers, with due consideration of States'obligations under international humanitarian law;

  • supporting comprehensive disarmament and demobilization of former combatants and the destruction of surplus weapons when armed conflicts end;

  • applying the same strict controls also to ammunition, which could have an even greater and more immediate impact than controls on the weapons. 


Many of these measures are already supported in the Programme of Action, but there is a need for more precision in setting out the specific steps that States are required to take. While the title of the UN Programme of Action implies a focus only on illicit trade in small arms, adequately controlling    the legal trade is necessary to    prevent    the illicit trade since most weapons originate in the legal market. Moreover, both legal and illicit transfers may end up being misused in violation of international humanitarian law unless their likely end-use is adequately considered.

A comprehensive approach to reducing small arms violence  

To reduce the devastating effects of armed violence, it is not sufficient to focus only on restricting the uncontrolled availability of small arms. Complementary efforts must be made to influence the behaviour of those bearing weapons and to protect and assist the victims. To achieve a significant reduction in small arms violence, enhanced efforts should be made to:

  • Adequately train military, police and security forces in the application of international humanitarian law and human rights law, incorporate relevant rules into their procedures and instructions, and establish mechanisms to ensure accountability. Rules concerning the responsible use of weapons, such as those contained in Protocol I additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms [10]  and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials  
  •   [11] , need to be better known, applied and respected;
  • Make other bearers of weapons (e.g. non-state armed groups, private military and security companies) aware of their obligations under international law and establish mechanisms to ensure accountability;

  • Spread knowledge among all sectors of society of international humanitarian law and of the limits – set by international law and local norms – on the use of weapons;

  • Establish comprehensive and evidence-based violence prevention strategies adapted to the local context;

  • Provide medical care and support for the physical rehabilitation and social reintegration of victims of armed violence. 

   Notes :    

1. See Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict , ICRC, Geneva, June 1999. 

 2. World Report on Violence and Health, World Health Organizations, Geneva, 2002.

 3. See www.worldbank.org (Latin-America, Preventing Urban Crime and Violence)

 4. Londoño, J.L. and Guerrero, R. " Violencia en América Latina: Epidemiología y Costos " , IDB Working Paper R-375, Washington, 1999.

5. Small Arms Survey 2004: Rights at Risk, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 7.

6. Ibid., 2004, p. 7.

7. Small Arms Survey 2002: Counting the Human Cost, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 112.

8. Ibid., p. 109

9. Small Arms Survey 2001: Profiling the Problem, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 145.

10. Adopted by the 8th UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, 1990.

11. Adopted by General Assembly resolution 34/169 of 17 December 1979.