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Meeting of States on the the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, 10 July 2003: ICRC statement

10-07-2003 Statement

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, 7-11 July 2003, United Nations, New-York

Madam Chair,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on behalf also of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation (IFRC), welcomes this opportunity to address the First Biennial Meeting of States to consider the implementation of the UN Programme of Action. This meeting represents the first occasion to assess the progress made in the global efforts to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, to share experiences and lessons learned from the past two years, and based on those, to consider future priorities. The ICRC welcomes the wide range of activities that States have already undertaken to implement the Programme of Action, which have been presented during this meeting and in States'national reports. We urge States to continue their efforts with determination until the process yields its intended result of reducing the human suffering caused by this deadly trade. 

At present, hundreds of thousands of civilians are murdered, injured, sexually abused or displaced at the barrel of a gun every year. Humanitarian workers are also regularly killed, injured and abducted at gunpoint while doing their jobs. The ICRC, by the nature of its mandate to protect and assist victims of armed conflict, is a regular witness to the effects of such acts of armed violence in almost every environment where it works.

The widespread availability of small arms and light weapons makes our efforts to mitigate the effects of armed violence on civilian populations significantly more difficult. The use of weapons in incidents threatening and costing the lives of our staff are all too frequent, and our efforts to assist the civilian population are regularly delayed or suspended because of armed security threats. It has become increasingly challenging for the ICRC to promote respect for international humanitarian law as military weapons have become readily available to a wide range of “arms bearers” – armed groups, criminal networks, civilians and even child combatants – many with no knowledge of or respect for humanitarian law. As the technology of small arms and light weapons has developed to increase their accuracy, power and lethality, the consequences of violations have become more dramatic. These developments were documented by the ICRC in its study on Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict (1999). 

Madam Chair,

Since the adoption of the Programme of Action, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has continued to document and raise awareness of the human costs of unregulated arms availability and of the existing international rules and responsibilities related to weapons. It has urged governments to strengthen controls to make sure that weapons do not end up in the hands of those who violate humanitarian law. It has provided assistance and protection to populations affected by armed violence. Only a very brief description of our small arms-related activities is included here, with our full report to the Biennial Meeting available for those wishing further details.

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 governed by humanitarian law. As a means of limiting the availability of weapons to those likely to violate humanitarian law, the ICRC has in a variety of national and international fora urged States to integrate consideration of respect for humanitarian law in to arms-transfer decision-making. We are pleased to note the inclusion of such requirements in the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, the OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Wassenaar Arrangement's Best Practice Guidelines for Exports of Small Arms and Light Weapons, as well as the national arms export legislation of Germany and the United Kingdom. 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 global instruments on arms transfers should include a requirement to assess the recipient's likely respect for this body of law. Such assessments should be based on specific indicators.

Much of the civilian death, injury and suffering caused by the misuse of small arms and light weapons could be prevented if humanitarian law were fully complied with by those taking part in armed conflict. In this regard, the ICRC traditionally provides support and advice to States on the training of armed forces in humanitarian law. In recent years, it has expanded to provide training also for police and security forces. Our training programmes focus on rules of human rights and humanitarian law relevant to professional law enforcement practice, including those established in international human right treaties and key " soft-law " instruments like the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. The promotion of existing norms and principles can encourage correct and responsible conduct and reduce the risk of small arms misuse, thus increasing people's safety and security. This may in turn contribute to reducing the demand for weapons.

The ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also undertake a range of activities in the area of education and public awareness-raising, in order to promote adherence to and respect for hum anitarian law. Spreading knowledge of humanitarian law among children and adolescents is a priority, including to children at risk of being drawn into or already taking part in a conflict – such as child soldiers. ICRC also regularly conducts awareness programmes seeking to educate communities about the threat of mines and other explosive remnants of war. In areas affected by high levels of arms availability, such programmes have also included messages related to small arms and light weapons, informing communities about the dangers for example of handling weapons or storing them at home, in particular the risks to children.

The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which brings together the States party to the Geneva Conventions, all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the IFRC, and the ICRC, has in the past provided an opportunity to address the issue of arms availability from a uniquely humanitarian perspective. In December this year, the challenge of reducing the human suffering caused by small arms violence will once again be on the agenda at the 28th International Conference. 

Madam Chair,

The Programme of Action acknowledges " that the challenge posed by the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects is multi-faceted and involves, inter alia, security, conflict prevention and resolution, crime prevention, humanitarian, health and development dimensions " (Preamble, para. 15).


While 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 sma ll 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 components of the problem in order to identify and employ the most effective measures to reduce small arms violence. The majority of the efforts have so far 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 require further examining the range of dimensions already highlighted in the Programme of Action. 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.

Looking ahead, it is important to recognise that to fulfil its task, the 2006 Review Conference of the Programme of Action 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 measurable indicators of long-term success and extensive collection of reliable data, for example in the form of health and crime statistics. Those with appropriate expertise from governments, international agencies and relevant organisations should be invited to contribute actively to the implementation and possible future development of the Programme of Act ion.

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.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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