In many conflict zones, civilians live in fear of being killed, injured, sexually abused or forced to leave their homes. In these instances, "small arms and light weapons" – assault rifles, machine guns, grenades and mortars, among others – are often the weaponry used . It is therefore essential to implement international rules to control the availability of these and other conventional weapons.
The widespread and poorly regulated availability of arms facilitates violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and hampers the delivery of assistance to victims. Today, weapons are easily accessible to a wide variety of groups or individuals that may have no knowledge of or respect for IHL. When insecurity and threats prevent humanitarian agencies from providing aid, the situation can worsen for the civilian population.
Even when armed conflicts end, large numbers of weapons often remain in circulation, fuelling tensions, hindering reconciliation and making it more difficult to maintain peace. In many post-conflict settings, people may see no option to using their weapons to sustain themselves.
Furthermore , even in areas considered “at peace”, rates of violent death and injury are among the highest in the world.
What is urgently required is global regulation of the availability of all conventional arms, including small arms and light weapons and ammunition .
In 2001, the first United Nations conference to address the availability of small arms and light weapons adopted a global Programme of Action to “prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects”. While not legally binding, the Programme of Action commits governments to take a variety of measures to control the availability of these weapons. For example, the Programme of Action calls for secure management of national stocks of arms, regulation of arms brokering activities, and collection and destruction of surplus small arms and light weapons after conflicts.
From 2006 to 2013, States explored the elements required for a global, legally binding treaty dealing with transfers of conventional arms. On 2 April 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty, which establishes the highest possible common international standards for regulating the international trade in conventional arms. One of the explicit purposes of the treaty is to reduce human suffering . The treaty sets out standards that States must apply when authorizing transfers of arms, ammunition, and parts and components. Under the treaty, a country cannot transfer these items if it knows that the weapons would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or certain types of war crimes. Even short of such knowledge, a country must assess the risk of the weapons being used to commit serious violations of IHL or human rights law, and the country must deny arms exports if the risk is overriding.
In addition to all of these efforts having taken place at the global level, governments at regional and sub-regional levels have put in place various instruments regulating arms availability .