Background Release

6 July 2001


NEW YORK, 5 July (UN Headquarters) -- The United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects will be held at Headquarters from 9 to 20 July, to address the increasing threat to human security from the spread of small arms and light weapons and their illegal trade.

The General Assembly, which had placed the issue of small arms and light weapons on the international agenda since the mid-1990s, decided, by its resolution 54/54 V of 15 December 1999, to convene the Conference. It also established a preparatory committee and requested it to recommend a draft final document for the Conference.

While there are no universally accepted definitions of "small arm" and "light weapon", a United Nations study in 1997 came up with working definitions that have wide support. A small arm is one that can be fired, maintained and transported by one person, while a light weapon is used by a small crew and transported on a light vehicle or pack animal. The two categories include such weapons as pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

The Conference, to be held at the ministerial level, will aim to find ways to curb and eliminate illicit trafficking in such weapons. It is not about outlawing the legal manufacture or trade of these weapons, nor their legal, private ownership. Its outcome will be a politically binding declaration, containing a programme of action with measures that States can take at the national, regional and international levels.

Small arms and light weapons were the weapons of choice in 46 of 49 major conflicts since 1990. They have devastated many societies, caused incalculable human suffering, and continue to pose an enormous humanitarian challenge. The United Nations addresses small arms in the context of such issues as the protection of civilians in armed conflict; children and armed conflict; and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants in a peacekeeping environment.

An estimated 50 to 60 per cent of the world's trade in small arms is legal, but legally exported weapons often find their way into the illicit market. This includes leftovers from the cold war, especially in developing countries -- some 10 million in Afghanistan alone. Arms stolen or captured from State security forces provide another major source of black market supply around the world. The problem is compounded by irresponsible behaviour on the part of some States and lack of capacity to detect and seize illicit weapons by others.

The low cost of small arms makes them affordable to actors beyond the State. They can be hidden easily, and even young children can use them with minimal training. Small arms and light weapons would not be lethal without their ammunition. Ammunition, explosives and explosive devices form an integral part of small arms and light weapons used in conflicts. Anti-personnel landmines are also considered small arms, but are not being dealt with by the Conference as other international forums have taken that question up as a separate issue.

In his Millennium Report, the Secretary-General noted that controlling the proliferation of illicit weapons is a necessary first step towards the non-proliferation of small arms. He maintained that small arms and light weapons must be brought under the control of States, and States must be held accountable for their transfer.

While the Preparatory Committee and the Conference is dealing with the destabilizing accumulation and spread of military-style small arms and light weapons within the context of international security and disarmament, another negotiating process took place in Vienna, Austria. On 2 March 2001, delegations agreed on a legally binding Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, which is designed to supplement the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, signed in Palermo in December 2000.

Once entered into force, the Protocol will provide an international law- enforcement mechanism for crime prevention and the prosecution of traffickers. Among other things, it includes articles establishing internationally recognized standards and provisions regarding marking, record-keeping and import/export control of firearms.

Conference Documents

Among the documents before the Conference is a note by the Secretary-General containing the report of the Group of Governmental Experts established pursuant to Assembly resolution 54/54 V of 15 December 1999, entitled "Small arms" (document A/CONF.192/2). In May 2000, the Secretary-General appointed a panel of governmental experts from the following countries -- Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Egypt, France, India, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Russian Federation, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States -- to carry out a study on the feasibility of restricting the manufacture and trade of such weapons.

The Group set out to identify and evaluate existing and new approaches at the national, regional and global levels. The areas addressed include manufacturing, stockpiles and surplus weapons, and trade, including brokering and related activities. The challenge is to restrict the possibility of irresponsible transfers from licensed production facilities without compromising the legitimate security and commercial interests that underpin such arrangements.

One option, according to the report, is to clearly underline that licensed manufacture is subject to the authority of the State within which the manufacture takes place. Secondly, the same considerations that apply to export licensing of small arms and light weapons should also apply to the grant of permissions for licensing small arms and light weapons production abroad. The effectiveness of measures to regulate legitimate manufacture is increased when accompanied by complementary measures to combat and prevent illicit production.

Stockpiles and surplus weapons might be a source for illicit trade in some cases, the report states. Among the options for limiting the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons from stockpiles and surpluses are the destruction of all illicitly trafficked weapons that are seized, collected or confiscated, and the marking or destruction of all unmarked or inadequately marked weapons. Adequate record-keeping at the national level relating to stockpiling and transfer is key, and regular inventory-taking may give governments a much clearer picture of their deployed, deactivated or missing equipment.

The report states that the legal trade and transfer of arms is and will remain in the foreseeable future an essential means of meeting States’ security needs and concerns. International transfer is often facilitated by arms brokers, who provide an important service for both the seller and the buyer. However, in some areas, by exploiting existing legislative and administrative gaps and unregulated grey areas, they facilitate illicit deals. Effective national systems to control the export, import, transfer, transit and retransfer of small arms and light weapons and associated ammunition and explosives were crucial to counter that challenge.

At the very least, says the report, States could require specific authorization for dealing in small arms and light weapons and require dealers to maintain records on what is in stock and what was sold. Dealers should also be required to have small arms and light weapons marked at the stage of import, if markings are inadequate or non-existent. As for international trade, States could establish export and import control regimes, based on trade documentation resistant to fraud and misuse.

A small arms and light weapons register could be established, adds the report, at the national level to assist information-gathering and information-sharing. One option could be to extend this register to the regional level. While the option of a United Nations register was discussed, significant opposition continues to exist to a global register on the basis that it is premature and the provision of such sensitive information could undermine, not enhance, national security.

The report notes that in developing regulations and controls on brokering and related activities, States have several options to consider, such as registration, licensing and disclosure requirements.

Also before the Conference were the reports of the Preparatory Committee (document A/CONF.192/1), as well as a note verbale from the Permanent Mission of Chile to the United Nations transmitting the communiqué of the Rio Group on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects (document A/CONF.192/3). The provisional agenda of the Conference is contained in document A/CONF.192/L.2, and the provisional rules of procedure in document A/CONF.192/L.1.

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