Small Arms and the UN Conference: Forging International Norms

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2000 Volume 21 Issue 3

In 2001 the United Nations will host a world conference to address one of the planet’s most potent killers – the small arms and light weapons that account for up to 90 per cent of all combat deaths (more than half of which are civilians) in today’s wars. Politically and technically complex, the control of small arms will require unprecedented levels of cooperation among governments and civil society, not to mention some fundamental changes in attitudes. Will another UN conference be up to the task?

Small arms and light weapons are, for the most part, legal. Most are manufactured in legal facilities, both publicly and privately owned, and adults most of the world over have the right to own and use a variety of firearms in a variety of circumstances. Moreover, these realities are not about to change. Small arms will not be banned, nor will we see a global movement to try to ban them. Yet small arms and light weapons are a preeminent threat to human security, personal and collective.

This familiar paradox invites a comparison to tobacco use. Notwithstanding tobacco=s threat to personal and public well-being, it is entirely legal in most of the world and adults have a right to smoke a variety of types in a variety of circumstances. And just as tobacco=s threat to public safety is addressed through increasing regulation, so too with small arms. It has been a decades-long undertaking to develop broad awareness of the health and social costs of tobacco, and the process of building public awareness of, and an informed response to, the widespread and destructive circulation and use of small arms is and will continue to be similarly slow and arduous. As regulations and controls do begin to take hold in some locations, those who profit from the small arms market are quick to exploit jurisdictions and conditions where control is least effective. “Like tobacco, small arms and light weapons tend to be marketed … where social protections have been severely eroded” (emphasis added, Epps 1998, Foreword).

Indeed, if the objective of the 2001 “United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” and the gathering international campaign to address problems of small arms and light weapons were to be summed up in a single phrase, it would be to establish, strengthen, or recover social and legal protections from small arms abuse.

This conference will try to advance international understanding and consensus, and action, around what are essentially four primary approaches to small arms management and control:

  • norms to restrict possession and use;
  • conditions that reduce demand for possession and use;
  • laws to codify and implement norms on possession and use; and
  • capacity for the effective enforcement of laws and regulations.

Restricting possession and use

Legal though they may be, the extraordinary human destruction carried out with small arms, whether in the context of social-political conflict, crime, or suicides, calls for public policies to restrict their possession and use, just as the extraordinary human costs of widespread tobacco use warrant severe restrictions on smoking. Public safety is incompatible with unrestrained tobacco or gun use, and in the case of guns, there is a gradually emerging international understanding that governments have a responsibility to define more clearly the limited circumstances under which gun possession and use are acceptable, or unacceptable. And that need for public policy to define what small arms can be legally owned by whom and for what purpose applies equally to individuals and states.

In the case of individuals there are already obvious and widely applied restrictions on the kinds of firearms to which civilians should have access. It comes down to just three key questions:

  • Which small arms may be legally owned?
  • Who can own these arms? and
  • In what circumstances, and for what purposes, may these arms be used?

The kinds of weapons that individual civilians may own vary widely among jurisdictions, and there is currently no established international norm on civilian possession and use of firearms. The United Kingdom, for example, prohibits all private ownership of handguns, the United States permits civilians access to not only hand guns but a variety of military-style weapons. Most states are somewhere in between. In an effort to introduce international standards and to curb illicit trafficking, some have proposed a global prohibition on civilian ownership of any automatic weapons or assault rifles and beyond. Current UN efforts to negotiate a Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime emphasize the need for all states to regulate civilian possession of small arms, but the current draft does not prescribe any minimum regulation.

As to the question of which individuals can own legal weapons, obviously not all persons have equal access to weapons that are defined as legal. Age restrictions usually apply, as do restrictions on persons convicted of violent crimes. In some jurisdictions prior training is required before weapons can be legally acquired. Again, part of the international objective is to develop uniform international standards on access to small arms.

The distinction between licit and illicit use is drawn by national laws and criminal codes. The most obvious legitimate civilian use of small arms is for sporting activities and hunting. In certain extreme instances, elements of the international community offer political recognition of the legitimacy of civilian use of weapons to defend themselves against tyrannous states.

The broad categories of restrictions on civilian possession and use apply also to states. While these are usually self-defined by states, there are some internationally defined limits on the rights of states to acquire weapons. Weapons of mass destruction are prohibited. No states may possess chemical or biological weapons. Non-nuclear weapons states party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons, while nuclear weapons states in the NPT are under legal obligation to eliminate their arsenals. There are also absolute prohibitions on some arms in the small arms and light weapons (SALW) category, notably anti-personnel landmines and certain excessively injurious weapons. (It=s against the law to design bullets to shred on impact, causing lacerations, etc., rather than a neat hole.) The quantities of weapons that states can legitimately possess are also limited. While these are not limits in law, excessive and destabilizing accumulations of weapons have been defined by the international community as illegitimate or illicit, under the general proviso that levels of armaments should not exceed those required for legitimate defence and security needs.

And not all states have the same rights. Under international law and the UN Charter all states are entitled to possess armaments consistent with national defence, but international practice has regularly asserted that the right to acquire legal weapons is not unlimited. Arms transfer policies generally include provisions, even if they are not consistently applied, to restrict weapons transfers to states that are in serious violations of human rights standards, and that are a threat to regional peace and stability. The proposed Nobel Laureates arms transfer Code seeks to expand and regularize such restrictions by gaining international support for a strict code of conduct that would commit suppliers not to supply arms to states in serious violation of the provisions of the code. In some instances the UN Security Council establishes arms embargos. In other instances, states within a region may agree to limits on acquisitions within that region (e.g., the West Africa moratorium on import, export, and manufacture of SALW).

There are also limits on the purposes for which states may use weapons. In fact, the UN Charter confines legitimate use to self-defence. In other words, some uses, beyond legitimate self-defence, are illegitimate or illicit B notably, aggression, repression, and violence against civilians.

This overview of big and small arms shows that they are extensively regulated. So the primary international agenda related to small arms is to refine, define, and advance such restrictions and regulations, and to ensure that all states have adequate laws and enforcement capacity to make such restrictions and regulations effective and universal.

The obstacles are enormous. Before states can promulgate legislation on small arms according to international standards, those standards or norms must themselves be articulated and receive broad international political support. And before more restricted legislation can be effectively implemented, conditions conducive to effective law enforcement and to reducing the demand for small arms must be created B hence, the second prominent focus of the international community on small arms is reduction of demand.

Reducing demand

The control of small arms depends ultimately on social and political conditions that discourage their possession and use. Even in the context of emerging international norms and growing clarity about appropriate possession and use of small arms and light weapons, as long as conditions are such that individuals, communities, and states consider themselves with no options but to acquire and use such weapons, regulations alone will not prevent illicit possession and use. While some weapons are used simply and unambiguously for criminal purposes (which in turn calls for effective law enforcement), many individuals and states do acquire and use them because they genuinely consider themselves to have no other option B that their lives and well-being depend on access to such arms. Small arms are seen to expand the options of the individual user. As long as such a belief is widely and deeply held, regulation will be inadequate. Effective control requires social, political, and economic change that creates other options and reduces the need for, the demand for, small arms. Supply and demand factors are closely linked. A primary instrument for reducing demand is reducing supply. The ready availability of weapons generates additional demand as individuals and states seek to protect themselves from the weapons held by others. So measures to limit the acquisition of weapons B the supply B are themselves essential to reducing demand. But current high levels of demand are not only the result of militarized societies; societies also become weaponized in response to the lack of social, economic, and political options.

The need for social, economic, and political change to generate alternative options, alternatives to the resort to violence, requires a whole range of peacebuilding and development measures. The founding document of the International NGO Action Network on Small Arms and Light Weapons (IANSA) refers to several additional kinds of initiatives, beyond broad programs of arms control and human development, that can be taken to reduce demand, including:

  • education and awareness-building programs to reverse cultures of violence, promote cultures of peace;
  • creating international norms and cultural attitudes against the possession of guns;
  • programs to reintegrate former combatants into local society and provide real economic opportunities;
  • address the issue of impunity;
  • link small arms control and collection programs specifically to local economic development and anti-poverty measures.

Later this year Project Ploughshares will work with the Quaker UN office and local partners in the Horn of Africa on identifying specific actions and policies designed to mitigate the demand for small arms.

Codifying norms

As the international political community begins to articulate and build consensus around certain norms on possession and use of small arms, individual states face the challenging process of codifying those norms in national laws. Here too international action can help to identify specific laws that ought to be enacted by any state that wishes to seriously support the international effort to deal with the small arms problem. Needed are laws to regulate domestic possession and use by civilians and policies to limit public acquisitions to levels mandated by legitimate security requirements.

With the limits to possession defined, and with conditions that trigger extraordinary demand identified and targeted for action, focus can then be widened to include regulation of the acquisition process itself. Besides regulating domestic manufacturing, the regulation of transfers requires domestic licensing (to regulate internal domestic transfers to civilian recipients) and an effective code of conduct to restrict international transfers. There has been some resistance to including controls on legal transfers within the scope of the UN conference, which specifically defines “illicit” small arms as its focus. Others argue, however, that it is impossible to address “illicit” arms without first defining what is “licit.” For example, legally transferred weapons become illicit when they are diverted into the black or grey markets and used illegally; thus any attention to illicit weapons must take into account the levels and effectiveness of controls on legal transfers. The 1997 UN Panel Report (UN 1997) defines “illicit trafficking” as “international trade in conventional arms which is contrary to the laws of states and/or international law,” and since the code of conduct on arms transfers is designed to clarify the limits to legal transfers (both in terms of national laws and international humanitarian laws) it is essential to clarifying the meaning of illicit transfers.

It should also be noted that the international community has also expanded the concept of “illicit” arms to include weapons transferred in such quantities and to such destinations as would contribute to excessive and destabilizing accumulations of arms. While such transfers are not strictly illegal, they are inappropriate and hence are properly regarded as illicit and are properly the subject of the 2001 conference.

The first meeting of the conference Preparatory Committee indicated that there is widespread support among states for dealing at a global level with measures to restrict and regulate according to global norms the international transfer of small arms. These views did not find their way into any Committee document due to the strict insistence by some states, such as China, that the conference deal only with narrowly defined illicit transfers.

Effective enforcement

Regulations must be enforced to be effective, and the places where small arms problems are most severe are also the places where enforcement capacity is most impaired. Therefore it is widely acknowledged that prevention of illicit action involves, in addition to enforcing regulations related to possession, use, manufacture, and transfers of weapons, measures to enhance law enforcement. This necessarily involves reform of the security sector (reform of the regulators) through the development of high law enforcement standards (notably respect for human rights and humanitarian law), expanding capacity, and regulating private security firms

In addition, a variety of measures are required to reduce the risk of surplus weapons moving out of effective control. Thus effective regulation and safe storage of existing inventories are required through measures such as inventory management, secure storage, the destruction of surplus and confiscated weapons; and weapons collection programs.

Illicit trafficking in weapons can be addressed through effective regulation of brokers and dealers, through marking weapons so that they can be traced, and with greater transparency in the manufacturing, acquisition, and holdings of public weapons.

The 2001 conference

The 1999 Report of the Group of Governmental Experts “recommends that the objective of the Conference should be to develop and strengthen international efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. To this end, the aims of the Conference should be to:

a) Strengthen or develop norms at the global, regional and national levels that would reinforce and further coordinate efforts to prevent and combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects;

b) Develop agreed international measures to prevent and combat illicit arms trafficking in and manufacturing of small arms and light weapons and to reduce excessive and destabilizing accumulations and transfers of such weapons throughout the world, with particular emphasis on the regions of the world where conflicts come to an end and where serious problems with the proliferation of small arms and light weapons have to be dealt with urgently;

c) Mobilize the political will throughout the international community to prevent and combat illicit transfers in and manufacturing of small arms and light weapons in all their aspects, and raise awareness of the character and seriousness of the interrelated problems associated with illicit trafficking in and manufacture of small arms and lights weapons and the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and spread of these weapons;

d) Promote responsibility by States with regard to a broad range of measures to reinforce and further coordinate the export, import, transit and retransfer of small arms and efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in light weapons.” (UN 1999c, Paras 125 and 126)

IANSA has emphasized the importance of the conference. If successful, its political impact could be substantial, demonstrating the level of political will that has developed in the international community in support of small arms measures. “If it succeeds in developing an effective programme of action it could be the starting point of a deeper international commitment to and understanding of small arms issues”(IANSA 2000). At the same time IANSA warns that if it fails it “could jeopardize further international action on small arms, consigning the issue to the political wasteland.”

The first meeting of the Preparatory Committee achieved very little. It deferred a decision on the date and venue of the conference itself and did not inspire high expectations for the overall success of the 2001 Conference. There have already been some comparisons to the landmines process B a process that was bogged down in the UN system and unable to find agreement. As a result, a few states decided to take the issue outside the established forum and create a new, independent track, which turned out to be a fast track that led to early agreement. Similarly, if the 2001 conference fails to make effective progress in defining and building commitment to a global small arms action plan, then some states may again decide to pursue the issue outside the current framework and try to develop a second faster track. Debate at the Committee indicated widespread support for an ambitious action agenda, but the lack of consensus blocked any progress in defining that agenda, revealing instead, as already noted, fundamental disagreements among states over the scope (UN 2000a).

The Committee did request that the UN Secretary-General (para 14 of report) carry out a study “on the feasibility of restricting the manufacture and trade of small arms and light weapons to the manufacturers and dealers authorized by States,” with the study to “cover the brokering activities, particularly illicit activities, relating to small arms and light weapons, including transportation agents and financial transactions” (UN 2000b). That Group was subsequently established and has been meeting, with Canada=s former Ambassador for Disarmament, Peggy Mason, as chair.

The role of civil society and the 2001 conference

So far the preparatory process has not included any formally recognized participation by civil society. The General Assembly (UN 1999a) asked the PrepComm to “take a decision on the modalities of attendance of non-governmental organizations at its sessions,” but the first session of the PrepComm decided to defer that decision (UN 2000b, Para 15).

Even so, the importance of civil society in addressing small arms issues is now widely acknowledged. The Group of Experts Report (UN 1999c) recommends that the UN “facilitate appropriate cooperation with civil society Y in activities related to small arms and light weapons, in view of the important role that civil society plays in efforts to raise awareness of and address the problems associated with such weapons” (Para 105). The same paragraph notes the establishment of IANSA in October 1998. The report also recommended “that in deciding on the timetable for the conference, the preparatory committee provide opportunities for the presentations by representatives of civil society” (para 135).

The UN Security Council action on small arms (UN 1999b) “welcome[d] and encourage[d] efforts to prevent and combat the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of and illicit trafficking in small arms and invite[d] Member States to involve civil society in these efforts.” The UN Secretary-General, commenting on preparations for the 2001 conference, noted that “the preparatory process would gain from receiving the views of representatives of non-governmental organizations, the academic community and other members of civil society” (UN 1999d, para 9). In addition, the small arms resolution passed by the UN General Assembly Dec. 15/99, recognized the “role of civil society, including non-governmental organizations, in preventing and reducing the excessive and destabilising accumulations of small arms and light weapons” and called for the modalities of NGO attendance to be agreed during the first Preparatory Committee (UN 1999a).

Regional processes have also recognized the importance of civil society generally in addressing the small arms issue. The Nairobi Declaration of the March 12-15, 2000 meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa Regions (see sidebar) pledged the signatories to “join efforts to address the problem, recognizing the need for transparency, information sharing and co-operation in all matters relating to small arms and light weapons including the promotion of research and data collection in the region and encouraging co-operation among governments and civil society,” and recognized that “the effective implementation of the program of action agreed at this conference requires the co-operation of the United Nations, international organizations, regional organizations, individual states and civil society in preventing and reducing the excessive and destabilizing accumulations of small arms and light weapons…”(Nairobi Declaration 2000).

IANSA has taken the initiative to press for extensive civil society involvement in the 2001 Conference and preparatory sessions, and in cooperation with the UN NGO disarmament committees in New York and Geneva has written to all governments to urge the adoption of the proposals for extensive NGO participation in the 2001 conference and the preparatory process. IANSA called for a process that is open and allows for a broad range of contributions from civil society to be heard. IANSA calls on the Department of Disarmament Affairs to facilitate accreditation for all the sessions (prepcomms, inter-sessional meetings, and the conference itself) for NGOs with ECOSOC and DPI accreditation (but also extending participation to NGOs not affiliated with the UN in any way) (IANSA 2000).

In particular, the rules for civil society participation should include:

  • adherence to General Assembly Rule 60 which calls for all meetings to be open to the public;
  • opportunities for representatives of civil society organizations to participate in all prepcomm and inter-sessional meetings, including the making of statements to all meetings, receiving all paper and working documents, and distributing their own documents to all delegations;
  •  testimony from NGO specialists in discussions where that expertise can be of assistance;
  • a civil society observer delegation to be established by IANSA and the UN NGO committee on disarmament, in consultation with the Chair of the prepcomm, to participate in the preparatory process.

Governments are also requested to add NGO representatives to their delegations.



Epps, Dwain 1999, Small Arms: Big Impact, A Challenge to the Churches (Consultation on Microdisarmament, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May.

IANSA 2000, AA background briefing for IANSA NGOs, May.

Nairobi Declaration 2000, Statement of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the Great Lakes Region and Horn of Africa namely, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and United Republic of Tanzania, meeting at Nairobi on 12-15 March, 2000 on the occasion of the Great Lakes Region and Horn of Africa Conference on the Proliferation of Small Arms.

UN 2000a, Press Release DC/2687, Mar 3.

UN 2000b, Report of the PrepComm=s First Session, Feb 23-Mar 3, A/Conf.192/PC/9.

UN 1999a, General Assembly Res. 54/54 V, Dec 15.

UN 1999b, Security Council Resolution, S/PRST/1999/28, Sept 24/99

UN 1999c, Group of Governmental Experts Report, A/54/258, Aug. 27

UN 1999d, Statement of the Secretary-General, A/54/260, Aug 20.

UN 1997, Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, A/52/298, Aug. 27.

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