The Illicit Trade in Small Arms: Addressing the problem of diversion

Tasneem Jamal

Wendy Cukier

This paper was prepared for the Small Arms Working Group of Peacebuild. The paper is part of a series that explores key policy areas for Canadian government attention at the July 2008 United Nations Third Biennial Meeting of States to Consider Implementation of the PoA (programme of action on small arms and light weapons). The papers were first presented at a meeting between SAWG and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada in April 2008. The support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is gratefully acknowledged.

Over the last decade, considerable attention has been paid to the global problem of the illicit trafficking of small arms. This paper will analyse the points of diversion and potential mechanisms to prevent diversion using a demand-and-supply framework. Concrete cases are examined to understand the contributing factors and ways in which the Programme of Action addresses these. The paper is structured in four parts: 1) Background, 2) Mechanisms of Diversion, 3) Measures to Reduce Diversion, and 4) Conclusions.

The principal findings of the paper are:

1) Increasingly the evidence reaffirms the importance of understanding the root causes of political and criminal violence that drive the demand for illicit small arms. Where demand is strong because of acute insecurity, efforts to reduce diversion by increasing controls over the licit supply are less likely to be successful. Factors driving the demand for small arms include demographics, governance problems; weak and corrupt law enforcement; human rights violations; civil and identity conflicts and the failure of states to protect the vulnerable; social and economic disparities; inadequate post-conflict disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants; and cultural attitudes.

2) Although the definitions vary by context, “licit” small arms are those possessed by states, police, and civilians in accordance with existing international conventions as well as national laws. “Illicit” small arms are those which are possessed in violation of existing international conventions and/or national laws. These may include small arms in the hands of states that are subject to UN Security Council sanctions or regional/subregional embargos or moratoria, or small arms in the hands of non-state actors, as well as small arms illicitly possessed by civilians. The distinctions and interactions between licit and illicit are complex.

Distinguishing between licit/ illicit small arms sales is a function of

  • the status of the buyer (entitled or proscribed);
  • the status of the seller (licensed or unlicensed);
  • the status of the weapon (licit or illicit model, licitly acquired or stolen, licit/illicit manufacture); and
  • the details of the transaction (formal or informal).

3) While in some regions there is local craft production of illicit small arms, most illicit small arms begin as licit small arms. Diversion occurs through a variety of means, including: illegal manufacture or reactivation of deactivated weapons, illicit sales by states, illegal brokering, illegal sales by dealers, illegal sales by civilians, theft from state and civilian stockpiles, and illicit importation.

4) A review of cases reveals a wide variety of mechanisms to facilitate illicit sales, including the absence of appropriate controls, falsification of documents and inadequate implementation, and a limited capacity for enforcement.

5) Measures that address licit trade, possession, and use—whether by states, police and other public security agents, or civilians—are essential to reduce the risk that licit small arms will be diverted to licit markets or purposes. A principal purpose of international sanctions and embargos, conventions, programs of action, and national regulations that follow from them is to reduce the risk that licit small arms will be diverted to illicit markets and purposes.

  • When the demand for small arms is strong, measures controlling supply will be less effective. The demand for illicit small arms is driven by factors such as socioeconomic-political disparity, culture, and insecurity and an effective strategy must also strike at the root causes of small arms violence.
  • The PoA includes a number of elements intended to reduce the diversion of small arms, including import/export/transit controls, end-use certificates, controls on brokering, and national legislation.
  • Marking small arms at manufacture and at permanent import is essential to ensure that illicit small arms can be distinguished from licit small arms, to support tracing of illicit small arms that helps identify points of diversion, and to support prosecution
    of violations.
  • Without effective follow-up, the fact remains that implementation, enforcement mechanisms, international embargoes, conventions, and programs of action, as well as regional agreements and national laws, are essentially words on paper.
  • Follow-up and review are essential to ensure that countries fulfill their obligations. Enforcement is critical. This includes measures to support the detection, investigation, and prosecution of violations.
  • Support for implementation is essential to ensure that appropriate economic, operational, technical, and political issues are effectively addressed.
  • Policies, practices, and resources must be in place to ensure that illicit small arms are collected, stored securely, inventoried, traced, and eventually destroyed.
  • There is still limited empirical evidence. More data collection and analysis are required to refine our understanding of the methods and mechanisms of diversion, as well as the interventions most effective in reducing small arms trafficking.

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