The UN and an Emerging Small Arms Agenda

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor September 1999 Volume 20 Issue 3

The effort to control the further spread of small arms, and to build societies in which individual citizens and communities are spared the impulse to turn to the criminal and political use of arms for personal advantage or personal and communal security, will be one of the key indicators of how well the world is able to implement the emerging peacebuilding and human security agendas. Recent action by the UN Security Council and the Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms offer a glimpse of how well the international community is facing up to the small arms challenge.

By all accounts the September 1999 report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms did not come easily. Created to offer an initial assessment of progress made in implementing the 1997 recommendations on small arms put forward by an earlier UN panel, the Experts Group experienced first hand the reality of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s conclusion that “there is probably no single tool of conflict so widespread, so easily available, and so difficult to restrict, as small arms.” The British American Security Information Council reports that the Experts Group encountered some resistance to efforts to develop precise definitions on such basic concepts as “illicit trade,” and failed to build on earlier concepts like the link between security and development (BASIC 1999). But for all that, the report of the Group (which included a Canadian disarmament and arms control official) reflects at least two important achievements – it confirms the continuing emergence of a small arms agenda (focussing in this case on military-style small arms), and it makes some progress in defining a constructive focus for the proposed 2001 international governmental conference on small arms.

A priority action agenda

This most recent Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (UN 1999, referred to here as the Experts’ Report) addresses the key issues and action priorities that have emerged onto the international small arms agenda, including:

• the problem of illicit trafficking,

• the need for greater restraint in official transfers,

• the need for clear domestic regulations on the possession and use of military and police-style weapons,

• provisions for post-conflict disarmament and demobilization, and the destruction of surplus stocks, and

• the need to link security and development in the interests of advancing measures to reduce demand.

Illicit trafficking

The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials came into force in 1998 and has in effect become the international standard for regional cooperation in efforts to curb small arms trafficking. While it too lacks precision in key areas and fails to define clear international norms on prohibited weapons, the convention outlines provisions for cooperation and more effective information sharing among law enforcement agencies in the region, and sets requirements for marking weapons at the time of manufacture in order to facilitate tracing and identification. The Experts’ Report repeats earlier calls on all states to make reliable marking a requirement in the production process, to confiscate all unmarked weapons, and then to either mark or destroy them (UN 1999, paras 115-117).

The report is especially helpful in reinforcing the notion that “illicit transfers” are not confined to “illegal” transfers, but include legal transfers that create excessive and destabilizing accumulations. In the context of defining the scope of the planned (for 2001) international conference on “the illicit trade in small arms,” the experts include in illicit transfers those legal transfers which contribute to such excessive and destabilizing accumulations, concluding that illicit trade is “not… limited to criminal breaches of existing arms legislation and export/import controls” (UN 1999, para 132). In its September 24, 1999 session on small arms, the UN Security Council picked up the same theme by recognizing the urgent need to “prevent and combat the excessive and destabilizing accumulation” of small arms in regions of tension. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced at the same session that “the United States will refrain from selling arms to regions of conflict not already covered by arms embargoes,” and encouraged other states to also observe such moratoria.

Restraint in legal transfers

Official attention to legal arms transfer restraints is inevitably placed in the context of reaffirmations of the right of self defence (Article 51 of the UN Charter), and this was certainly the case when the Security Council emphasized in its September session “that small arms are traded globally for legitimate security and commercial considerations.” The Council then went on to underline the “vital importance of effective national regulations and controls on small arms transfers.” The Experts’ Report reinforces that call and refers to a variety of mechanisms such as end-user certificates and controls on brokers (UN 1999, para 113), but virtually none of these universal calls for restraint offer any counsel, much less requirements, on criteria for restricting transfers. The international code of conduct on arms transfers put forward by a group of Nobel Peace laureates (see the June 1999 Monitor) articulates a strict and compelling set of criteria, but the broader international community has at this point not managed to go beyond relatively gentle affirmations of the virtues of restraint.

On those occasions when the international community does reach consensus on the need to block arms transfers to a particular state or region, the resulting embargoes frequently have a limited impact, and both the Security Council and the Experts’ Report call for more effective implementation of arms embargoes. The Security Council has asked the Chairman of the Sanctions Committee to explore enforcement mechanisms. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy told the Security Council that in addition to embargoes on the weapons, sanctions should also target the illicit trade in goods that pay for the arms (e.g., illegal diamond sales in Angola).

The West African Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons continues to be offered as a model of regional restraint among recipient countries. A Canadian, Col. (Ret’d) Douglas Fraser of the Canadian Council for International Peace and Security, formerly an official of the UN disarmament division, is a member of the moratorium Advisory Group. Col. Fraser reports that the effectiveness of the moratorium must have a mixed review in light of the continuing tensions in the region, but that the discussions of arms control and security cooperation generated in the region by the moratorium agreement have already served to reduce tensions (see Ploughshares Working Paper 99-2). In September the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs held a workshop in Accra on the establishment of an arms register and database in Africa. In an opening address, the vice-president of Ghana called for the West African moratorium to be extended to all of Africa by means of a formal convention.

Domestic regulation

All small arms reports and policy prescriptions now include the need for appropriate national legislation, regulations, licensing arrangements, and administrative procedures to strictly regulate individual possession, use, and transfer of small arms, but the Experts Group went a step further to recommend that states “consider the prohibition of unrestricted trade and private ownership of small arms and light weapons specifically designed for military purposes, such as automatic guns (e.g. assault rifles and machine-guns)” (UN 1999, para 120). This recommendation builds on a proposal put forward for discussion by Mr. Axworthy in 1998 to prohibit the transfer of military small arms to non-state actors. While some NGOs objected to the proposal on grounds that in extreme cases civilians have a right to take up arms against regimes guilty of gross violations of human rights, or on grounds that it implied that transfers to states were acceptable even when states used such weapons in violation of human rights and humanitarian laws and standards, the idea was picked up by the European Union, which included in its joint action on small arms the commitment that EU states will “supply small arms only to governments (either directly or through duly licensed entities authorized to procure weapons on their behalf) in accordance with appropriate international and regional restrictive arms export criteria” (EU 1998, Article 3.b).

The Experts’ Report now goes beyond restrictions on international transfers of such weapons to individual or other non-state actors to suggest, at least by implication, the establishment of an international norm against any private ownership of automatic weapons. Discussions in some quarters in the NGO community are exploring the possibility of moving forward with an international landmines-style campaign to make such a prohibition on personal possession, use, and transfer of automatic weapons the subject of a universally binding convention.

Disarmament and demobilization and destruction of surplus arms

The Experts’ Report repeats widely accepted acknowledgements that disarmament, development, and weapons destruction are critical elements of post-conflict reconstruction. Returning troubled, war-torn states to places of at least minimal stability and security requires that surplus weapons be collected and destroyed, and that former combatants be reintegrated into society with some reasonable prospects for earning a livelihood and making a constructive contribution to peace restoration efforts. The Security Council called for disarmament, demobilization of combatants, and the destruction of surplus weapons to be written directly into peacekeeping mandates (albeit qualified with the phrases like, “as appropriate, …with the consent of the parties, and on a case-by-case basis”). The UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Robin Cook, emphasized the same point in his speech to the Security Council, listing as a priority the requirement that existing firearms that are not controlled must be impounded and destroyed.

Micro disarmament or gun collection programs have been and are being pursued in a brad range of post-conflict and pre-conflict contexts and the UN Peacekeeping Lessons Learned Unit is instrumental in developing best practices guidelines.

Linking security and development

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to effective small arms control is the failure of states nationally and collectively to establish social, political, and economic conditions that will reduce the demand for such weapons. It is now widely understood that development and the security of persons are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing conditions. The UN systems seems to have adopted the phrase “proportional and integrated approach to security and development,” with the Experts’ Report helpfully pointing out the somewhat troubling fact that “there is no agreed international definition of the concept” (UN 1999, paras 59 and 106).

On another level, of course, it is not much of a mystery. The failure of states to establish conditions in which citizens are able to meet their basic physical needs and are able to participate at some meaningful level in decisions that affect their lives is at the core of the kind of social and political unrest that leads to violence and makes development impossible. In such a climate, in which personal options are few, the resort to violence and the resort to arms in the vain attempt to protect one’s own family and community from the spreading violence is less than surprising. In other words, personal security is a prerequisite to sustainable development, just as development is the key to creating personal security.

The international development community has become seized of this organic link between security and development, and the Experts’ Report notes that organizations and agencies like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank are actively developing guidelines to promote best practices in integrating attention to peacebuilding, conflict resolution and prevention, and development in official development assistance programs (UN 1999, paras 35 and 36).

Security sector reform is also gaining prominence as an essential contribution to integrating security and development. The conduct and operations of security institutions and agencies themselves frequently contribute more to the insecurity of people and communities than to their security. Frequently dedicated to regime survival rather than to the protection of people, security institutions must increasingly become the focus of the same good governance standards as should apply to civilian institutions. Accountable civilian control over the security sector, transparency and accountability in budgets, and democratization of security policy-making are all critical to the development of security institutions that reliably serve the security needs of citizens, and thus become a key element of a society’s effort to reduce demand for private ownership of weapons.

The 2001 UN conference on small arms

In the context of a gradually emerging international consensus on the key small arms and light weapons issues facing communities, states, and the international community, there is now an urgent requirement for more coordinated international action and approaches. Within the UN system itself a mechanism for Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA) has been established “for the purposes of consultation, information exchange and priority setting among the United Nations departments and agencies” (UN 1999, para 31). In 1997 the UN General Assembly in resolution 53/77 E agreed to convene “an international conference on the illicit arms trade in all its aspects” no later than 2001 (UN 1999, para 122).

Just what the conference will focus on is now the subject of intense international discussion and negotiation. The Experts Group has made two important contributions to this discussion. First it recommends that the intent to focus on small arms be made explicit and therefore has called for the Conference title to be explicitly the “Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.” So, assuming the General Assembly adopts the recommendation (as the Security Council did in its September 24 statement “welcoming” the report’s recommendations), the conference will focus on small arms “manufactured to military specifications” (UN 1999, para 130). But the key question then is what is meant by “illicit trade…in all its aspects.” The Group wisely chose to encourage a broad scope. For example, the trade in weapons, it argues, is closely linked to the manufacture, acquisition, possession, use, and storage of weapons, so that all of these issues should be included in the work of the conference (UN 1999, para 131).

Most significantly, as already indicated, the Group takes a broad view of the meaning of “illicit.” In particular, the Group links illicit transfers to “excessive and destabilizing accumulations” and thereby legitimizes attention to legal or official arms transfers.

There are to be at least two sessions of the preparatory committee in advance of the conference, and Foreign Minister Axworthy, in his September 24 speech to the Security Council session on small arms, indicated Canada’s readiness to host at least one session of the preparatory meeting. The Experts’ Report has recommended that representatives of civil society be heard from in the preparatory process, and one of the things NGOs will be demanding is that civil society be given a meaningful role in the 2001 conference itself.



BASIC (British American Security Information Council) 1999, “UN small arms report paves path for 2001 conference,” BASIC Reports, Number 71, October 1.

EU (European Union) 1998, Joint Action on the European Union’s contribution to combating the destabilising accumulation and spread of small arms and light weapons, December.

UN (United Nations) 1999, Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, A/54/258, August 19.

Spread the Word