The United Nations and Small Arms and Light Weapons

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2002 Volume 23 Issue 4

Recent reports emanating from the United Nations point to increased government momentum for implementing the Programme of Action (PoA) that resulted from the 2001 UN conference on small arms and light weapons. Civil society should be encouraged by this and begin to consolidate their efforts in the lead-up to the Conference review meeting in July 2003.

Responding to a request by the Security Council, in September UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted his report (S/PRST/2002/21) on the status of the implementation of the PoA, reflecting consultations with 22 states, including all five Permanent Members of the Security Council.

The report is unabashed in its view that the small arms problem is one that the UN and Member States must address urgently, not least because these weapons wreak havoc around the world by increasing the lethality and duration of violence, encouraging a violent rather than a peaceful resolution of differences, and generating a vicious circle of a greater sense of insecurity, which in turn leads to a greater demand for and use of these weapons.

The statistics speak for themselves:

• An estimated 639 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation worldwide, nearly 60 per cent of them legally held by civilians.

• Five hundred thousand people die every year as a result of the use of small arms and light weapons.

• Four million people were killed in war during the 1990s, mainly as a result of the misuse of small arms and light weapons; 90 per cent of the victims were civilians, and 80 per cent of those were women and children.

According to the report, the effort to deal with the problems caused by the spread of small arms and light weapons “constitutes one of the key tasks of the Security Council in discharging its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The Secretary- General’s recommendations (see sidebar) highlight the ways Member States can move towards implementation of the PoA, with the Security Council undertaking concrete efforts to enhance the UN’s role. The report also stresses the importance of cooperation between member states – at national, regional, and international levels – and the need for financial resources to carry out practical disarmament programs.

In particular, arms embargoes are highlighted as having the potential to be one of the most effective UN instruments for preventing armed conflicts, reducing their destructiveness, and promoting peacebuilding. Therefore, strengthening the mechanisms available to the Security Council for the enforcement of arms embargoes is imperative.

At the same time Member States should bring their own national legislation into compliance with the Council’s. For instance, the report cites participation in the UN Register of Conventional Arms and a UN standardized instrument for reporting military expenditures as one way of ensuring compliance. But other confidence-building measures in the military and security domains to promote security and stability and reduce regional tensions could contribute to a reduction in military expenditures as well as restraint in arms acquisitions, thus increasing the availability of resources for social and economic development. The Council could also encourage States that have not done so to establish the necessary legislative or other measures, including the use of authenticated end-user certificates, to ensure effective control over the export and transit of small arms and light weapons.

To assist Member States, the Secretariat is considering the establishment of a small arms and light weapons advisory service (SAAS) within the Department of Disarmament Affairs, to be financed by extra budgetary resources. The main objectives of this unit would be threefold:

a) to provide relevant information on small arms and light weapons issues to Member States and all interested entities, as appropriate;

b) to ensure optimal coordination and harmonization of the Organization’s response, within the framework of the Coordinating Action on Small Arms mechanism, to requests for assistance by Member States in the field of small arms and light weapons; and

c) to ensure that the response is consistent with and builds upon the political framework embodied in the Programme of Action.

As envisioned by the Secretary-General, the SAAS would not develop an operational capacity but would provide advice, as appropriate, to operational agencies and assist them in the formulation and implementation of programs, particularly with regard to the conduct of assessment missions and monitoring activities. However, the main burden of financing will still fall to Member States. There remains a crucial gap between the wide range of initiatives outlined in the report and the PoA – from weapons collection projects to research and advocacy – and the funds available to carry them out.

Security Council response

The Security Council held a day-long meeting (SC/7528) during which support was shown for the Secretary-General’s report and various proposals were put forward to strengthen the Council’s role. Specifically, the Security Council supported proposals to develop an international mechanism for identifying and tracing small arms, and one to create a permanent mechanism for monitoring and enforcing arms embargoes and sanctions under the Council’s control. These mechanisms are in addition to what many Council Members felt were equally important disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DD&R) programs to deal with weapons already in circulation, as well as the inclusion of DD&R activities in peacekeeping mandates.

Many delegates at the meeting also stressed that regional efforts that were being undertaken should not go unrecognized and continued support for them should be forthcoming. Peace support offices in Central African Republic, Liberia, and Guinea-Bissau, and the UN Political Office in Bougainville, in particular, have been promoting arms control activities, including the combating of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, as an essential element of their conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was also highlighted as were the activities being undertaken by the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa sub-regions under the Nairobi Declaration.

In his capacity as Security Council President, Ambassador Martin Belinga-Eboutou of Cameroon issued a formal statement on October 31 (S/PRST/2002/30) that reiterates the issues brought up during the earlier debate and is generally supportive of the Secretary-General’s recommendations.

The Statement adds weight to the Security Council’s commitment to follow up on various initiatives. Member States should be encouraged to adopt legislative and other measures to ensure effective control over the export, import, transit, stockpiling, and storage of small arms and light weapons. An effective national end-user certificate system should be established, with the aim of developing an end-user certificate system at the regional and global levels. An information exchange and verification mechanisms should be set up. And, the Statement calls on States that have not already done so to establish a national register of arms brokers. Exporting countries, the Statement points out, have the responsibility to adopt adequate legislation and administrative procedures to ensure that legally manufactured and transferred small arms and light weapons are not diverted into illicit channels.

The other issue that is highlighted in the Presidential Statement is that of arms embargoes as an effective tool of preventive diplomacy. The Council underlines the importance of pursuing more vigorously the application of arms embargoes in countries or regions threatened by, engaged in, or emerging from armed conflict and of promoting their effective implementation. The Council shall also consider taking measures to restrict the supply of ammunition to such regions. Further, the Council emphasized the importance of establishing, on a case-by-case basis, specific monitoring mechanisms or similar arrangements, as appropriate, to oversee the strict implementation of arms embargoes. This work can be strengthened if Member States supply sanctions committees with available information on alleged violations of arms embargoes; and encourage relevant inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, business and financial institutions, and other actors at the international, regional, and local levels to do the same.

The statement also reiterates the importance of carrying out DD&R programs to address existing weapons supply and misuse.

Civil society response

The emergence of a strengthened partnership between States and civil society at the 2001 Conference should enable civil society input at the forthcoming Review Meeting scheduled for July 2003. The 2003 Review meeting will be an occasion for Member States to take stock of progress made in implementing the PoA, and to offer suggestions to further develop the measures contained therein. Canadian civil society, working with international partners and networks, should use the momentum being shown by the various UN bodies to consolidate their efforts in the lead-up to this meeting.

To this end, Project Ploughshares is working with the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee’s (CPCC) Small Arms Working Group (SAWG), a network of like-minded NGOs and other civil society organizations and individuals who are interested in dialoguing with the Canadian government on policy issues related to small arms and light weapons. A key element to this work is monitoring the Canadian government’s progress in implementing the PoA. SAWG members seek not only to influence decision-makers on this issue but also to learn from each other’s experiences and lessons learned, work on mutually beneficial projects, as appropriate, and network with others internationally through the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).
Sidebar: Recommendations of the Secretary-General

Recommendation 1

The Security Council may wish to call upon Member States to support efforts aimed at developing an international instrument to enable States to identify and trace, in a timely and reliable manner, illicit small arms and light weapons.

Recommendation 2

Member States should be called upon to use as required, and to provide technical and financial support to, the Interpol Weapons and Explosives Tracking System.

Recommendation 3

Member States that are in a position to assist the Secretariat in establishing the small arms advisory service, on the basis of extra budgetary resources, should be encouraged to do so.

Recommendation 4

The Council may wish to consider means by which its interaction with the General Assembly on issues relating to small arms might be enhanced, so as to promote the further development of long-term strategies to halt the scourge of the illicit proliferation of small arms within the framework of international efforts aimed at conflict prevention and peace-building, and in the context of the Programme of Action adopted at the July 2001 United Nations Conference on small arms.

Recommendation 5

Member States should be called upon to enforce all Council resolutions on sanctions, including those imposing arms embargoes, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, and to bring their own national legislation into compliance with the Council’s measures on sanctions. The Council may also wish to call upon all Member States to continue to make available to the appropriate United Nations bodies all pertinent information on any alleged violations of arms embargoes and to take appropriate measures to investigate such allegations.

Recommendation 6

The Council is strongly encouraged to continue its efforts aimed at identifying the links between the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and the illicit exploitation of natural and other resources, as well as the trade in illegal drugs, and to develop innovative strategies to address this phenomenon. In this connection, careful consideration should be given to the findings and recommendations of the bodies established to investigate such links, including the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Panel of Experts on Liberia and the Monitoring Mechanism on Sanctions against UNITA.

Recommendation 7

The Council is encouraged to call upon relevant parties to conflicts under its consideration to recognize the importance of activities related to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration in post-conflict situations, and of including such measures in the text of negotiated agreements. The Council is also urged to include in the mandate of peacekeeping operations clear provisions regarding the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, as well as specific measures for the collection and disposal of illicit and/or surplus small arms and light weapons.

Recommendation 8

The Council is further encouraged to consider strengthening the financing of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes through the expansion of measures covered under the budget for peacekeeping operations, thus ensuring that such activities are not entirely dependent upon voluntary contributions from Member States.

Recommendation 9

The Council should encourage States that have not already done so to establish the necessary legislative or other measures, including the use of authenticated end-user certificates, to ensure effective control over the export and transit of small arms and light weapons.

Recommendation 10

The Council is called upon to pursue more vigorously and expeditiously the use of arms embargoes, under Article 41 of the Charter of the United Nations, to countries or regions threatened by, engaged in or emerging from armed conflict, and to promote their effective implementation. The Council is also called upon to give particular attention to the restriction of the supply of ammunition suitable for weapons already extensively available in such countries and regions.

Recommendation 11

The Council may wish to consider coercive measures against Member States that deliberately violate arms embargoes declared in respect of specific conflict areas. In this regard, the Council is encouraged to establish monitoring mechanisms, under each relevant Council resolution, to oversee their rigorous and comprehensive enforcement.

Recommendation 12

Member States should be called upon to enhance transparency in armaments, including through universal and consistent participation in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and the United Nations standardized instrument for reporting military expenditures, and to undertake other confidence-building measures in defence and security matters.

Further details about SAWG may be found at; Project Ploughshares work on small arms and light weapons at; and IANSA at

Spread the Word