Small arms and light weapons (SALW)

Small arms include hand guns, pistols, rifles, sub-machine guns, mortars, grenades, light missiles. Light weapons include heavy machine guns, mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and portable launchers of anti-tank missile. The illicit proliferation of SALW poses a grave danger to international security and stability, and threatens the lives of millions around the world every year. Key issues in the combat against SALW include marking, tracing, collecting, and destroying small arms; child soldiers; women and gun violence; trade controls and arms brokers; development and public health.

 Background Information

In 2001, United Nations member states adopted a Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (UN PoA). The PoA focuses on practical solutions, such as collecting and destroying illegal weapons, strengthening import and export controls, raising awareness on the effects of illegal weapons, improving the security and safety of weapons storage facilities and helping affected countries track down illegal transfers of small arms and the brokers involved. Since 2001, the PoA has seen more than 50 countries reinforce their laws against the illegal trade in small arms and more than 60 countries have collected and destroyed illegal small weapons. Experts estimate that there are more than 600 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide.

From June 26 through July 7, 2006, United Nations member states gathered to review the illicit trade and transfer of small arms for the first time since the Review Conference in 2001. While civil society proved to be the most momentous working body at the conference, member states failed to match this momentum in their negotiations and ultimately could not agree on a final document. Overall, member states at the Review Conference lost the opportunity to make significant strides on the small arms and light weapons trade. Member states could not agree on a single issue and ultimately, the conference failed to reach an agreement on a final document. A small group of member states, led by the United States, refused to budge on their policies of trade and transfer regulations, while touting that future Review Conferences would not be necessary. Many states failed to exert any efforts for change and hid behind the more vocal member states' positions. Without a 2006 Programme of Action, the 2001 Programme stays in place, but is not updated nor is its progress to date documented. More importantly, governments did not plan any future Review Conferences, so there are currently no mechanisms in place to follow the 2001 plan of action and the work of the international process for the last five years is without documentation or a mapped future.

Facts and Figures

  • $4 billion amounts the worth of the gun trade, of which up to $1 billion may be unauthorized or illicit.
  • 640 million small arms in the world or one for every ten people on earth. The vast majority of these are in the hands of civilians.
  • 8 million new guns are being manufactured every year by at least 1249 companies in 92 countries.
  • 10 to 14 billions of units of ammunition are manufactured every year, enough to kill every person in the world twice over.

Important Resources

The most comprehensive source of information on SALW is the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a global network of over 700 civil society organizations working to stop the proliferation and misuse of SALW around the world.

Geneva Process on Small Arms

Control Arms, small arms campaign jointly run by Amnesty International, IANSA and Oxfam.

Global Policy Forum: Small Arms and Light Weapons

United Nations Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on SALW

Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects