Small arms and light weapons (SALW)
There is no universally accepted definition of a 'small arm' or of a 'light weapon’ but rather, these two types of weapon groups are often identified by their portability as was put forward by a 1997 UN Panel of Governmental Experts.
Typically, small arms include items such as hand guns, pistols, rifles, sub-machine guns, mortars, grenades, and 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. It is crucial to note that small arms and light weapons (SALW) are inextricably linked to ammunition: without the latter, the former could not function. SALW ammunition includes a wide variety of products, but is primarily cartridge-based. SALW ammunition is comprised of a cartridge case, bullet, propellant, and primer.
The illicit proliferation of SALW as well as their legal trade pose a grave danger to international security and stability, and threatens the lives of millions of people around the world every year. Key measures being taken to address the negative impacts of SALW use and proliferation include marking, tracing, collecting, stockpile security and destruction, as well as efforts to address the underlying demand for these weapons and control their transfer. Reducing SALW use and proliferation is frequently linked with efforts to address the recruitment of child soldiers; reduce gender-based violence, including domestic violence; reduce crime; and improve development and public health.
UN experts conservatively estimated that there were more than 600 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide in 2016. In contrast, Small Arms Survey, a research institute, estimated that only the number of firearms in civilian holdings amounted to already 650 million in 2016. In 2018, the amount of firearms has increased to more than one billion. Most of those are in civilian hands, totalling approximately 875 million in 2017. The annual authorised trade in small arms and light weapons exceeds US$8.5 billion. Firearm stockpiles continue to grow as millions of new guns are produced each year, and far fewer are being destroyed. With respect to ammunition, the number of cartridges produced each year runs into billions, and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs estimates that the value of annual authorised international transfers of SALW ammunition is well over $4 billion.
The uncontrolled proliferation of SALW has devastating impacts on socio-economic development, human rights and human development, including health and mortality, knowledge and education, income and standard of living, and community participation. Every year, armed violence kills around 526,000 people, of which 75 per cent happen in non-conflict settings. For every gun death, there are 1-8 times more injuries. Secondary survivors (family, friends and colleagues of gun violence victims) suffer health, social, and economic outcomes: trauma, anxiety and the loss of employment, well-being and family connections. The widespread availability of SALW can deepen, exacerbate, and/or prolong existing violence or conflict. It is the leading cause of hunger in the world. Armed violence can trigger forced displacement, erode social capital, destroy infrastructure, and can undermine public institutions.
It is important to note that different groups, distinguished by age, sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class, religion, and other factors, experience the impact of SALW differently. For instance, the highest percentage of both perpetrators and victims of SALW violence are men. The possession of weapons symbolises power, that stems from a particular and dominant understanding and performance of masculinity, in which ideas like strength, courage and protection are equated with violence. While arms themselves may not always be directly implicated in acts of gender-based violence, they are correlated with an increase in gendered inequality and a generalised culture of violence, against women in particular, as well as against LGBTQ+ people. The proliferation of SALW tends to have a negative impact on women’s equality and bargaining power within the household, their mobility, and their political participation. Widespread possession and use of weapons tend to prevent women from fully participating in public and political life, and to hinder their access to and use of resources, business, and employment opportunities. The accessibility and availability of arms can facilitate or exacerbate violence against women, not only in situations of armed conflict but also in non-conflict situations, such as in countries that experience high rates of firearm-related deaths, including femicides, as well as high levels of impunity and insecurity.
Yet it is important to note that both women and men can play multiple and sometimes simultaneous roles as victims, perpetrators, and peacemakers.
The following instruments have elements that reinforce and support each other, along with other international treaties, UN resolutions, and customary international law. Taken together, these instruments have a greater chance of advancing human security and the disarmament of SALW.
The UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA)
In 2001, United Nations member states adopted the Programme of Action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects (UNPoA). The UNPoA is considered the foundational normative agreement for all international small arms control efforts. Its politically-binding global commitments provide a basis and mandate for states to further develop and implement practical measures to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons at all levels. Measures include 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.
Each six years, a UNPoA Review Conference takes place. The first Review Conference (RevCon) was held in 2006, the second RevCon took place in 2012, and the most recent one in 2018. In 2006, 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. In 2012, the Review Conference managed to adopt a final outcome document which emphasised the renewed commitment of the international community to combat the illegal trade in SALW. However, despite persistent calls by some states parties to include more ambitious language; issues relating to ammunition, gender perspectives, the prevention of risk diversion and the link between armed violence and development were not included. The Conference also did not make sufficient progress in references to measurability, evaluations, assessments, or indicators that would have allowed to more comprehensively review progress made, identify gaps and plan the way ahead. More information about the third Review Conference are available below in the “Current trends” section.
In addition to RevCons, six Biennial Meetings of States (BMS) have also been convened, with the last one held in 2016. The 7th Biennial Meeting of States (BMS7) was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but is postponed until 2021 due to the global health crisis of COVID-19.
The International Tracing Instrument
An important output of the UNPoA includes the International Tracing Instrument (ITI). When the UNPoA was adopted, member states recommended a United Nations study be undertaken on ‘the feasibility of developing an international instrument’ on identification and tracing. The findings of that study, and a subsequent Group of Governmental Experts, led to the adoption of the ITI in 2005. Like the UNPoA it is a politically-binding instrument that provides rules for cooperation on tracing. Its provisions are focused on five areas of activity: marking, record-keeping, cooperation in tracing, implementation, and follow-up activities.
The UNPoA and ITI are supported together by a shared implementation support system. National SALW focal points and commissions are, in some countries and regions, additional sources of support and oversight for implementation and coordination although not mandated by the UNPoA itself. States are obligated to submit national reports under the ITI but not the UNPoA. The Modular Small-arms-control Implementation Compendium (MOSAIC) is a set of “voluntary, practical guidance notes that each combine the best small-arms expertise in succinct, operational advice.”
The Firearms Protocol
The UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition—commonly known as the Firearms Protocol—was adopted on 31 May 2001 by General Assembly Resolution 55/255 and entered into force on 3 July 2005. It is one of three protocols of the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, agreed in November 2000. While it is the first legally binding global instrument to address small arms, the Protocol is more limited in scope compared to the UNPoA but can be viewed as a law enforcement instrument that requires its states parties to criminalise the illicit manufacturing and illicit trade in firearms.
The Arms Trade Treaty
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global, legally binding multilateral instrument that regulates the international transfer of conventional arms, including SALW, among other categories of conventional weapons. The UN General Assembly adopted the ATT in 2013 and the Treaty entered into force in 2014. It has currently 104 states parties. The ATT obligates states parties to determine if the arms would commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious human rights violations. Each state must assess if there is an overriding risk that a proposed arms export to another country will be used for or contribute to serious human rights abuses, including gender-based violence. If so, those arms must not be sent. The ATT is the first ever legally-binding regime that recognises the link between gender-based violence (GBV) and the international arms trade.
Other parts of the Treaty set out guidelines for states that are importing weapons and requires importers and exporters to cooperate in sharing information necessary to make the above assessment. It also includes obligations for countries that have weapons transiting through their borders and for brokering activities.
Regional and sub-regional agreements
The above international instruments are supplemented by a patchwork of regional and sub-regional agreements, including the Nairobi Protocol; the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials; the SADC Protocol on Firearms, Ammunition and Related Materials; the European Union Common Position on Arms Export Control; the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (CIFTA); and the African Union’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative, among others.
UN Security Council resolutions
Despite the fact that SALW figure prominently in many of the national and regional conflicts that the UN Security Council (UNSC) considers, there are only two UNSC resolutions exclusively addressing SALW. Like all UNSC resolutions, these are binding on all member states. The first resolution was adopted under the leadership of Australia in 2013. It calls for international cooperation on the regulation of SALW, urges compliance with Council-mandated arms embargoes, and encourages implementation of the UNPoA, the ITI, and other related instruments, amongst other topics. UNSCR 2117 recognises the threats from the “illicit transfer, destabilising accumulation and misuse of [SALW],” and calls for tighter regulation of the flow of these weapons. The resolution also recognises that the proliferation of SALW is a major factor fueling and exacerbating conflicts, and recalls their negative impact on human rights, humanitarian, development and socioeconomic consequences, including the “disproportionate impact on violence perpetrated against women and girls, and exacerbating sexual and gender-based violence.” As well, the resolution acknowledges the adoption of the ATT and its potential contribution to the reduction of human suffering.
The second resolution, UNSC 2220 (2015), reiterates points from UNSCR 2117, including the need for effective implementation of UN arms embargoes, and its support to the ATT which can contribute to increased transparency of SALW transfers. The resolution contains provisions aiming to strengthen UN coordination and action on small arms, as an update from the 2013 version.
As well, some of the UNSC’s resolutions on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) make reference to the impact of armed violence and conflict on women, and call for women’s increased participation in small arms control, such as UNSCR 2122 (2013), UNSCR 2242 (2015), UNSCR 2467 (2019). For example, UNSCR 2242, developed under the leadership of Lithuania, encourages women’s participation “in the prevention, combating and eradication of the illicit transfer, and the destabilising accumulation and misuse of [SALW]”. Some WPS resolutions make specific reference to the ATT, such as UNSCR 2106 (2013), UNSCR 2122 (2013), and UNSCR 2467 (2019).
Human rights bodies
While the interconnectedness between the widespread availability of SALW and their threat to a wide range of human rights has been evidenced countless times, linkages between the disarmament and human rights bodies have just recently begun to develop. Notably, the ATT is the first international instrument that directly links arms transfers, including transfers of SALW, and human rights, and makes human rights assessments mandatory in making arms transfers decision. This has opened a new flow of information between the disarmament community and human rights bodies.
Since 2013, the Human Rights Council has addressed the relationship between arms transfers, the availability of firearms, and human rights violations in six resolutions (UNHRC 24/35; UNHRC 26/16; UNHRC 29/10; UNHCR 32/12; UNHRC 38/10, UNHRC 41/20); including related reports issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This includes a report on the impact of arms transfers on the enjoyment of human rights, a report on human rights and the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms, and a forthcoming report on the impact of illicit, unregulated or diverted arms transfers on women’s and girls’ rights.
In its General Recommendation 30 on women in conflict prevention, conflict, and post-conflict situations, the CEDAW Committee highlights that under the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), states parties’ obligation to focus on conflict prevention includes “robust and effective regulation of the arms trade, in addition to appropriate control over the circulation of existing and often illicit conventional arms, including small arms, to prevent their use to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence.” In the General Recommendation, a document which provides authoritative guidance for states to implement the Convention, the CEDAW Committee recommends state parties to address the gendered impact of international transfers of arms, especially small and illicit arms (…)”. The CEDAW Committee has also made similar recommendations in many of its concluding observations, such as on Sweden, France, or Germany.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict has recognised the strong link between child soldiers and the small arms trade, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child has also regularly addressed the connection between child soldiers and small arms trade. It recommended in its Concluding Observations to more than 20 states parties to take measures to prohibit the trade of SALW where children are known to have been or are involved in armed conflict.
Other human rights mechanisms have also addressed the link between SALW and the detrimental impact on human rights. These include the Human Rights Committee, and investigative mechanisms created by the HRC, such the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen or the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
UNGA First Committee resolutions
Every year, numerous resolutions are passed at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee on Disarmament and International Security that relate to SALW. While these resolutions are not legally binding, they can be normative—that is, they can indicate the establishment of customs, standards, and guidelines for appropriate behavior. The resolutions addressing SALW usually take focus on a specific aspect of the issue or includes regional considerations. For example, in 2019, there were seven SALW-related resolutions covering topics such as preventing the illicit trade of SALW, curbing the illicit trade of SALW through assistance and cooperation, regional initiatives on SALW control in Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean, and ammunition stockpiles in surplus. The UNGA has also mandated a Group of Governmental Experts on ammunition, which has started its work in 2020. Its work is politically significant in the UN context, as it is the only platform for any UN-level discussion on ammunition. Addressing ammunition at the UN-level is usually opposed by primarily the United States.
2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals
The 2030 Agenda is a broad and interdependent approach to sustainable socio-economic development that builds on earlier multilateral processes and agreements. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the primary mechanism of the 2030 Agenda. They were adopted on 25 September 2015 as part of UN General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/1 ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ amid strong political support and commitment. Each SDG has several targets, followed by a series of internationally agreed and monitored indicators.
Given the interdependent nature of the Goals and the holistic approach of the Agenda, all the Goals should be viewed as relevant or somehow linked to small arms control, but one has an immediate relevance. SDG 16 seeks to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. Target 16.4 sets out to: “By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime”. Target 16.4 indicators: 16.4.1 “Total value of inward and outward illicit financial flows (in current United States dollars)”; and 16.4.2 “Proportion of seized, found or surrendered arms whose illicit origin or context has been traced or established by a competent authority in line with international instruments.” Other Goals that are often cited in connection to small arms control are SDG 5 on gender equality, and SDG 11 on sustainable cities.
UN Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda
In May 2018, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for renewed global efforts on disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons to enhance global peace and security in his disarmament agenda Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament. The Agenda includes an implementation plan with 40 actions that will be carried out by various entities in and beyond the UN system. The implementation plan is a living document with a website that details progress on the implementation of actions. Nine actions are directly relevant for SALW control (Actions 20, 21, 22, 28, 35, 36, 37, 38, and 40). The actions seek to, inter alia, establish a dedicated trust fund on small arms; understand and strengthen the inter-connected nature of arms control and conflict prevention activities; advance women’s participation and gender parity in decision-making processes in the field of disarmament; and ensure the inclusion of youth and civil society in disarmament processes.
Since the international community first began to act in response to the scourge of SALW, much has changed as a result of technological development and the evolving nature of conflict and violence. As a result, the nature of discussions in multilateral fora and small arms control programming has likewise evolved to consider new subjects and priorities. This includes new technologies for the marking and tracing of SALW and ammunition, but also their production—3-D printing in particular has been a topic of interest among UN policymakers. At the same time, the trend in certain countries has been to move toward local and craft production of SALW which is infinitely more difficult to track or regulate and is often poorly made and maintained. The relationships between small arms control and the SDGs, as well as the gendered impact of SALW are increasingly recognised and incorporated in program design and policy.
Against this backdrop, over the past years, the UNPoA had been criticised as ineffective, too narrowly focused, or out of date. The most recent Review Conference in June 2018 therefore provided an opportunity to ensure continued relevance of the instrument and to meet current realities and challenges. The adopted outcome report did address many of the concerns raised by many states parties and civil society organisations, including around gendered impacts of SALW; the challenges posed by a lack of regulation on ammunition; and synergies with the Sustainable Development Goals. Concerns about armed gender-based violence, the gendered impacts of small arms, and women’s participation in disarmament are well reflected in the outcome document. There is a connection between the 2030 Agenda and the UNPoA at large; and several more actionable references to Target 16.4 throughout the document. Importantly, the inclusion of a specific reference to ammunition is a historic first in the UNPoA context, and will give important precedent to future references. It was “acknowledge[d] that States that apply provisions of the [UNPoA] to small arms and light weapons ammunition can exchange and, as appropriate, apply relevant experiences, lessons learned and best practices acquired within the framework of other relevant instruments to which a State is a party, as well as relevant international standards, in strengthening their implementation of the [UNPoA]”.
However, the outcome document also backtracked in some areas; for instance, efforts to focus future meetings on specific topics like diversion did not succeed and there was no reference to 3D printing. The proposed technical annex to the International Tracing Instrument was left out although the request for a report from the UN Secretary General provides an opening. See here for Reaching Critical Will’s in-depth analysis of the meeting, and here for detailed analysis by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) on the outcome document.
An important source of information on SALW is the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a global network of over 700 civil society organisations working to stop the proliferation and misuse of SALW around the world. IANSA has a number of briefing papers and reports on small arms, of which you can find a selection below, and their individual member organisations further offer strong research and advocacy experience. Its Women’s Network has been a credible and consistent voice in calling for better recognition of the gendered impacts of SALW.
As a project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the Small Arms Survey (SAS) generates evidence-based, impartial, and policy-relevant knowledge and analysis on small arms and armed violence issues for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and civil society. It offers publications on a vast range of field research, on small arms trade, ammunition, gender, and the sustainable development goals of which you can find a selection below.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is an international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament, and has an arms transfers database that shows all international transfers of major conventional arms since 1950.
The Control Arms Coalition is an international alliance of over 300 non-governmental organisations working for strong international arms controls and in particular works to support the implementation and universalisation of the ATT.
Conflict Armament Research (CAR) identifies and tracks conventional weapons and ammunition in contemporary armed conflicts.
The Gender Equality Network for Small Arms Control (GENSAC) aims to make SALW control more gender responsive and amplify international, regional, national and local best practices of those who have been doing “arms control behind the curtain”, including representative from civil society organisations, women’s groups, conflict prevention and development communities.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works to destroy landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs in places affected by conflict, and supports affected communities to rebuild their lives after war.
The Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) is the world’s only on-line global database of small arms transfers. It contains 1 389 355 records detailing transfers between some 250 states and territories over the period 1962-2015.
The South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons(SEESAC) works to strengthen the capacities of national and regional stakeholders to control and reduce the proliferation and misuse of SALW in South East Europe. It hosts various databases, infographics and charts on the use of SALW in the region.
The Regional Centre on Small Arms in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States(RECSA) is an intergovernmental organisation which seeks to build the capacity of the member states, and coordinates and monitors the implementation of the Nairobi Protocol addressing the proliferation of illicit SALW within the RECSA Region.
The Pacific Small Arms Action Group (PSAAG) coordinates civil society action to reduce the impact of SALW in the Pacific. It facilitates implementation of the UNPoA and promotes accession to the ATT. Amongst others, it publishes evidence-based research and policy analysis.
The United Nations Office for Disarmament has compiled all small arms-related reports of the UN Secretary-General and provides other research, reporting and support to UN member states in their UNPoA implementation. The UN regional centres for disarmament in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia also play active roles in small arms control, as does the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
Anna Alvazzi del Frate, Gergely Hideg, and Emile LeBrun, Gender Counts: Assessing Global Armed Violence Datasets for Gender Relevance, Small Arms Survey, March 2020
Conflict Armament Research, Nigeria’s Herder-Farmer Conflict, 2020
Various authors, Gender-responsive small arms control: A practical guide, Emile LeBrun (ed.), Small Arms Survey, October 2019
Podcast: Allison Pytlak, Emile LeBrun, Henri Myrttinen, Vanessa Corlazzoli, #48: Gender in small arms control,Small Arms Survey, 30 August 2019
WILPF Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of Congo, Research series on local and national perspectives on preventing gender-based violence through arms control, August 2019
WILPF, Submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, 19 February 2019
Joseph Dube, The Africa we want: Silencing the guns, 2019.
Conflict Armamanet Research, Weapons supplies into South Sudan’s civil war, 2019
Conflict Armament Research, Conventional Ammunition Diversion, 2018
United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Advocacy by non-governmental organisations to strengthen the United Nations Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons, 2018
Small Arms Survey, Trade update 2018: Sub-Saharan Africa in focus, December 2018
Barbara A. Frey, The gender implications of small arms and light weapons in conflict situations, in The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Security, 2018
IANSA, Quick guide – Results of the Third Review Conference on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, October 2018
IANSA, Six key issues for the 2018 Review Conference on the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, June 2018
Small Arms Survey, Implementing the Programme of Action and International Tracing Instrument: An assessment of national reports, June 2018
WILPF, The impact of Germany’s arms transfers on economic, social and cultural rights: Extraterritorial obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, August 2018
Ray Acheson, Presentation on gender norms and gun violence, 26 June 2018
Small Arms Survey, Life-cycle management of ammunition (LCMA): Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 2018
Small Arms Survey, From legal to lethal: Converted firearms in Europe, April 2018
Small Arms Survey, Counting casualties: Operationalising SDG indicator 16.1.2 in Libya, February 2018
Small Arms Survey, Arms control 2.0: Operationalising SDG target 16.4, October 2017
IANSA, Global overview of the small arms problem, June 2017
WILPF, The impact of Italy’s arms transfers on women: Italy’s extraterritorial obligations under CEDAW, June 2017
WILPF, Statement on the oral update of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, regarding weapons transfers to Syria and their impact on women, 11 May 2017
WILPF, WILPF Statement to the Human Rights Council on the need for continued scrutiny of the gendered impacts of arms proliferation, 6 June 2017
WILPF, WILPF Statement on the USA's arms transfers to countries where child soldiers are used, 11 May 2017
WILPF and European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, The impact of Germany’s arms transfers on women. Germany’s extraterritorial obligations under CEDAW, January 2017
Small Arms Survey, A gendered analysis of violent deaths, November 2016
Rebecca Gerome and Ray Acheson, Preventing gender-based violence through arms control, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), April 2016
Ray Acheson, Women, weapons and war: A gendered critique of multilateral instruments, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), October 2016
Daniel Mack and Ray Acheson, Small arms, big picture: armed violence beyond First Committee, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF and Instituto Sou da Paz, September 2014
Daniel Mack, An assessment of the PoA, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF and Instituto Sou da Paz, June 2014