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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 45, April 2000

Towards OSCE Principles and Norms on Small Arms and Light Weapons
By Harald Müller


Small arms are usually seen as a problem within developing countries located in zones of tension, crisis, war, or post-conflict peacebuilding. However, on closer inspection these weapons also pose difficulties in areas of a zone where co-operative security has made considerable strides during the last fifteen years - the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The dismantling of East-West conflict has led to a welcome shrinking of the armed forces of most countries in Europe with the consequence that many weapons have become surplus and have turned up in a variety of conflicts. Some OSCE countries have faced - or are facing - civil war, rebellion, unrest, or terrorism, all of which involve the spread and use of small arms and light weapons.

Countries undergoing systemic transition have specific, inevitable difficulties keeping control over the arms within their territory. In Europe as elsewhere, globalisation has facilitated transborder movements, including weapons trafficking. Thus, while the OSCE member states have unique capabilities to bring to bear on the subject of small arms and light weapons, they also have an obvious incentive to get them under control. It is with these interests in mind that the OSCE's Istanbul Summit in late 1999 focussed the energies of the OSCE's Forum on Security Co-operation on this subject.

Unsurprisingly, among the 53 OSCE countries there exist divergent views and interests on an issue such as this that touches both security and economic objectives. However, discussions among OSCE countries on this subject have shown more convergence of opinion than many observers would have believed possible even a year ago. Today, it appears to be within the grasp of the Forum - though it will still require some effort - to elaborate a distinct OSCE contribution to the 2001 United Nations (UN) Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons in the form of a consolidated joint paper that proposes principles and norms for tackling the small arms problem. Obviously such input from an organisation that not only comprises between a quarter and a half of the total UN membership, but also significant weapons producers and exporters - as well as the majority of major donors - would have a considerable impact. In this paper, I endeavour to suggest a set of principles and norms that might be considered as the key elements of such a paper.

Principles and Norms for Combatting Small Arms and Light Weapons

1. An effective approach to tackling the small arms and light weapons problem must be based on the principle of co-operative security. This comprises arms control, confidence-building, accountability and transparency as fundamental instruments of national security. Without this basic attitude - encompassing and helping to instil respect and appreciation for the security interests and challenges of partners - the level of co-operation necessary to combat small arms trafficking will not be achievable.

2. At the heart of an effective policy is good 'neighbourhood' co-operation. The problem is transboundary in nature, and the fight against it must reflect this structure. This requires the sharing of information, and regular collaboration between intelligence organisations, security forces, border guards, customs officials, police and prosecutors. This will not only entail overcoming possible distrust between neighbours who have not always been on the best terms, but may also necessitate the solution of serious constitutional problems. Such neighbourly cooperation, for example, could include the exchange of data about individuals and private companies, extradition rules, and even transborder 'hot pursuit'. This will not be easy to achieve.

3. The central focus is to combat illicit trafficking. This objective attracts the widest possible agreement. However, it would be shortsighted to conclude that this relieves us from consideration of the legal side of the small arms and light weapons problem. It is for this reason that the UN Conference's title contains the notion of an approach to the subject "in all its aspects". Combatting illicit trafficking is only possible within such a comprehensive framework.

4. There needs to be an unambiguous delineation between the legal and the illegal. Such delineation must clearly define who is permitted to produce, possess, trade, or broker with, which type of weapons, and how many may be involved. It is a truism that the large number of weapons that are today deemed "illegal" were once legal. Different countries' laws and regulations still vary widely in key regards. It should be possible to define common denominators and to leave it to countries to adopt more far-reaching measures for domestic purposes. In addition, transgression of the rules must bear penalties proportional to the risk that the act of transgression poses. And there must be strict and determined enforcement and structures capable of practical enforcement.

5. Mutual information and transparency offers a series of advantages. It serves basic confidence-building among the parties; it produces early-warning indicators of the excessive accumulation of weapons; it helps authorities to assess the reliability of overseas-based traders and brokers working from within their own territories; it assists in distinguishing illegal from legal flows of weaponry. Finally, it may even be useful for enhancing internal security: regular inventory-taking may give governments a much clearer picture of what is going on within their own societies. The issue of the possible misuse of this enhanced capacity for state surveillance is, of course, a serious one for politicians and civil society.

Transparency may be restricted or very extensive. The menu of information from which OSCE countries may choose includes data on:

  • Production
  • Holdings (private, commercial, public)
  • Exports/Imports
  • Illegal weapons intercepted
  • Weapons destroyed
  • Laws, regulations, and policy guidelines
  • Licenses granted and denied
  • Licensed companies and individuals (producers, traders and brokers)
  • Individuals and companies indicted, prosecuted, convicted and acquitted
The information could be consolidated in a regional register, to be updated regularly. The register could start small and grow.

It should be noted that a register is a transparency, and not a verification, measure. If inconsistencies exist, or when weapons said to be in the holdings of a certain country turn up somewhere else, it should be possible to request a clarification. However, the concept of a register does not involve inspections.

6. It should be agreed that marking weapons would be very useful, provided this is technically feasible in a tamper-proof and cost-effective way. Marking is potentially a very strong instrument for tracing weapons flows and could help to discover and plug leakages.

7. Strict and complete accountability of the private sector should be established. This includes registration, responsibility for the safety and security of weapons in private possession with the possibility of the relevant authorities checking implementation, and the prohibition of any transfer - within or outside the country - without a government permit.

8. The military and internal security forces should also be subject to strict safety and security standards. Admittedly this is a sensitive field. However, it should be possible to develop joint guidelines for such standards, and are analogous to guidelines and legal agreements relating to nuclear safety and the physical security of fissile materials, nuclear installations and nuclear waste.

9. No holdings of excess stocks by military and internal security forces beyond legitimate security needs should be permitted. Surplus weapons should be destroyed, not stored or transferred. Excessive storage practices enhance the risk that weapons will be diverted from oversized stocks and end up in the illegal sector.

10. No transfers which would contribute to excessive and destabilising accumulations of small arms and light weapons should be approved. Also, criteria for the licensing of such exports should pay proper attention to the situation within the recipient country. For example, with regard to principle 12 outlined below, overarming the security forces may create irresistible pressures for others to reciprocate and thus enhance the demand for such weapons rather than providing security. In this context, the prohibition of small arms transfers to non-state actors may be a useful norm; exceptions could be considered only if authorised by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII, as they constitute an intrusion into state sovereignty equivalent to taking military action. It should be recalled in this context that the OSCE region comprises some of the most significant producers and exporters of the weapons concerned.

11. Principles 9 and 10 contain the key terms of "legitimate security needs" and "excessive and destabilizing accumulations". A strong effort should be made to develop a common standard for what these terms mean in practice. This will prove difficult and is likely to vary according to geopolitical location, internal and external security situations, tradition and culture. Nevertheless, by discussing what is deemed "good practice" in this regard by member states it might be possible to define a "corridor" between minimum and maximum holdings. A useful indicator might be the weapons/personnel ratio in security forces and the military; for the latter the difference between the need of active forces in peacetime and total forces after mobilization must be taken into account. Given the high degree of military expertise in the OSCE, experience in working together on security matters, and the rich institutional setting, it might be worthwhile to task a working group with developing proposals for such a shared understanding.

12. Without the proper functioning of the security forces, the risk of uncontrollable flows of small arms is enhanced considerably. If security forces abuse their authority, for example against minorities, there will be an irresistible temptation for the aggrieved groups to seek protection in arming themselves. And if the authorities are not capable of providing for public security against crime or terrorism, citizens will also look for other means of protection, including private weapons holdings. Public security in the real sense of the word is thus an important pre-condition for the fight against illicit trafficking in small arms. This aspect is important within the OSCE area, as well as in relations between OSCE countries and other parties.

13. Small arms collection and destruction, and the reintegration of combatants into civil life must be integral elements of peacekeeping, peace-consolidation. and peacebuilding activities and post-conflict development assistance.

14. The strategic objective is to prevent the number of small arms both within the OSCE region and worldwide, rising any further, and to reduce them in a step-wise manner until they correspond to "legitimate security needs". Since the effort to do so would be futile if the decommissioned are replaced by larger numbers of freshly produced ones, sooner or later regulation for production quotas will become a necessity. This does not only involve commercial and security interests (defence-industrial base), it also confronts the well-known difficulties of politically protected cartels in a widely decentralised market with many participants.


As always, the devil is in the detail. This paper has sought frankly to acknowledge and address many of the difficulties involved, reflecting the conflicts of interests of OSCE member states and the variety of opinions they legitimately hold. But it is essential not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. The OSCE region shares essential security interests, and is capable of expressing its common interest through a substantial input to global deliberations on the small arms issue. Quite apart from the utility of such a contribution to global order and security, the predictable positive effect of such a joint achievement for our own security co-operation makes it a worthwhile endeavour.

Professor Harald Müller is Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. This paper is adapted from a presentation by Professor Müller at the OSCE Forum on Security Co-operation Seminar on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Vienna, April 3-5, 2000.

Author's note: In writing this paper, I have drawn on the reports of the UN expert groups on Small Arms and Ammunition, the EU Joint Action Group, and various working papers by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament (UNIDIR), Saferworld, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies, the Bonn International Convention Center, and my own institute, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, most notably work by my colleague Simone Wisotzki. In addition, I have used information and ideas from various interventions by delegations during the general debate of the OSCE Forum.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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