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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 49, August 2000

Small Arms and Light Weapons: A Neglected Issue, A Renewed Focus
By Bennie Lombard


In recent years the issue of small arms and light weapons has become one of international concern which has given rise to numerous actions, albeit early steps, including the convening of an international conference by the United Nations on "The Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects" in 2001. Those that have campaigned for so long for restraint in arms transfers and restrictions on the use of arms can feel a sense of reward that their untiring efforts to highlight the death and devastation wrought by these weapons has been brought to the fore and can now be seriously addressed by the international community. This is, however, not a new issue but rather a neglected one, which thankfully is now seeing a renewed focus.

A preambular paragraph of the 1919 Convention for the Control of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition, and Protocol, the so-called Saint-Germain Convention, stated that: "[T]he long war now ended, in which most nations have successively become involved, has led to the accumulation in various parts of the world of considerable quantities of arms and munitions of war, the dispersal of which would constitute a danger to peace and public order".1 The Convention never entered into force.

At the opening of the Conference for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War, held in Geneva, from May 4 to June 17, 1925, the Conference President stated: "In the present state of international opinion it must be regarded as inadmissible that a trade which has so great an influence on the security of nations and individuals as that in armaments should be regarded as exclusively commercial and should escape all general regulation. Such a state of affairs helps to maintain that sense of distrust and insecurity that makes itself felt in all international difficulties.... The aim of our Conference is not to throw any obstacles in the way of this legitimate trade, but to obviate the possibility that an illicit and dangerous traffic should compromise the good name of such legitimate trade or should hamper the success of the best efforts to create an atmosphere of peace and goodwill between nations."2 The Convention adopted at the Conference also never entered into force.3

Although it is difficult to envisage the impact these Conventions would have had on the world if they had been effectively implemented, the wisdom of those who sought to negotiate and implement them is clear today. Figures provided in the 1996 publication on World Military and Social Expenditure4 state that in the conflicts which took place around the world between 1900 and 1995, a total of 109,745,500 people have been killed. Of these, in instances where separate figures were available, 62,194,000 were civilians and 43,920,000 were military personnel. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the figures for the same period of time are given as 9,121,500 in total, with 5,719,000 civilians and 1,605,000 military personnel. It is, however, important to note, when considering these figures, that in the same publication it is made clear that the figures are not an accurate description of the situation we are currently confronted with. The situation has changed to one in which, in 1995, more than 90 per cent of all casualties in conflict situations are non-combatants. The publication further stated that in the same year some 15.3 million people were internally displaced, and, according to the US Committee for Refugees, the number of people in need of food, water, medical care and shelter had increased by over 50 per cent when compared to the preceding decade.

While the use of weapons of mass destruction have mainly been confined to certain conflict areas during the First and Second World Wars, and in certain regional conflicts, small arms and light weapons have been the weapons of choice in conflicts and criminal actions around the world. These weapons include revolvers, self-loading pistols, rifles, assault rifles, light machine-guns, mortars, portable anti-tank missiles and landmines. Governments have been toppled and untold suffering has been inflicted on innocent civilians through their use.

Confronted by this reality, the international community is again, as in 1919 and 1925, increasingly realising that the excessive and destabilising accumulation of small arms and light weapons and its negative effects on socio-economic development generally, and specifically on the reconstruction of post-conflict societies, can no longer be ignored. Within the United Nations, the European Union (EU), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) important initiatives have been undertaken to address the problems associated with small arms and light weapons proliferation.

Lessons from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines

The growing international focus on small arms and light weapons has some similarities with the successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) but also some important differences. The ICBL was the successor to an incremental process which started in the late 1970s and culminated in the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and in particular its Protocol II on mines, booby traps and other devices. In the early 1990s there was a renewed international focus on the humanitarian consequences of the use of landmines. Again the focus of these efforts was on the CCW and, in particular, on strengthening Protocol II. However, the failure of the 1995/96 CCW Review Conference to ban the use of anti-personnel mines, resulted in a focused attention on achieving such a measure by other means. The ICBL emerged in this context. Another development at this time was the creation of an informal partnership between various non-governmental organisations and key States committed to banning anti-personnel mines, which culminated in the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines (also known as the Mine Ban Treaty). The ICBL, therefore, went through a long process of awareness raising, stigmatising the use of anti-personnel mines and obtaining the necessary political and legal commitment to ban anti-personnel mines before the Mine Ban Treaty was signed.

Although landmines are a category of light weapon, virtually no similar co-ordinated and sustained focus on small arms and light weapons occurred until 1994. Since 1995, however, the United Nations has taken the lead with, amongst other initiatives, the Panel and Group of Experts on Small Arms to focus international attention on these types of weapons and to explore what can be done to address the threat posed by their proliferation.

In comparison with the ICBL, the focus on small arms will be more difficult and will require a longer-term effort. States were willing to ban anti-personnel mines because of their indiscriminate nature and negative impact on civilians after conflicts ended. Furthermore, many states were also willing to accept that their defence forces could do without them. Small arms, however, are essential for any defence force/police force and in some states civilians have a legal right to own and use small arms. The focus of international efforts, therefore, should not be on banning small arms and light weapons but rather on curtailing and eradicating their illicit use and transfer, controlling their licit transfer and addressing the causes of the demand for small arms, such as poverty, underdevelopment and insecurity.

Although the landmine experience cannot be duplicated in the small arms debate important lessons can be learned. One such lesson is the co-operative partnership between governments and the non-governmental community. In this regard the establishment of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a network of organisations working to prevent the proliferation and misuse of small arms, is a positive step.5 In addition, many states that were active in the landmine debate have continued in co-operative partnership with non-governmental organisations and extended such co-operation to the field of small arms. A recent decision by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), for example, mandated its Secretariat to conclude memoranda of understanding with civil society organisations involved in the issue of small arms to ensure close collaboration in the preparation of projects and programmes and in research. Similar co-operative arrangements on small arms issues have been established between civil society and regional organisations such as the OAU and the EU.

An African Response to Small Arms and Light Weapons Proliferation

Africa is often cited as a region particularly affected by the proliferation of small arms. Indeed this is not a recent phenomenon. A document of the League of Nations, prepared as a background for the 1925 Geneva Conference for the Control of the International Trade in Arms, Munitions and Implements of War, stated that one of the purposes of the St. Germain Convention of 1919 was to prevent the importation of arms, except under the strictest possible control, to certain defined areas, including parts of Africa. According to this document: "The task of preventing bloodshed in great parts of Africa and in the countries which border the Red Sea is rendered far more difficult if the inhabitants have access to unlimited quantities of arms and munitions. It was felt to be especially desirable to bring this part of the Treaty quickly into effect in order to prevent dissemination to these parts of the world of the surplus stocks left over from the war."6

Seventy three years later, the 1998 Report of the United Nations Secretary General on the Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa stated that: "Identifying the sources of arms flows into Africa is critical to any effort to monitor or regulate this trade. Arms exporting countries have a responsibility to exercise restraint, especially with respect to the export of weapons into zones of conflict or tension in Africa."7

Although Africa has long been identified as a region where the control of arms is crucial, it is only recently that African governments have recognised the scale of the problems associated with small arms proliferation and have begun to explore various initiatives to address them. In this way Africa has proven that when confronted with a problem that affects the livelihood of its peoples it can act in unison to eradicate such a threat. The successful role African countries played in the international efforts to ban anti-personnel mines visibly demonstrated this.

In the last few years African countries have taken the critical step of mobilising the political will to deal with small arms proliferation. Some sub-regions have gone so far as to develop legal commitments to address this problem. In June 1998, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted its first ever decision on the "Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons"8 - an important step in raising political awareness on small arms in Africa, recognising the urgency and the need for inter-African co-operation in the search for solutions. This decision was followed with an OAU decision in July 1999 to hold a small arms expert meeting. This meeting has now evolved into a ministerial meeting on small arms to be held in Bamako, Mali in November 2000.9

The OAU decision on small arms is not only a result of various sub-regional initiatives. It also provides the political framework for future initiatives on the continent. Mali has led a West African subregional effort to establish a moratorium on the transfer and production of small arms. President Konare of Mali recognised that the illegal proliferation of small arms was one of the main contributing factors of political instability in his country and he therefore requested the UN to help address the problem. On March 27, 1996 Mali organised a dramatic "La Flamme de la Paix" at which 3,000 collected weapons were burned. The 1994/95 UN Advisory Mission to Mali and surrounding states recommended, amongst other things, the adoption of a subregional approach to the proliferation problem, ensuring arrangements for monitoring and supervision, and aid in standardising legislation and customs procedures, technical training and developing confidence-building measures.

Among the leaders of Southern Africa, there is also a concern that small arms and light weapons endanger the democratisation initiatives that are presently being consolidated in the region. At the 1999 Annual General Meeting of the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Co-operation Organisation (SARPCCO), a declaration on small arms was adopted in which it was stated that "illegal small arms and especially the illegal firearms most commonly used in the perpetration of crime, contribute to the high levels of instability, conflict, violence and social dislocation evident in Southern Africa and the African continent as a whole".10

At the recent Summit meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), held from August 6-7, 2000 in Windhoek, Namibia, it was decided that SADC should develop a Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other related Materials to be ready for signature at the 2001 Summit meeting in August 2001.11 A draft of this Protocol has already been developed by SARPCCO. The objective of this Protocol is, among others, "to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of, excessive and destabilising accumulation of, trafficking in, possession and use of firearms, ammunition and other related materials in the Region".12

The South African Government has declared the war against small arms (firearms) proliferation to be a priority for the South African Police Service. The Government's strategy to combat small arms proliferation at a national level follows an integrated and holistic approach. It focusses not only on the introduction of stricter control measures, but also on the eventual removal of causal factors such as unemployment, lack of education and poverty. Its objective is to reduce the number of illegal small arms in circulation, as well as to reduce the flow of illegal weapons into South Africa. It also concentrates its efforts on ensuring the lawful and proper use of licensed firearms. South Africa was one of the first states to announce its decision in February 1999 to destroy its stockpiles of surplus small arms rather than sell them on the open market, as was done previously. In this regard a process has been initiated to destroy approximately 260,000 surplus assault rifles of the South African National Defence Force.13

According to South Africa's policy paper on small arms proliferation, the country believes that a holistic approach is necessary to address the problems associated with the issue.14 Such an approach involves concurrent action on the national, regional and international levels focusing both on licit and illicit small arms and light weapons. This problem should also be viewed from an inclusive perspective of arms control, post-conflict peace building, conflict prevention and socio-economic development.

In East Africa important initiatives have recently been undertaken on small arms. The most significant of these initiatives is the Nairobi Declaration on the Problem of the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms and Light weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa, which was adopted on March 15, 2000. The declaration acknowledges that the problem of the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons in the region has been exacerbated by internal political strife and extreme poverty. It suggests that a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem must include putting into place structures and processes to promote democracy, the observance of human rights, the rule of law and good governance as well as economic recovery and growth.15

The International Focus on Small Arms and Light Weapons

Internationally, it appears that there is a division emerging between those states which feel that the issue of small arms (firearms) is essentially a police and crime prevention matter and that any international efforts should concentrate on illicit arms only, and those states which feel that a more holistic approach is necessary and that licit and illicit small arms should be dealt with in a broader context of peace-building, good governance and disarmament. The more comprehensive approach also implies that some attention should be paid to legal civilian possession of firearms. Most African states, as a result of the various sub-regional and national initiatives, are increasingly being associated with the more holistic, comprehensive approach.

Since 1994 there have been numerous initiatives on small arms in the context of the United Nations and regional organisations such as the EU, OAS, and OAU. Many non-governmental organisations, both in developed and developing countries have also undertaken in-depth research on small arms and light weapons issues. This in turn has provided many ideas and practical suggestions on how to deal with the issue of small arms and light weapons in the short-, medium- and long-term. All these regional, sub-regional and national initiatives provide important building blocks for the international community's efforts to address this problem, particularly the United Nations Conference on the "Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects" to be held in 2001.

Although the Preparatory Committee established in terms of General Assembly resolution 54/54V will deal with the issues of the Conference, such as the final document and the scope of the 2001 Conference, the Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (A/54/258) already provides an idea of what the scope of such a conference should be. The Group concluded that the scope of the international Conference would be illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. Regarding illicit trade, the Group clearly recommended that the Conference consider all types of illicit transfers of small arms and light weapons. In addition, the Conference should consider the illicit manufacturing, acquisition, possession, use and storage of small arms and light weapons, since they are closely linked to illicit transfers of such weapons.

However, States attach different interpretations to the meaning of "illicit trade in all its aspects". Some States interpret this in a narrow sense meaning all the aspects of illicit trade, while other States see a wider meaning which includes issues relating to the licit trade. The UN Group of Experts on Small Arms interpreted the meaning of "illicit trade in all its aspects" to include aspects of legal transfers of small arms and light weapons insofar as they are directly related to illicit trafficking in, and manufacturing of, these arms.

The Group also noted that the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is closely linked to the excessive and destabilising accumulation and transfer of such arms. In terms of the 1997 UN Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (A/52/298), accumulations of small arms and light weapons become excessive and destabilising:

  • When a state, whether a supplier or recipient, does not exercise restraint in the production, transfer and acquisition of such weapons beyond those needed for legitimate national and collective defence and internal security;
  • When a state, whether a supplier or recipient, cannot exercise effective control to prevent the illegitimate acquisition, transfer, transit or circulation of such weapons;
  • When the use of such weapons manifests itself in armed conflict, in crime, such as drug trafficking, or other actions contrary to the norms of national or international law.
Therefore, the final document of the 2001 Conference should set out a framework for future international and regional co-operation and action in combating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, as per the recommendations of the UN Panel and UN Group of Experts on Small Arms. This could be achieved though the identification of an action plan to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of, excessive and destabilising accumulation of, and trafficking in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. Elements for an action plan could be clustered in the following way:


  • Recognition of the urgent need to address the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects;
  • Holistic and comprehensive approach at global, regional and national levels;
  • Humanitarian and socio-economic consequences as a result of illicit trade of these arms in all its aspects;
  • Right to self-defence and self-determination.
II.Combating illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons
  • Co-operation and facilitation of regional action on small arms and light weapons;
  • Marking and tracing weapons;
  • Effective management and safe storage of weapons stockpiles, including ammunition and explosives and the destruction of surplus weapons;
  • Enhancement of the operational capacity of law enforcement/customs agencies to implement controls on illicit trafficking.
III.Strengthening controls to prevent illicit accumulations and transfers of small arms and light weapons
  • Controls on weapons transfers, including issues pertaining to end user certificates;
  • Norms and standards to promote supplier restraints;
  • Enforcing applicable arms embargoes;
  • Regulating arms brokering and shipping agents.
IV.Promoting the removal of arms from society and the destruction of surplus arms
  • Removing illicit, surplus and unlicensed weapons from circulation and ensuring its destruction;
  • Effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants;
  • Enhancing the capacity of states to provide citizens with a secure environment.
V.Enhancing transparency, information exchange and consultation on arms
  • Enhancing transparency on small arms and light weapons as a confidence building measure;
  • Improving information exchange and consultation between governments and intergovernmental organisations;
  • Improving co-operation between governments, civil society institutions and non-governmental organisations.
VI. Strengthening of international humanitarian law
  • Measures to strengthen international humanitarian law to prevent the human cost of the excessive and destabilising accumulation and use of small arms and light weapons.
It could also be argued that the 2001 Conference should not be seen as an end in itself, but merely a launching pad for further intensified action on small arms in the context of the issues identified by participating states. The Conference will also provide the international community with an opportunity, as in 1925 in Geneva, to collectively acknowledge that small arms and light weapons is a legitimate and urgent concern for the international community. The outcome of the Conference could, therefore, provide a macro-political framework, which could stimulate and legitimise further regional, sub-regional, national and local initiatives to prevent and eradicate small arms proliferation. The success of the Conference will not be judged by the adoption of a final document at the end of its proceedings, but on what follow-up actions are undertaken.

Taking into consideration the number of international legal instruments dealing with weapons of mass destruction and the lack of such instruments dealing comprehensively with conventional arms, particularly small arms and light weapons, a longer term view should include the possibility of starting a process of developing an international legal instrument for the control of the international trade in arms, ammunition and explosives.

Dr. Edward J. Laurance, who has personally contributed so much to raise international awareness on small arms, has already proposed a "Convention on the Prevention of the Indiscriminate and Unlawful Use of Light Weapons". In 1997, he stated that "the treaty will not detract from or interfere with ongoing local, national and regional efforts. Rather it will provide a new norm around which these effects can grow, efforts to which donor states can increase their financial support. The focus on the humanitarian costs of the indiscriminate and unlawful use of these weapons will serve to integrate current efforts based on a variety of approaches - crime prevention, arms control, firearms regulation, human rights, development, gun safety etc. Above all it will provide hope for those who are the victims of this humanitarian crisis".16

Whatever the outcome of the 2001 Conference, one should not lose sight of the continued value in tackling the issue of conventional arms transfers. In his concluding remarks, the President of the 1925 Geneva Conference observed: "It would no doubt be short-sighted to argue that a mere reduction in the scale of armaments would suffice to reduce the chances of conflict between nations. Nevertheless, just as the development of arbitration and international justice strikes at the political, moral and economic causes of war, so the limitation of armaments may serve to restrict the material means for making war. Neither proposition excludes the other: on the contrary, the whole problem of peace may be compared to a triangle whose apex angle stands for security, while two angles at the base represent disarmament and arbitration."17

Notes and References

1. League of Nations, Conference for the Control of the International Trade in Arms, Munitions and Implements of War, Document C.758.M.258.1924.IX, Geneva, 1925, page 29.

2. League of Nations, Proceedings of the Conference for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War, Document A.13.1925.IX., Geneva, May 4 to June 17, 1925, page 122.

3. Only the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, also adopted at the 1925 Conference for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War, entered into force.

4. Ruth L. Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditure, World Priorities Incorporated, March 1996.

5. Pamphlet, International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA, http://www.iansa.org.

6. League of Nations, Document C.758.M.258.1924.IX, op.cit., page 10.

7. Report of the Secretary General: The Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa, Document S/1998/318, 13 April 1998, paragraph 28.

8. OAU decision CM/Dec.432 (LXVIII), June 1998.

9. OAU decision AHG/Dec.137(LXX), July 1999.

10. SARPCCO declaration on Small Arms, July 1999.

11. SADC Council of Ministers Decision, August 2000, Namibia.

12. Draft Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other Related Materials in the Southern African development Community (SADC) Region.

13. Statement by South Africa to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, July 6, 2000.

14. South Africa's Policy on Small Arms Proliferation, Department of Foreign Affairs, Pretoria, South Africa.

15. The Nairobi Declaration on the Problem of the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and Horn of Africa, Nairobi, March 15, 2000.

16. Edward J. Laurance, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Presentation to the Ottawa Process Forum, Ottawa, Canada, December 5, 1997.

17. League of Nations, Document A.13.1925.IX, op.cit., page 442.

Bennie Lombard is a Counsellor on Disarmament at the South African Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. This article is written in the personal capacity of the author and views and attitudes expressed should not necessarily be construed as reflecting the policy or opinions of the Government of South Africa.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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