Spread of 1 Billion Small Arms, Light Weapons Remains Major Threat Worldwide, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Tells Security Council
The widespread proliferation of approximately 1 billion small arms in circulation around the world — to terrorists, parties to intra-State conflict, organized criminals and warring gangs — continues to pose a major threat around the globe, the senior United Nations disarmament official told the Security Council today.
Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that small arms — such as rifles, pistols and light machine guns — contributed to some 200,000 deaths in every year from 2010 to 2015, and continue to represent a challenge that cuts across peace and security, human rights, gender, sustainable development and beyond.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s biennial report on small arms and light weapons (document S/2019/1011), she said that their use, whether in conflict or non-conflict settings, is prevalent from the Americas to Africa to Southern Europe. Indeed, no State is immune to the challenges posed by illicit weapons flows, she stressed, pointing that small arms continue to facilitate a vast spectrum of actions constituting violations human rights, including the killing and maiming of children, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Noting that the Secretary-General has recognized the relationship between high levels of armed violence and challenges to the realization of sustainable development, she nevertheless emphasized that the gender dimension has not been sufficiently integrated into policies regulating small arms and light weapons.
Damien Spleeters, Deputy Director of Operations for the investigative organization Conflict Armament Research, also briefed the Council, providing a snapshot of the technical challenges on the ground. A widespread lack of detailed reporting has hampered international efforts to control the illicit flow of small arms, he noted, likening the situation to attempting to control the spread of an infectious disease without understanding its origins or transmission vectors. Some of the most common challenges identified by his organization include governmental failure to secure weapons against theft and looting, the falsifying of export-control documents and the deliberate supply, by States, of weapons to rebel, insurgent and terrorist forces.
Citing real-world examples, he recalled that in 2016, Conflict Armament Research teams in Iraq traced a weapon that had been diverted to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) fewer than two months after its manufacture in Europe. Recent United Nations analysis reveals that the success rate of Member States in tracing weapons seized between 2016 and 2017 was less than 13 per cent, he added. Against that backdrop, he spotlighted specific initiatives by his organization, such as its “iTrace” tool, and its current support for the European Union and other partners in the enforcement of embargoes and sanctions.
Many Council members taking the floor agreed that the proliferation of small arms promotes violence, undermines respect for human rights, contributes to transnational organized crime and terrorism, and constitutes an obstacle to sustainable development. Several called attention to crucial international instruments intended to combating the illicit trade — including the 2001 Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, the Arms Trade Treaty and the International Tracing Instrument — expressing hope that all three instruments will be universally implemented as soon as possible.
Germany’s representative was among the speakers who echoed concern about the disproportionate impact of violence caused by small arms and light weapons on women and children. Emphasizing the need to include women in all conflict-related discussions, he also joined other speakers in calling for stronger export controls as well as tracing and marking systems. Above all, Council embargoes and sanctions must be respected, he said, stressing that it is unacceptable that some States remain open to violating the arms embargo imposed on Libya.
In similar vein, Niger’s representative welcomed the Secretary-General’s strong focus on the Sahel, noting that the flow of arms from Libya has exacerbated insecurity across the entire region. Citing his country’s efforts to curtail the illicit trade — despite its porous borders and the growing terrorist threat — he emphasized that supplying Libyan actors with weapons, in violation of the arms embargo, contributes to insecurity and human rights violations while setting back sustainable development gains across the region. All countries, especially arms-producing States, must act more responsibly, he stressed.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines commended Africa’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative while emphasizing that key instruments like the Nairobi Protocol and the Kinshasa Convention cannot succeed in the absence of structural economic development. Armed conflicts in destabilizing regions are moving from the battlefield to cities and villages, creating humanitarian crises that endanger the most vulnerable, she said. While Member States have the right to address arms control as they see fit, “this right is not absolute when domestic policies have implications beyond borders”, she stressed
Meanwhile, the Russian Federation’s representative noted that there has been no significant improvement in the fight against the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, which remains the main source of financing for terrorists and extremists. He expressed concern about the slow implementation of the United Nations Programme of Action and slippage in upholding the International Tracing Instrument, while calling for efforts to introduce a universal ban on the transfer of small arms to entities not authorized by recipient States. He also questioned references in the Secretary-General’s report to the Arms Trade Treaty, stressing that the instrument is far from universal and has a number of shortcomings.
Also speaking today were representatives of the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, China, Estonia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, Tunisia, Viet Nam, United States and Belgium.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, introduced the report of the Secretary-General on small arms and light weapons (document S/2019/1011), recalling that the Security Council began its biennial consideration of the subject 12 years ago by issuing a presidential statement (document S/PRST/2007/24) that articulated the deeply negative consequences of excessive and poorly controlled flows of small arms and light weapons. In sum, she noted, the Council recognized that illicit flows and excessive accumulation of such weapons compromise its effectiveness in discharging its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.
She went on to state that two themes of high relevance to the Council are the role of illicit small arms, light weapons and their ammunition in conflict and pervasive crime, and their deeply cross-cutting and wide-ranging impact of illicit small arms and light weapons flows. First, the destabilizing accumulation, illicit transfer and misuse of small arms and light weapons continue to initiate, sustain and exacerbate armed conflict and persuasive crime, she said, pointing out that small arms were used in nearly 50 per cent of all violent deaths between 2010 and 2015 on the global scale. That translates to more than 200,000 deaths each year, she added, noting that, with an estimated 1 billion small arms in circulation around the world, their use in lethal violence, whether in conflict or non-conflict settings, is prevalent across regions and subregions, from the Americas to Africa to Southern Europe.
No State is immune to the challenges posed by illicit arms flows, she emphasized, describing small arms as the weapons of choice in intra-State conflicts as well as terrorism, organized crime and gang warfare. Current and past crises before the Council — including those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti and Mali — have all been aggravated by the widespread availability and uncontrolled flow of small arms, light weapons and their ammunition, she said. The mandates of nine peacekeeping operations and special political missions — including the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) — currently address issues relating to conventional weapons, covering the control and management of small arms, light weapons and their ammunition, she added.
Secondly, the negative impact of illicit small arms and light weapons flows is cross-cutting and multidimensional, she continued, noting that small arms continue to facilitate a vast spectrum of actions that constitute violations of human rights. They include the killing and maiming of children, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, she said, adding that the Secretary-General has recognized the relationship between high levels of armed violence and challenges to the realization of sustainable development. His “Agenda for Disarmament” prioritizes “disarmament that saves lives”, including by calling for deeper and more coherent efforts at the national level, she noted.
Stressing that gender has not yet been sufficiently integrated into policies regulating small arms and light weapons, she said there has not been sufficient relevant research and data collection. The Office for Disarmament Affairs is implementing a project to promote approaches to small arms that includes systematic gender analysis, the integration of gender perspectives and the promotion of women’s empowerment, with financial support from the European Union, she said. “Compartmentalized treatment of the small arms and light weapons issue is not sufficient to address the seriousness and magnitude of the challenges arising from these weapons,” she cautioned, underlining the need to consider small arms and light weapons regularly and across issue areas if threats to international peace and security are to be addressed adequately.
DAMIEN SPLEETERS, Deputy Director of Operations, Conflict Armament Research, said the international community has sought to control the conventional arms trade since the early 1990s in order to minimize the diversion of weapons. “A lack of detailed reporting has consistently hampered these efforts,” he added, noting that most reports have failed to record unique weapon-identifying information and provided little indication of the provenance of weapons, thereby offering few avenues for further effective investigation. Meanwhile, ungrounded reporting has resulted in arms-control policymaking that fails to understand the dynamics it seeks to mitigate, he noted. Describing the situation as analogous to attempting to control the spread of an infectious disease without understanding its origins or transmission vectors, he said Conflict Armament Research works to gather “information that matters” on the battlefield.
He went on to say that the group recognizes the most effective ways to determine the origins of diverted weapons, ammunition and related materiel and to document them first-hand on the ground, emphasizing that such an approach places the physical weapon at the nucleus of its investigations. With the cooperation of weapons exporters and Governments, Conflict Armament Research traces each item’s transfer history through sales and supply records, from the place of manufacture to the point of diversion, he explained. It then aggregates the data, which often lead to several conclusions: Governments fail to secure their weapons against theft and looting; national defence and security forces are defeated, resulting in wholesale loss of weapons; export-control documents are falsified; States do not exercise proper due diligence when they grant export licences; imported weapons are subject to unauthorized transfers; and State-led initiatives deliberately supply weapons to rebel, insurgent and terrorist forces.
Emphasizing that weapons diversion has real consequences, he recalled that in 2016, Conflict Armament Research teams in Iraq traced a weapon that had been diverted to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) fewer than two months after its manufacture in Europe. The group also supports several United Nations instruments, including the Arms Trade Treaty, the Firearms Protocol, the Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the 2020 Group of Governmental Experts on Conventional Ammunition, he said. As for the Security Council, he noted that many of its resolutions have insisted that Member States make efforts to address the sources of weapons supplied to terrorists and to put laws in place to support victims.
However, the Secretary-General’s report indicates that the success rate of Member States in tracing weapons seized between 2016 and 2017 was typically less than 13 per cent, he pointed out. Recalling the Secretary-General’s calls for a “robust risk assessment” of such matters, he stressed the need for concrete evidence to support such an analysis. He went on to describe his group’s “iTrace” project, saying it is already providing support in the European Union and working in more than 30 conflict-affected States, from West Africa to the Middle East. Meanwhile, in the interest of enforcing embargos and sanctions, Conflict Armament Research has provided law enforcement agencies in several countries with detailed information about weapons traders within their jurisdictions, he said.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) underlined the importance of the Programme of Action, the International Tracing Instrument and the Arms Trade Treaty and expressed hope that all three instruments will be implemented universally. However, the international community has a long way to go, he said, emphasizing the essential need to strengthen laws, improve tracing and marking systems, enhance border control and destroy surplus weapons. As the most affected group, women must be fully integrated into all such efforts, he stressed. Citing Libya as an example of a conflict seriously exacerbated by the illicit trade in small arms, he stressed the need for more discussions at the global level on weapons marking and tracing mechanisms, as well as arms transfers through the “dark web”. Meanwhile, Council resolution 2220 (2015) should be updated to reflect the changing international situation, he said.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) emphasized that States bear the primary responsibility for regulating their own arms trades, including by implementing the Programme of Action and the International Tracing Instrument. Council resolution 2117 (2013) underlines the importance of international assistance in those areas, he said, emphasizing the need to ensure that assistance is provided. Combating the illegal trade in small arms also requires cooperation among States, in accordance with Council resolution 2457 (2019), which calls for further strengthening cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations, he said, citing the African Union’s “Silencing the Guns by 2020” campaign and similar positive examples. He said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has various forums to address challenges relating to the illicit trafficking of weapons, including a working group on arms smuggling and its Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime, he said. Governments should increase the participation and ownership of a range of stakeholders, he said, emphasizing: “This multifaceted challenge requires a multi-stakeholder response.”
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) called for strengthening the role of the United Nations in coordinating efforts to resolve the problem of small arms and light weapons, which is the main source of financing for terrorists and extremists. There has been no significant improvement in the fight against the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, he said, noting the insufficient pace of implementing the United Nations Programme of Action and the slippage in upholding the International Tracing Instrument. More effective implementation of the Programme of Action would help to introduce a universal ban on the transfer of all types of small arms and light weapons to entities not authorized by recipient States, he said, adding that it would also help the enactment of strict regulation of arms export brokering activities and limit the number of brokers as much as possible. Faster implementation would also help to ban the re-export of imported small arms and light weapons without the consent of the exporting State, he noted.
Emphasizing the need to ban arms manufacturers using expired or non-existent licences from countries owning the manufacturing technology, he said that such measures can be based on the relevant good practice of States, including the Russian Federation, which has enacted legislation in that area and can provide advice. He went on to state that the Secretary-General’s report contains several controversial points, notably on expanding the remit of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms by introducing an eighth category of small arms and light weapons. Stressing that the existing seven categories already cover all main types of conventional arms, he said the Security Council must, when making decisions on an eighth category, consider the bad precedent of using the Register for unintended purposes, namely to define the scope of arms embargos, which has been the case with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran. It is also questionable that the report refers to the Arms Trade Treaty, which is far from universal and does not fully allow for implementation of its own provisions, he said, pointing out that, additionally, the instrument does not include a ban on unlicensed arms manufacture or the transfer of weapons to non-State actors, and does not contain provisions for regulating the arms re-export protocol.
WU HAITAO (China) said the settlement of disputes by political means is critical to the elimination of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Emphasizing the need to strengthen peacekeeping as well as respect for the primary responsibility of States, he said countries must adhere strictly to Council resolutions relating to the trade, refrain from transferring weapons to non-State groups and engage in international cooperation on the issue — including by participating in multilateral discussions on a voluntary basis. Meanwhile, States should strengthen their efforts to improve management of stockpiles as well as tracing and collection mechanisms, while accelerating the destruction of surplus weapons, he said. China has launched national efforts to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, he added, pledging to continue its cooperation at the international level.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia), citing a January report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said the recent surge in armed violence in the Sahel has devastated civilians, emphasizing that peace and development in that region and elsewhere will remain elusive unless the misuse of and illicit trade in small arms is addressed. The issue should be further mainstreamed into the Council’s work, he said, expressing support for the inclusion of assistance for monitoring arms embargoes and for managing small arms within United Nations missions. Estonia endorses the Secretary-General’s recommendation to consider including the small arms issue in the women, peace and security agenda and enhancing the role of women as participants and decision-makers on the misuse of small arms in disarmament and arms-control programmes. Regional efforts should also be encouraged, he said, recalling the European Union’s 2018 launch of a strategy to combat illicit small arms as well as several subsequent projects to build capacity for small-arms control in the Western Balkans, the Middle East as well as Latin America and the Caribbean, in cooperation with United Nations agencies and regional organizations.
MARTHINUS VAN SCHALKWYK (South Africa) said his country supports addressing the link between curtailing the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons and the women, peace and security agenda by engaging women actively in national action plans, security-sector reform and broader peacebuilding. Noting the involvement of the African Union Peace and Security Council on the issue, he said the bloc’s member States are required to enact appropriate regulations and administrative procedures to ensure effective control over the production of and trade in small arms, including brokering activities, to prevent their illegal manufacture, trade or diversion to unauthorized actors. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act contains specific guiding principles for arms-transfer applications, he noted.
DAVID CLAY (United Kingdom) said small arms have legitimate uses, but their misuse fuels crime, violence and terrorism. The United Nations is undertaking considerable efforts to tackle the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, he said, calling for such efforts to be based on cutting-edge international research. Noting that important discussions will take place in the context of the seventh biennial meeting of States later in 2020, he called for universalization of the Arms Trade Treaty, urging all States that have not yet acceded to it to do so. While urging full respect for arms embargos imposed by the Council, he emphasized that the United Kingdom supports the lifting of sanctions when in accordance with changing conditions on the ground. However, he also expressed concern that sanctions are often lifted for political reasons and without due attention to the impact on the illicit trade in small arms. He went on to outline his country’s support for States around the globe, emphasizing that it provides significant bilateral and multilateral support in such areas as weapons marking and tracing as well as stockpile management.
ANNE GUEGUEN (France) noted that violence committed with small arms results in more victims annually than any other type of weapon. Access to such weapons and their ammunition remains easy, he said, adding that their transportation is easily concealable, as France has tragically witnessed first-hand in several terror attacks. Outlining her country’s international engagement, she called upon all Member States to respect the Council’s arms embargoes and to coordinate their efforts on the ground. Such efforts should be based on two pillars: prevention through the development of national control capacities as well as the marking and tracing of weapons; and the suppression of trafficking through strong cooperation among States. She went on to cite the positive example of the Western Balkans, saying France was particularly involved in that subregion, while expressing support for the “Silencing the Guns in Africa” initiative and calling for mutual learning of lessons in order to better calibrate international arms control efforts.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) emphasized that small arms and light weapons have an impact in terms of sustainable development, terrorism and organized crime, and particularly on women and children. The Council must update resolution 2220 (2015) and support regional activities, he said, adding: “We need a system that is working when it comes to export controls” as well as efforts on tracing and marking. Above all, the Council’s embargoes and sanctions must be respected, he said, emphasizing that it is unacceptable that States are still open to violating the arms embargo imposed on Libya. He went on to stress that he is not convinced that measures to secure weapons-storage areas in the Central African Republic are sufficient, citing cases of theft that have also affected countries in the Sahel.
MONCEF BAATI (Tunisia) expressed deep concern over the illicit flow of arms to Libya and the Sahel, underlining that they undermine prospects for a political solution and embolden the perpetrators of unrest. Describing arms control as a sine qua non for mitigating tensions, facilitating peace and fostering conditions suitable to increasing development, he stressed that the “Silencing the Guns” initiative is a priority for African Heads of State and Government. Noting that Tunisia does not produce or export any weapons, he said it adopted the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons and is a party to the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Similarly, Tunisia endorsed the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty, he said, underlining that its success hinges on State responsibility as well as cooperation among States and with international organizations. It is also important to increase assistance to help developing countries manage stockpiles, focus on marking and tracing, and destroy illicit weapons, he added.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) said the proliferation of small arms and light weapons continues to fuel many conflicts, including those in the Sahel. Commending international efforts to support national, regional and subregional arms-control efforts, he said that since 1994, Niger’s National Commission for the Collection and Control of Small Arms has helped to curtail their proliferation despite the country’s porous borders. However, much more remains to be done, especially in the context of emerging global threats and increased acts of terrorism, he emphasized. Welcoming the Secretary-General’s attention to insecurity in the Sahel and parts of Central Africa — which is exacerbated by the diversion of weapons and the flow of arms from Libya — he warned that continuing to supply actors in that country with weapons, in violation of the Council’s arms embargo, contributes to insecurity and serious violations of human rights in the Sahel. It also sets sustainable development back across the region, he said, underlining the need for all countries, especially arms-producing States, to act more responsibly.
DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), Council President for February, spoke in his national capacity, saying that since Member States have the main responsibility for combating illicit small arms and light weapons, they should implement the Programme of Action and relevant Council resolutions strictly. “At the same time, measures addressing this issue should not negatively affect the legitimate right of self-defence of Member States,” he added. Emphasizing the vital need for enhanced capacity-building and technical assistance, particularly for countries most in need, he urged the Council to focus on improving the design and implementation of relevant mandates and help host countries under arms embargo, without excessively restricting the legitimate security needs of their Governments. In addition, United Nations organs and agencies as well as international and regional organizations should work to strengthen cooperation, particularly by sharing good practices, he said, stressing his country’s strong commitment to addressing the illicit trade by enacting strong laws and relevant mechanisms to prevent and combat related crimes.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) emphasized that small arms trafficking cannot be divorced from others forms of trafficking — such as the exploitation of natural resource and wildlife — that provoke tensions among rival groups competing for power and profit. Regional and subregional organizations must work collectively to manage shared borders and regulate the movement of people, she stressed. Commending Africa’s ongoing “Silencing the Guns” initiatives, she stressed, however, that key instruments like the Nairobi Protocol and the Kinshasa Convention cannot succeed in the absence of structural economic development. She went on to point out that armed conflicts in destabilizing regions are moving from the battlefield to cities and villages, creating humanitarian crises that endanger the most vulnerable. “The gendered implications and gendered violence occasioned by small arms use cannot be ignored and should not be minimized,” she stressed. “We cannot sit idly by as these disturbing trends continue.” While Member States have the right to address arms control as they see fit, “this right is not absolute when domestic policies have implications beyond borders”, she added. Underlining the essential importance of regional cooperation, she reiterated the Caribbean Community’s 2011 declaration on small arms and light weapons, while pointing out that small arms find their way to countries that do not produce them and wreak havoc on vulnerable communities. “It is time to enforce greater accountability,” she said.
Mr. BARKIN (United States) said his country is fully committed to implementing the Programme of Action and the International Tracing Instrument, having worked alongside other States as well as international organizations to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The report rightly indicates the cross-cutting issues associated with such weapons and the need to focus on root causes, including poor stockpile management and cross-border trafficking, he added. The Council must ensure coordination among various other efforts under way, including as they relate to the women, peace and security agenda and the protection of civilians, he said, recalling that in 2018, States acknowledged the relationship between implementation of the Programme of Action and fighting gender-based violence. The report also indicates a struggle to fulfil existing commitments on small arms and light weapons, he noted. Calling for full implementation of sanctions, notably arms embargoes, he said they can improve Government record-keeping on stockpiles, adding that more efforts must be made to implement existing commitments. He went on to express concern over the report’s findings on civilian ownership of arms, calling for carful distinctions on that issue.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), Council President for February, spoke in his national capacity, stressing that every year, small arms and light weapons are responsible for 90 per cent of the victims of armed conflict, principally civilians. He described embargoes as effective if properly implemented, citing Libya as a “dramatic counter-example”. The Council must reassert its authority, particularly over its embargoes, since the response to illicit trafficking requires taking the complete life cycle of weapons and their ammunition into account, he said. Belgium supports more tracing of weapons in conflict and post-conflict areas, which requires technical and human means as well as an approach informed by reality on the ground, he said. Tracing helps to fight diversion and improve policies for securing stockpiles, which in turn makes it possible to implement embargoes and dismantle trafficking networks, he said, adding that monitoring allows peacekeepers to more effectively prevent the resurgence of violence. Belgium, therefore, calls for the inclusion of monitoring and tracing in peacekeeping mandates, he said, while calling attention to the essential role of regional organizations, and more broadly, to the challenge to upholding existing commitments posed by technology advances. He went on to underline the urgent need to complete the International Tracing Instrument, notably by adding an annex to account for the increased use of polymer and modular weapons.