Expected Council Action
A high-level meeting on small arms is expected to be held at the initiative of Australia as President of the Council in September. Although Australia is having federal elections on 7 September, the elected prime minister is expected to preside over the meeting. The Secretary-General may brief the Council.
A resolution is a possible outcome.
The term “small arms and light weapons” covers arms intended for both civilian and military use. Small arms include revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns. Light weapons include heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems and mortars with calibres less than 100 millimetres. The category also includes ammunition and explosives. This list is available in the report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms of 27 August 1997 (A/52/298).
There are an estimated 875 million small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide, produced by more than 1,000 companies in nearly 100 countries. The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva estimates they are responsible for more than a half-million deaths each year, including 300,000 in armed conflict. Of the 49 major conflicts in the 1990s, small arms were the key weapons in 47 of them. Small-arms flows can also negatively affect disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) processes under Council mandates. In his 2005 report In Larger Freedom, the Secretary-General noted that “the accumulation and proliferation of small arms and light weapons continues to be a serious threat to peace, stability and sustainable development”.
Small arms also represent a sizeable industry: all countries—and numerous non-state armed groups—procure small arms. The Small Arms Survey estimates that their annual authorised trade exceeds $8.5 billion. Accurate assessments are difficult, complicated by the reluctance of many states to report publicly on their legal production, exports and imports of small arms. Analysis of illegal small-arms activities is even more difficult, with substantial numbers of legally acquired small arms entering illicit markets through corruption, seizure and loss. Among the top exporters of small arms are the US, Italy, Brazil, Germany and Russia.
The principal locus of UN work on small arms has been the General Assembly. Most recently, on 2 April, the General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) by an overwhelming majority of 154 to three (with 23 abstentions). The treaty obligates arms-exporting countries to report arms sales and transfers. States parties also agree not to authorise any transfer of conventional weapons—or their ammunition/munitions, parts or components—if the transfer would violate their Chapter VII obligations or those under international agreements or if they have knowledge that arms would be used in the commission of gross human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations.
Developments in the Council
The direct impact of small arms on conflicts has made them a topic of considerable attention on the part of the Council. For several years, the Council highlighted the importance of this issue by regularly addressing small arms as one of the thematic issues, placed on its agenda in 1999. The Council held nine debates and adopted five presidential statements between 1999 and 2006.
In 2006 an Argentinian initiative for a Council resolution on small arms was blocked by the US—which felt that it was an issue best dealt with in the General Assembly—and consequently no Secretary-General’s report was requested for 2007. On 29 June 2007, after months of negotiations, the Council issued a presidential statement requesting the Secretary-General to produce biennial reports on small arms, the first of which was discussed in an open debate on 30 April 2008 (S/PV.5881).
Despite the absence of a report from the Secretary-General in 2010, Gabon initiated a Council debate, under the agenda item “Central African region: impact of illicit arms trafficking” on 19 March 2010. In a presidential statement adopted at the conclusion of the debate, the Council reiterated that small arms pose a threat to peace and fuel armed conflict, and it called on states to enforce existing arms embargoes. The Council also requested that the Secretary-General take the content of the presidential statement into account in his next report. (Gabon also attempted to initiate a debate on drug trafficking and small arms—under the agenda item “threats to international peace and security”—during its June 2011 presidency, but eventually the 24 June debate focused solely on drug trafficking.)
The Secretary-General’s report due in 2010 was delayed until 2011 and issued on 5 April (S/2011/255). On 25 April the Council received a briefing on the report in consultations. The report encouraged states to strengthen their tracing capacity and to enhance international cooperation regarding tracing, as well as asked states to voluntarily provide the UN with information on the ammunition markings used by manufacturers in their jurisdiction.
The Council received the Secretary-General’s latest biennial report on 22 August. The report takes stock of efforts to address the issue and contains 15 recommendations. Among them, it recommends that the Council take into account the capacity of a state to control its exiting arms when planning peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations and that those missions are mandated to assist their host states to manage their arms stockpiles effectively. It recommends that the Council consider utilising new technologies that can reduce the risk of diversion of arms to illicit activities in those states. The Secretary-General further recommends that in light of the impact of small arms on the protection of civilians and violence against women and children, UN officials dealing with these issues should consult regularly with UN entities dealing with small arms.
As the Council has not discussed the agenda item “small arms” in a formal meeting since 30 April 2008, the item was deleted from the list of agenda items of which the Council is seized on 30 April 2012. (According to Council practice, matters that have not been considered by the Council in the preceding three years are deleted from the list unless a request to retain a matter is received from a member state, in which case the matter is provisionally retained but only for one year. Thereafter, the matter is automatically deleted if it has not been considered by the Council during the intervening period.)
Australia is seeking to revive Council focus on the issue, as it has significant impact on the country-specific and thematic issues on the agenda of the Council, such as protection of civilians. It also has an impact on the tools available to the Council, such as arms embargoes, DDR in peacebuilding and peacekeeping missions and counterterrorism.
Australia, wishing to build upon the momentum following the adoption of the ATT in the General Assembly, sees the meeting as an opportunity to reflect on the role of the Council on small arms. In its view, a holistic discussion of small arms is timely, as small arms have not been discussed as such in the Council since 2008.
A key issue for the Council is to use this high-level meeting as an opportunity to renew its focus on small arms as a thematic issue with considerable impact on many aspects of its work.
Another issue is to adopt an outcome document that introduces practical measures to enhance the Council’s effectiveness on issues related to small arms.
The Council may adopt a resolution or presidential statement that addresses all or some of the following points relating to small arms:
- coordination of Council efforts (between peacekeeping missions in a single region and between peacekeeping missions and panels of experts);
- UN coordination with regional organisations;
- improvements in arms embargoes;
- support for security sector reform and DDR efforts;
- Council counterterrorism efforts;
- the relevance of small arms to protection of civilians issues; or
- more regular reporting by the Secretary-General.
As the 2006 Argentinian initiative for a resolution and the prolonged negotiations on the 2007 presidential statement indicate, some Council members are reluctant to see enhanced Council involvement in the small arms debate. As with some other thematic issues, some Council members are also concerned that the Council may be encroaching on the work of the General Assembly on the arms trade. In addition, arms-manufacturing states have been historically reluctant for the Council to be assertive on small arms as a thematic issue and have been especially concerned about language and action on the dangers caused by legal small arms trade. Some members may also be resistant to re-inserting small arms to the Council agenda.
In order to alleviate some of these concerns, Australia (President of the Final UN conference on the ATT that took place from 18-28 March 2013) will try to focus its efforts on the illicit transfer, accumulation and use of small arms and light weapons. In addition, Council members supportive of a resolution will be mindful not to use language that appears to encroach on the mandate of the General Assembly and will want to focus on the aspects of small arms that specifically touch upon international peace and security.
UN Documents on Small Arms
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|19 March 2010 S/PRST/2010/6||This statement was adopted at the conclusion of the thematic debate on small arms and light weapons and the Central African region.|
|29 June 2007 S/PRST/2007/24||This presidential statement noted with concern that the accumulation and illicit manufacture, trade and circulation of small arms contributed to the prolongation and increase in intensity of armed conflicts and undermined the sustainability of peace; reaffirmed the right to individual or collective self-defence; and requested a Secretary-General’s report on a biennial basis starting in 2008.|
|22 August 2013 S/2013/503||This was the report on small arms.|
|5 April 2011 S/2011/255||This was the report of the Secretary-General on small arms.|
|21 March 2005 A/59/2005||This was the Secretary-General’s report In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|19 March 2010 S/PV.6288||This was the thematic debate on small arms and light weapons and the Central African region.|
|19 March 2010 S/PV.6288 (Resumption 1)||This was the resumption of the thematic debate on small arms and light weapons and the Central African region.|
|30 April 2008 S/PV.5881||This was a debate on small arms.|
|General Assembly Documents|
|27 August 1997 A/52/298||This was the report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms.|