SALW at a glance
While there is no universally accepted definition of a small arm or of a light weapon, portability is considered as an essential criterion. According to the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (1997), SALW “range from clubs, knives and machetes to those weapons just below those covered by the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms”. In general, small arms refer to weapons designed for individual use, and light weapons are designed for use by several persons serving as a crew.
SALW have unique characteristics which make them attractive for irregular warfare, terrorism, and criminal activities: they are cheap, easy to handle/ transport/ conceal, and can cause heavy casualties.
Experts estimate that the total number of small weapons held around the world is at least 875 million of which about 650 million are in civilian hands.
There are 1,000 companies in around 100 countries involved in small arms production, with significant producers in around 30 countries. The trade of small arms is the least transparent of all weapon systems. Indeed, according to the Small Arms Survey: “more is known about the number of nuclear warheads, stocks of chemical weapons and transfers of major conventional weapons than about small arms”.
Stockpiles play a key role in the illegal circulation of SALW. Some warehouses holding arms or ammunitions are not sufficiently secured and controlled, which makes it easy for non state actors to divert arms from governments or private suppliers.
Moreover, these storage facilities are a threat for civilians because of the risk of explosions that have the potential to cause numerous casualties, force people to leave their homes, and seriously damage the environment.
From a human security perspective, small arms and light weapons are of particular importance; their effects on public health, human rights, social and economic development make them primarily an issue of human security rather than of national or military security. Indeed, due to their often-uncontrolled spread and widespread availability, SALW undermine human security, more than any other kind of conventional weapon, by impacting a wide-range of areas: they damage fragile economies, deter foreign investments, divert economic resources, inhibit the fulfilment of basic human needs, and facilitate human rights violations (such as killing, maiming, sexual violence, torture, and forced recruitment of children by armed and criminal groups, etc). Moreover, they fuel conflicts and exacerbate insecurity, which leads to an increase in the demand for weapons. This vicious cycle hinders development.
Initiatives from the affected communities
Innovative and proactive initiatives in response to violence related to small arms are emerging from the affected communities themselves: from anti-weapons campaigns in Rio de Janeiro to gun-free zones in Johannesburg.
Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration
One particular area in which experience has been fast developing – and where there have been notable successes – is the process known as Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). In almost all current conflicts that have been resolved, or are on the way to resolution, effective DDR exercises have been vital in preventing a resurgence of violence. The combatants have to be gathered together in cantonments; weapons must be surrendered and secured; re-training programmes need to be readied; food, clothing, housing and other basic needs must be supplied; there will need to be psychological and employment-related counselling; support must be provided for family members; and follow up monitoring planned. This is a costly process but an essential investment in the affected community’s development.
To coordinate the efforts of the United Nations, a system-wide mechanism, the Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA), was established in 1998 to help all the various departments and agencies share information, experience, and practices, and to provide a forum for consultation in matters related to the field of small arms and light weapons. In July 2008, CASA launched an initiative to develop a set of International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS).
In 2001, the governments signed the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects. However it has two major drawbacks: first, it is NOT a legally binding instrument, and second, it only relates to the illegal trade. Most analysts appear convinced that the origin of most weapons is in the legal trade, which accounts for some 80% of the total trade in SALW and at this stage is hard to subject to international regulation. Review conferences are organised in order to assess the progress made in the implementation of the PoA.
In 2005, governments agreed on the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), which aims at ensuring the adequate marking of, record-keeping for, and tracing of SALW, in order to avoid illicit trade.
Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC)
Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue: Human Security and Small Arms Programme
Control Arms Campaign
Gun-Free South Africa
International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA)
International Committee of the Red Cross
Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers
Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), Geneva Process
Saferworld – Arms Control Programme
Small Arms Survey
Small Arms Working Group (SAWG)
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)