Small Arms and Light Weapons, Inhumane Conventional Weapons, Anti-Personnel Mines, and Cluster Bombs


Small Arms and Light Weapons, Inhumane Conventional Weapons, Anti-Personnel Mines, and Cluster Bombs



Small arms and light weapons (SALW) include all firearms (and their ammunition) in the categories of pistols, revolvers, rifles, submachine guns, and light machine guns (all small arms), as well as heavy machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers (portable anti-tank weapons and MANPADS or light anti-aircraft missiles) of less than 100 millimetres calibre, hand grenades, anti-personnel mines (APM), and cluster munitions (bombs) (all light weapons).1

There is no universally agreed definition of small arms or light weapons. But it is widely recognized that both categories of weapons include both the weapons used by the military, security forces, and police, and the weapons that are commercially available in gun shops and purchased by civilians for personal protection or hunting. Small arms and light weapons may also be purchased or procured illegally and sold and used by irregular forces, terrorists, and criminal individuals or gangs.

At the request of the United Nations General Assembly, the secretary general, assisted by a panel of governmental experts, presented a report on small arms in 1997.2 The report describes small arms as weapons manufactured for personal use and carried by one person as opposed to light weapons, which are used and transported by two or more persons or in a vehicle. The report concludes that there is a clear correlation between access to weapons and drugs- and arms smuggling and that the crimes and violence that are a result of the availability of small arms and light weapons inhibits development projects, economic assistance, and investment in developing countries.

The secretary general’s report was the first to systematically map the types of small arms and light weapons that are actually being used in armed conflicts, and the nature and causes of the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons, including their illicit production and trade. Among the recommendations in the report was a call for the United Nations to consider the possibility of convening an international conference on all aspects of the illegal arms trade. The decision to convene the conference was taken by resolution 53/77 E, of 1998. The civil society organizations – in particular, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) – were critical to achieving consensus on convening the conference and played an important role in pushing the issue of SALW on the international agenda. The NGOS had pointed out the link between the small arms problem and human rights and development and humanitarian issues.3

Since 1995, the UN General Assembly has included the question of SALW on the agenda and adopted many resolutions on this item. The 70th General Assembly adopted resolution 70/49, The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, which was adopted without a vote.

In recognition of the magnitude of the small arms problem and its negative consequences for maintaining international peace and security, the UN Security Council has since 1999 also included small arms and light weapons on its agenda every second year, when the Council holds a thematic discussion on SALW. In the chairman’s statement from the first meeting in September 1999 the Security Council emphasized that the accumulation of small arms and light weapons poses a threat to international peace and security and contributes to causing and increasing the intensity and duration of armed conflicts. The Council called on member states to implement effective arms embargoes for countries that pose a threat to international peace and security or find themselves involved in an armed conflict, and recommended that peace agreements should contain guidelines to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants. Resolution 2220 (2015) is the latest resolution of the Security Council on small arms and light weapons. The most recent report on small arms and light weapons from the secretary general to the Council is contained in document S/2015/289 of 2015.

The Small Arms Survey Yearbook 2001: Profiling the Problem sets the whole problem of small arms in perspective in the first sentence of the introduction: “At least 500,000 people are killed each year by small arms and light weapons. They die in an astonishingly diverse number of ways: as combatants in internal and inter-state wars; as participants in gang fights and criminal battles; as casualties of government-sponsored or condoned violence and terror; as innocent civilians trapped in deadly wars and social conflicts; and as victims of suicide, homicide, or random acts of violence.” The number of deaths is 1,300 each day. The total number is higher than the number of deaths in almost all recent wars. Since 1990, approximately 4 million people have been killed by small arms and light weapons. It is therefore no exaggeration to call small arms and light weapons the real weapons of mass destruction. Most armed conflicts today are fought with small arms and light weapons: in civil wars, organized crime, including drug-related crime, gang violence, and terrorist attacks. In Mexico alone about 48,000 people have been killed over four years (2008–12) in drug-related violence in the war between the drug cartels and between these and the police and military – a war that is being fought mainly with small arms and light weapons.

Africa and Latin America are two regions where small arms and light weapons are widespread and have the greatest destabilizing effect. Economic and social development in many African countries has been impeded because of internal armed conflicts, to which the availability of small arms has contributed to flare up and continue the conflicts. In Latin America – and in particular in Colombia and Mexico and some of the Central American countries – drug-related crime is a serious social problem. The main concern in most Latin American countries is the rise in crime, particularly in major urban areas, which is mostly carried out with firearms.

Most small arms are owned by civilians. Most victims of small arms are civilians. The weapons are cheap to purchase and easy to operate, carry, and conceal. The widespread availability of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition in many countries is a key enabler of conflict. It is difficult to trace small arms, which are often transferred to criminals. According to the United Nations, around 8 million small arms are being produced each year. Today, the global number of small arms is about 875 million. The Small Arms Survey estimates that the value of the annual sales by authorized (legal) trade in small arms and light weapons is approximately US$7 billion. The United States is by far the largest import and export country of these weapons.


It is understandable and logical that the regulation of weapons in international law has been focused on introducing internationally applicable prohibitions and regulations of weapons of mass destruction. Obviously, these weapons have the potential to kill the biggest number of people. As a result of the prohibitions and regulations in the treaties and conventions on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, these weapons of mass destruction have been used very rarely. Nuclear weapons have not been used in more than seventy years.

The problem of small arms and light weapons and the many – mostly civilian – victims of small arms was first put on the international agenda after the end of the Cold War. In the beginning of the 1990s, the focus increased on small arms, which were increasingly spreading in large quantities to developing countries where internal conflicts had erupted. In recent decades, the light anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) have increasingly given rise to concern. About 500,000 of these weapons have been produced and many have been sold on the illicit arms market. The missiles, which are only about 1.8 metres long and weigh between 15 and 20 kilograms, are extremely effective because of their infrared (heat-seeking) targeting system and range: up to 6 kilometres in altitude, constituting a serious threat to low-flying helicopters and to both military and civilian aircraft during takeoff and landing.

United Nations Firearms Protocol

The international regulation of small arms and light weapons first began in 2001, when the United Nations General Assembly, by resolution 55/255, adopted the international, legally binding Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition. The Protocol entered into force in 2005. The Protocol supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime of 2008, whose purpose is to promote international cooperation on strengthening the prevention and combat of transnational organized crime.

Similarly, the purpose of the Firearms Protocol is to promote, facilitate, and strengthen cooperation between states to prevent, combat, and eradicate the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in firearms, and strengthen the prevention and control of transboundary organized crime. The parties to the protocol undertake to adopt laws that criminalize the illicit manufacture and trafficking of firearms and introduce rules on labelling and tracing firearms, and a licensing system for the export, import, and transit of firearms. The protocol has been ratified by 114 countries and signed by another 52 countries, including China, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The United States, Russia, France, Iran, Israel, and Pakistan are among the countries that have not signed.

United Nations Small Arms and Light Weapons Program of Action

The United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms was held in July 2001 in New York, resulting in the unanimous adoption of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.4 The Action Program is not legally binding under international law, only politically binding. The participating states in the Action Program agree to implement a wide range of measures at national, regional, and global levels to prevent, combat, and eradicate illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons by monitoring the export, transit, and broking of transfers of small arms and light weapons. They must also promote the coordination of efforts and implement international measures to combat the illegal manufacture and transfer of small arms and light weapons.

To follow up on the decisions of the Conference, the participating states recommended that the United Nations General Assembly explore ways to adopt an international instrument to identify and trace illicit small arms, and consider further steps to enhance international cooperation to prevent, combat, and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms through professional arms brokers. They also recommended convening a review conference not later than 2006, and every six years thereafter, with follow-up meetings to be held every two years.

After the Action Program had been adopted, the president of the Conference made a final statement, expressing disappointment that, because of resistance from one country, the conference had failed to reach an agreement on the need to establish and maintain control of private possession of small arms by citizens and on preventing sales of small arms to non-state actors. This country was the United States.

United Nations Small Arms and Light Weapons International Tracing Instrument

Small arms tracing is “the systematic tracking of illicit small arms and light weapons found or seized on the territory of a state from the point of manufacture or the point of importation through the lines of supply to the point at which they became illicit.” In December 2005, by a recorded vote of 151 in favour, none against, and with 25 abstentions (Latin American countries), the General Assembly adopted the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons.5 The International Tracing Instrument commits all United Nations member states to undertake measures to ensure specific marking and record-keeping standards for small arms and light weapons, and to use common rules to strengthen cooperation in tracing illicit firearms. However, it does not apply to ammunition, which still relies on an ineffective system of stamping and a patchwork of national regulations. The participating states report on a biennial basis to the secretary general on their implementation of the instrument, including their national experience in tracing illicit small arms and light weapons as well as the measures they take in the field of international cooperation and assistance. The states meet every two years to consider the national reports and review the implementation and future development of the Instrument.

Small Arms Policy in the United States

Opposition by the United States to the United Nations Program of Action for eradicating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons was not unexpected. The American delegation made it clear on the first day of the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms in 2001 that it could not accept a ban on the right of citizens to possess small arms.

The background for the position of the United States on the right of private citizens to possess small arms, in particular handguns, is in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” A militia is a group of non-professional soldiers, e.g., like the National Guard of the United States, which is the military reserve of the United States Armed Forces.6

This amendment may be interpreted as meaning that “in cases where a well-regulated militia is necessary for the security of a free state, the citizens’ right to own and bear arms shall not be violated.” This provision was included in the Constitution because small arms played an important role in colonizing America, especially for European immigrants’ conquest of rural areas inhabited by the Indigenous populations. Arming citizens was also crucial during the fight for freedom against British forces during the American Revolutionary War (1775–83).

The interpretation of the Second Amendment in the United States Constitution and the very liberal arms legislation in most American states have been vigorously debated in American domestic politics and have been the subject of many analyses and judgments by courts in the United States. The controversial issue of American gun laws was demonstrated in the US Supreme Court’s June 2008 decision in the District of Columbia v. Heller case. A majority of five judges confirmed a ruling by a district court that legislation banning handguns was unconstitutional because such legislation violated the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

The majority ruled that Americans have an individual right to possess firearms, regardless of whether they are members of a militia, for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defence within the home. The majority of the judges in the Supreme Court rejected the argument by the four dissenting judges that the Second Amendment only secured the right to bear arms for members of a publicly regulated militia and did not restrict the legislature’s right to regulate civil possession and use of firearms. In fifty American states it is legal to carry a firearm for protection and other lawful purposes. However, before a firearm may be purchased from a licensed dealer, manufacturer, or importer, a personal background check is required, according to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, signed into law by President Clinton in November 1993.

According to the 2008 majority ruling by the US Supreme Court, the right to private gun ownership in the home is not unlimited. It is still possible for individual states to regulate small arms by adopting legal provisions that may prohibit former convicted criminals or mentally disturbed individuals from possessing weapons, prohibit especially dangerous weapons, prohibit the presence of weapons in certain public places such as schools and government buildings, or introduce conditions and requirements for the commercial sale of arms to private citizens.

The discussion on regulating small arms for civilians has repeatedly flared up after major school shootings: In Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, where twelve students and one teacher were killed; Blacksburg, Virginia, in April 2007, with thirty-two dead; and New-town, Connecticut, in December 2012, with twenty-six victims, including twenty young children. Since 2013, there have been at least 150 school shootings in America – an average of nearly one per week. In President Obama’s words, school shootings “have become routine.”

According to “Gun Violence Archive,”7 there were 330 mass shootings in the US in 2015. These are defined as incidents in which four or more people were shot and/or killed in a single event at the same time and location, not including the shooter. Gun violence caused 13,381 deaths in 2015 (an average of 36 per day) and almost 27,000 injuries. In 2015, there were five major mass shootings with more than eight casualties, the latest in Roseburg, Oregon, in October 2015, with ten killed and nine injured; and in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, with sixteen killed and nineteen injured.


When will this gun madness stop?

There are more handguns per capita in the United States than any other country in the world – an estimated 300 million firearms – and one or more guns in forty per cent of all homes. Seventy million Americans own one or more guns.

The majority of the American population considers the right to own a firearm to defend themselves an inviolable right that is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, and there is a long and deep-rooted tradition of gun culture.

The most powerful American interest group of supporters of liberal arms legislation and defenders of the right of private citizens to own firearms is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which was founded in 1871. The NRA