Small Arms and Human Rights: The Need for Global Action

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper for the U.N. Biennial Meeting on Small Arms

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Key Sections

The U.N. Biennial Meeting
The U.N. Program of Action
Small Arms Misuse
Small Arms Transfers
The Way Forward

The Way Forward

The U.N. has been at the lead in promoting awareness of the global small arms problem. Through the first-ever U.N. conference on small arms in 2001 and the planned follow up to that event, it has spurred action at the national, regional, and global level to begin to confront the problem. To date, however, governments have generally conceived the problem narrowly as one of national security rather than human security. They largely have focused attention on the action of private arms traffickers, deflecting their own responsibility. A human rights approach to small arms, by contrast, puts people at the center of the analysis and highlights that it is up to governments to take action to respond to the small arms problem.

The upcoming biennial meeting offers an opportunity to make an honest assessment of successes and shortcomings in the global response to the human rights and humanitarian challenge of small arms. With a further biennial meeting set for 2005 and a full-fledged review conference scheduled for 2006, this is an opportune moment for governments to inject new energy into international action on small arms, commit to adopting a human rights-centered approach, and to set out an agenda for action that will protect people from small arms abuses in the future.

Governments must take strong measures to halt and prevent the misuse of weapons, beginning with a focus on their own behavior:

  • Fulfill existing government responsibilities to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, including by exercising due control over private actors.
  • Ensure that police and armed forces strictly uphold international standards.

    • Apply strict norms of discipline and accountability to all security structures.
    • Ensure civilian oversight, include vetting procedures, provide appropriate training that includes training in human rights and international humanitarian law, and provide for effective accountability measures to hold violators responsible. Improve record-keeping and control over the use of firearms by security forces.
    • Where needed, undertake security sector reform programs.

  • Bar the formation of civilian militias and do not permit local communities to take on or share in armed law enforcement functions without strict oversight, proper training, full adherence to legal standards that are consistent with human rights norms, and strong accountability measures.
  • Stop all recruitment, training, and use of children under the age of eighteen for military service and ensure their disarmament, demobilization, and social rehabilitation.
  • Ensure adequate laws are in place to punish the misuse of small arms by private actors, and that these are effectively implemented and enforced.

    In addition, governments must cut off arms flows to abusers, both internationally and within their own borders:

  • Stop authorizing "legal" arms transfers to abusive recipients.

    • Adopt strict arms export criteria on the observance of human rights and compliance with international humanitarian law. Incorporate those into national arms trade laws so as to make them binding.
    • Develop and strengthen regional codes of conduct, which should be made binding.
    • Negotiate a binding international instrument on arms transfers that contains strong human rights and humanitarian criteria, such as the proposed international Arms Trade Treaty.
    • Comply fully with the provisions of all applicable instruments defining minimum export criteria, such as European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, as well as the measures of restraint agreed in other fora, such as the Wassenaar Arrangement.
    • Halt the flow of arms to governments and groups that recruit and use child soldiers.

  • Close legal loopholes and strengthen lax controls that allow gray market trade in weapons to thrive and hold arms traffickers accountable.

    • Implement and enforce arms embargoes.
    • Impose controls on arms brokers, licensing their activities using strict human rights criteria.
    • Prosecute and punish arms traffickers and corrupt government officials involved in illicit arms deals.
    • Move forward to negotiate binding international treaties on arms brokering and marking and tracing.
    • Develop an international regime for the standardization, authentication, and verification, and continued monitoring of end-user commitments.

  • Increase transparency regarding the arms trade

    • Prepare and make public a detailed annual report on arms transfers.
    • Provide advance notification to national legislatures of pending arms deals.
    • Ensure that military finances are transparent and part of the formal budget in order to prevent opaque and off-budget arms transfer practices that can undermine good governance, foster corruption, and permit unaccountable governments to squander their countries' resources.

  • Secure arms stockpiles and dispose responsibly of surplus and seized weapons to prevent them from being stolen or sold off to unaccountable forces.
  • Monitor how weapons supplied to foreign forces are used, and make such end-use monitoring a standard condition of arms transfers.
  • Combat corruption and conflicts of interest among authorities responsible for controlling arms transfers.

    Small Arms Transfers   Printer Friendly - PDF (Annexure only), 8 pages