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 U.N. Biennial Meeting

More than 100 governments will gather in New York from July 7 to 11, 2003, to assess progress in stemming the global proliferation of small arms.1 They will report on progress in implementing commitments made at a major conference on small arms held two years ago, in July 2001. These commitments are outlined in a United Nations (U.N.) Program of Action.2

The efforts made to date are welcome, but more action is needed to address the scourge of small arms and its devastating human impact. The uncontrolled proliferation and widespread misuse of small arms represents a global human rights and humanitarian crisis. Yet the human rights dimension of the small arms issue has received scant attention, including in the Program of Action. In August 2002, the Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, a U.N. body, recognized that "the protection of human rights must be central to the development of further principles and norms regarding the transfer and misuse of small arms" and expressed concern that "human rights are not being given adequate consideration in other contexts."3 To help fill this gap, in April 2003 it appointed an expert on human rights and small arms for a three-year term to study how to prevent abuses committed with small arms.4 Many observers hope that her study, which will address both the transfer and misuse of small arms, will help put human rights at the center of international debate and action on small arms.

To that same end, this briefing paper highlights the negative human rights consequences of small arms abuse. It demonstrates that many governments are involved in the misuse and proliferation of small arms or fail to take action against private actors who engage in such practices. Examples from Human Rights Watch research into incidents that have taken place since the first U.N. conference in July 2001 help to illustrate the nature and scope of the small arms problem, as well as the continued urgent need to tackle it. The briefing paper ends with suggestions for future action. We call for government action to break the small arms-abuses link:

  • Governments must prevent and punish small arms misuse, both by government agents and private actors.
  • Governments must cease authorized arms transfers to abusers and tighten controls to prevent and punish illicit arms trafficking.

    Key recommendations, from among a full list that appears below, include government action to:

  • Fulfill existing government responsibilities to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, and ensure that police and armed forces strictly uphold international standards.
  • Ensure adequate laws are in place to punish the misuse of small arms by private actors, and that these are effectively implemented and enforced.
  • Stop authorizing "legal" arms transfers to abusive recipients and adopt binding instruments on arms transfers that contain strong human rights and humanitarian criteria, such as the proposed international Arms Trade Treaty.
  • Close legal loopholes and strengthen lax controls that allow gray market trade in weapons to thrive and hold arms traffickers accountable.

    1 Small arms are weapons that can be carried and used by one person, and light weapons are for use by two people working as a crew. These include handguns, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns and light mortars. The term "small arms" is used here to cover both categories, as well as explosives and ammunition.

    2 The full name of the document is the U.N. Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects (PoA). The formal title of the upcoming meeting is the U.N. First Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the PoA at the National, Regional and Global Levels.

    3 The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, "The prevention of human rights violations caused by the availability and misuse of small arms and light weapons," Sub-Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/25, August 14, 2002.

    4 In April 2003, the UN Commission on Human Rights endorsed the decision of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to appoint Barbara Frey as Special Rapporteur to prepare a study on the prevention of human rights violations caused by the availability and misuse of small arms.

        The U.N. Program of Action