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Illicit small arms and light weapons: International and EU action

Written by Carmen-Cristina Cîrlig

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) are the main tools used in today’s conflicts, be they inter-state wars, civil wars or the actions of organised crime, and the cause of the majority of deaths from armed violence in the world – of combatants, but also, and mainly, of civilians. As past efforts have mostly been dedicated to controlling nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the scourge of illicit SALW has only relatively recently drawn international attention, together with the increasing awareness that SALW are ‘the real weapons of mass destruction’.

© rosam / Fotolia

Estimations point to around 875 million SALW in circulation globally, with the majority of small arms belonging to the private sphere. Their illicit proliferation, both in areas experiencing armed conflict and in non-conflict settings, contributes to the increase in global armed violence, to insecurity due to fear of gun violence, and to delaying conflict resolution. Moreover, the accumulation of SALW also has destabilising effects on entire countries and regions. Furthermore, trafficking in SALW (including ammunition) and their diversion from legal to illicit users and/or uses can have important humanitarian and socio-economic consequences, including with regard to domestic violence and gender-based violence.

While the global legal trade in SALW and their ammunition has greatly increased in the past decade, so has the question about how to deal with the diversion of SALW from the licit to the illicit sphere. The United Nations (UN) Programme of Action, the International Tracing Instrument and, most recently, the UN Arms Trade Treaty represent the main international commitments on combating and eradicating illicit SALW. Within this framework, states agreed to cooperate in combatting and ultimately eradicating illicit SALW, through a series of legal and political commitments, at national, regional and international level.

The European Union (EU) is a strong supporter of international efforts to eradicate SALW, and, in this context, it has backed proposals on international legally binding instruments to address conventional weapons transfers, including SALW and their ammunition, and to fight the proliferation and trafficking of illicit SALW. Moreover, the EU has established a policy and legal framework to deal with illicit SALW, having at its centre the ‘Strategy to combat illicit accumulation and trafficking of SALW and their ammunition’. Finally, the EU is a consistent provider of SALW-related assistance projects to third countries.

The European Parliament has also played a role in promoting EU initiatives on SALW, and in particular supported the UN Programme of Action from the start, as well as the Arms Trade Treaty. However, the Parliament has yet to adopt a resolution dedicated exclusively to the issue of SALW.

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