Small arms and their ammunition have become weapons of choice in armed conflicts and violent crime. An increasing number of international organisations are studying this phenomenon with a view to combating illicit transfers and uses of these weapons and limiting their dissemination and proliferation. The United Nations organised a conference to specifically address the subject for the first time in July 2001.
One of the major hurdles facing the struggle to curb this phenomenon is the difficulty of identifying the responsibilities of those involved in the illicit production, transfer and uses of small arms. Indeed, when an investigation is launched, it is rapidly confronted with the impossibility of working its way back to the source of the weapons and tracing the route they followed. Two important factors stand out as contributing to this failure: first, weapons are not marked in a reliable and universal manner, if they are marked at all; secondly, production and transfers that are legal at the outset are not systematically recorded, which allows subsequent illicit transfers without the possibility of identifying the link in the chain where the re-routing occurred.
This report discusses the intrinsic links between licit and illicit markets and the relation between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ weapons, emphasising the need to adopt a global approach to these issues. The UN definition of small arms and light weapons is addressed and the current system for marking and tracing them is described. A detailed study of existing Belgian legislation regulating trade, production and possession of weapons is accompanied by several recommendations aimed at improving small arms tracing.
The recently-established Firearms Protocol of the UN Economic and Social Council is examined in detail. This is followed by a review of recent research on developing a reliable and universal system of marking small arms and ammunition.
The author recommends that, in addition to a reliable and universal system of marking at the manufacturing stage, all weapons transactions should be systematically recorded and centralised in a common register that should be accessible to states and eventually to authorised investigators. The establishment of an international agency responsible for collecting information related to international transfers, ensuring after-sales follow-up and initiating investigations in the event of illicit re-routing or uses would ensure increased transparency.
The report concludes with an analysis of the July 2001 UN Conference on small arms and lights weapons and its Programme of Action, from the point of view of marking and tracing.