Conventional arms are defined as weapons that are not “of mass destruction” which do not fall under the category of biological, chemical, nuclear or radiological weapons. This distinction was made after the Second World War and the apparition of nuclear weapons.
The UN Register of Conventional Arms sets out seven key categories of conventional arms:
• Large-calibre artillery systems,
• Combat aircraft and Battle tanks,
• Attack helicopters,
• Armoured combat vehicles
• Warships (including submarines),
• Missiles and missile launchers (including short-range mobile air defence systems).
However, this definition may be considered to be incomplete because it does not take into account small arms and light weapons and some security equipment. This is why France actively supports adding a new category for small arms and light weapons to the Register.
Small arms and light weapons (SALW), the exact definition of which varies from text to text, correspond to firearms of a calibre smaller than 100mm that can be carried by a single individual (including portable launchers and anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets).
Their size belies the danger they present. Estimates suggest that over 800 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation around the world. They are thought to be responsible for nearly half a million deaths every year. These weapons are also responsible for 90% of deaths in armed conflicts, particularly of women and children.
The spread of these weapons constantly fuels numerous regional conflicts, fosters organized crime and encourages terrorism. Above and beyond these negative effects, they are also a major destabilizing factor and a brake to the development of the most fragile States, including in Africa.
Despite these devastating humanitarian and development effects, the legal and illegal trade in SALW was, until very recently, subject to no legally binding universal regulation.
In order to attempt to effectively eradicate this scourge, the international community has taken action. It has mobilized in the frameworks of the United Nations, the European Union and many other regional organizations. Several initiatives exist in the fields of:
• Transfer control,
• Stock securing, including munitions, and destruction of surpluses.
Among these initiatives is the international initiative launched by France which aims to fight illegal air transport of SALW.
The scope of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force on 24 December 2014, includes SALW. The international community therefore now has a binding instrument to better regulate the transfer of small arms (for further information, see the section on “regulation of the arms trade”).
The “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA)”, adopted by consensus during the United Nations Conference on Light Weapons in July 2001, provides the general framework for all international and regional initiatives. It includes a series of non-binding commitments, providing for:
- at the national level, improved control over the production, export, import, transit or retransfer of light weapons;
- at regional level:
. establishment of moratoria on the transfer and manufacture of small arms and light weapons in affected regions,
. action programmes to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in them;
- at international level
. encouraging States to strengthen their cooperation to trace illegal light weapons;
. drawing up a shared position on the main issues relating to the illegal brokering of light weapons.
The adoption in 2005 of the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, initiated jointly by France and Switzerland, strengthened the UN framework to combat the spread of these weapons.
The United Nations Register of Conventional Arms was created in 1992 by the General Assembly, with the aim of ensuring greater transparency in transfers of conventional arms and of strengthening confidence and security between countries. It provides that governments shall voluntarily share information on exports and imports of seven categories of key weapons.
Every year, the United Nations compiles and officially publishes the data provided by countries and makes them available to the public. It should be noted that more than 170 countries have provided data at least once to the Register since it was created in 1993.
During talks on the proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the United Nations Register of Conventional Weapons was cited by a great many countries as a possible benchmark for the scope of the ATT, with small arms and light weapons being incorporated.
Within this framework, France:
• provides information to the United Nations Secretariat every year concerning its imports and exports, the equipment of its armed forces, and purchases related to national production of major arms.
This data is available in the annual report to Parliament on weapons exports, a sign of France’s desire for transparency.
• advocates for the addition of a new category for small arms and light weapons (SALW) and has voluntarily communicated the data regarding its exports and imports of SALW to the United Nations since 2008.
• supports universalization of the Register, in order to ensure that the participation of countries continues to grow, and improved presentation of the data provided by the countries.
The European Union has adopted several texts aimed at combating the illegal spread of SALW, including:
• A joint action, adopted by the Council in 2002, on the European Union’s contribution to combating the destabilising accumulation and spread of small arms and light weapons. The EU also puts civilian and military capacities at the disposal of states to fight the accumulation and dissemination of SALW.
• A Common Position on the control of arms brokering, in 2003, which applies to weapons including SALW. It aims to prevent the circumventing of multilateral embargoes by incorporating specific provisions for the licencing of brokers, the retention of transaction data and exchange of information between Member States on authorized transfers.
The “EU strategy to combat the illicit accumulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their ammunition” was adopted by the European Council in 2005 and highlights the importance of combating the illicit spread if SALW for combat conflict prevention. This strategy emphasizes two regions in particular: Eastern Europe (weapons stocks issue) and Africa (destination continent). The strategy mentions all the available European instruments and lays out a plan of action:
• creation of mechanisms for exchange of information concerning SALW smuggling networks, including in the framework of monitoring compliance with embargoes (UN, EU) and through toughening European control of illegal transport of SALW by air;
• development of cooperation with African regional organizations (ECOWAS, SADC, ECCAS), including to build their border control capacities;
• inclusion of the illicit trade in SALW on the agenda for all the EU’s structured political dialogues and action plans with its partners. At France’s instigation, a clause on SALW was thus incorporated with political clauses in negotiations for EU agreements with third countries.
The implementation of this strategy has involved numerous field actions since 2005, in two main forms:
• Technical and financial support for international and regional organizations working to fight the dissemination of SALW as well as for programmes of action and negotiation conferences.
• Targeted initiatives aimed at building national and regional operational and institutional capacities. For example, actions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, North Africa (Libya) and Central and Eastern Europe as well as South East Asia.
The OSCE has developed exemplary, remarkable normative action, including the production of a whole range of programmes of action and best practice handbooks in which France has participated widely.
• Handbook of Best Practices on Small Arms and Light Weapons (2003) ;
• Document on stockpiles of conventional ammunition (2003) ;
• Best practices to prevent destabilizing transfers of small arms and light weapons through air transport (2008). Its efforts also include field work, through management and destruction of ammunition stocks and support for the development of information exchanges between OSCE Participating States.
• Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA)
• EU Strategy to combat illicit accumulation and trafficking of light weapons
• “Best Practices to Prevent Destabilising Transfers of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) through Air Transport”
• UN Register of Conventional Arms
Updated: April 2020