The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
The Programme of ActionUN doc. A/CONF.192/15. is a policy framework containing political commitments by states to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. It is a detailed instrument, covering production/manufacturing, stockpiling and possession, international transfers, illicit transfers and law enforcement, collection and destruction. It calls for action at national, regional and global levels, and sets an agenda for the UN process on small arms control.
In the early 1990s, with the end of the cold war, the focus of the international community shifted from international to internal armed conflicts. This brought to light the pervasiveness of small arms and light weapons.S. Parker and M. Wilson, A Diplomat's Guide to the UN small arms process, Small Arms Survey, 2012, p. 26. In 1995, the UN Secretary-General, in the Supplement to an Agenda for Peace, drew attention to the need for ‘micro-disarmament’.Supplement to an agenda for peace:Position paper of the Secretary-General on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, UN doc. A/50/60-S/1995/1, 3 January 1995, §60.
A Panel of Governmental Experts was set up to define the problem. Specifically, the panel had to examine:
- The types of small arms and light weapons used in conflicts being dealt with by the United Nations
- The nature and causes of the excessive and destabilising accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons
- The ways and means to prevent and reduce the excessive and destabilising accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons.Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §1.
Its recommendations called for measures such as support to post-conflict initiatives related to disarmament and demobilisation, cooperation among police, intelligence, customs and border control officials, national regulation of civilian possession of firearms, exercising restraint in the transfer of surplus weapons, or the adoption of regional moratoria on transfer and manufacture of small arms and light weapons. Importantly, it included a call for an ‘international conference on illicit arms trade in all its aspects’.Ibid., §80(k).
In 1998, the General Assembly announced the decision to convene an international conference on the illicit arms trade in all its aspects.Resolution 53/77E of 4 December 1998. A Group of Governmental Experts met to examine UN member states' response to the Panel's recommendations. It recommended that the scope of the conference ‘should therefore not be limited to criminal breaches of existing arms legislation and export/import controls but consideration should be given to all relevant factors leading to the excessive and destabilising accumulation of small arms and light weapons in the context of the illicit arms trade.’Ibid., §132. It also recommended that ammunition be considered.Ibid., §130.
The UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects opened in New York on 9 July 2001, after three meetings of the Preparatory Committee. During two weeks, states negotiated the content of the document. The main points of contention included language on human rights and international humanitarian law violations, civilian possession of firearms, transfers to non-state armed groups, export controls, marking and tracing, brokering, and follow-up mechanisms.Parker and Wilson, A Diplomat's Guide to the UN Small Arms Process, p. 28.
Serious compromises were required to achieve the goal of consensus that states had set themselves. Opposition by the United States meant that language on civilian possession was excluded.Ibid., p. 30. Opposition by China and others meant that references to human rights were similarly abandoned.Ibid. Opposition by Arab states in particular meant that the threat of excessive and destabilizing accumulation of weapons was no longer mentioned, even though this was how the UN Secretary-General had originally framed the problem.Ibid.
The Programme of Action was adopted by consensus on 20 July 2001. Biennial Meetings of States were held in 2003 (BMS1), 2005 (BMS2), 2008 (BMS3) and 2010 (BMS4). In addition, Review Conferences were held in 2006 (RevCon1) and 2012 (RevCon2).
Several other processes or documents sprung up from it, including the International Tracing Instrument (2005), the Group of Governmental Experts on brokering (2008), the meeting of Governmental Experts (2011), and the Arms Trade Treaty (2013).
The UN Programme of Action is a politically-binding instrument adopted by consensus at the July 2001 UN Conference on small arms. It seeks to reduce the human suffering caused by the illicit trade in small arms. Referring to the illicit trade ‘in all its aspects’, it considers a wide array of related issues, including manufacture, stockpiling, transfer, collection and destruction.
The UN Programme of Action does not provide a definition of small arms and light weapons, nor does it specifically refer to ammunition. However, a number of states have chosen to report on ammunition.
States are required to put in place adequate laws, regulations, and administrative procedures to control the production of small arms and light weapons,Section II.2. and to publicise such laws.Section II.23. Every weapon must be marked so that the country of manufacture, manufacturer and serial number can be recognized.Sections II.7 and II.8. Information on marking systems will be shared.Section III.12. Manufacturing records must be kept for as long as possible.Section II.9. Illegal manufacture must be criminalized,Section II. 3. and states must proactively identify and prosecute those involved in such activities.Section II.6. In affected regions, states are also encouraged to establish and strengthen regional moratoria on the manufacture of weapons.Section II.26.
States will establish adequate and detailed standards and procedures for the management and security of stockpiles,Section II.17. including by maintaining comprehensive and accurate records of their weapon holdings.Section II.9. States are responsible for all the firearms held and issued by it, and must be able to trace them.Section II.10. Illegal possession and stockpiling must be criminalized,Section II.3. and states must identify and prosecute groups and individuals engaged in the illegal stockpiling and possession of weapons.Section II.6. Measures should also ensure that stockpiling or possession of unmarked or inadequately marked weapons is prevented.Section II.8. Regional and international cooperation in safe and effective stockpile management is encouraged.Sections II.29 and III.8.
Although references to ‘destabilising accumulations of weapons’ do not appear in the provisions of the Programme of Action (apart from the Preamble), the document does mandate regular reviews of stockpiles held by armed forces, police, and other authorised bodies to identify surpluses.Section II.18. Such surplus stocks will be disposed of, preferably through destruction.Section II.18.
Illicit stockpiling will be established as a criminal offence,Section II.3. and groups and individuals engaged in illegal possession and stockpiling will be identified.Section II.6.
States put in place adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures to control the export, import, transit, and retransfer of weapons.Sections II.2, II.11, and II.12. Relevant laws, regulations, and procedures will be made public.Section II.23. Export applications will be strictly regulated in a manner consistent with international law, particularly the need to comply with arms embargoes,Sections II.15 and II.32. and taking into account the risk of diversion.Section II.11. Authenticated end-user certificates will be required,Section II.12. and in case of re-transfer of weapons, the original exporting state will be notified.Section II.13. Comprehensive and accurate records of weapons transfers must be kept for as long as possible.Section II.9. Measures must be taken to ensure that no unmarked or inadequately marked weapons are transferred.Section II.8. Further, in affected regions, states are encouraged to establish and strengthen moratoria on the transfer of weapons.Section II.26.
The activity of brokers will be regulated, including their registration, licensing of transactions, and illicit brokering criminalized.Section II.14. This also calls for a common understanding, at the global level, of the scope and issues of illicit brokering.Section II.39.
Illegal trade will be established as a criminal offence,Section II.3. and states will proactively identify and prosecute those involved in illegal trade, transfers, or financing for acquisition.Section II.6. Relevant national laws, regulations, and procedures will be made public.Section II.23. States will take measures to enable tracing of weapons held and issued by the state,Section II.10. including through international cooperation.Section II.36. They will establish trans-border cooperation and information sharing mechanisms between law enforcement and customs control agenciesSections II.27, III.11, and III.13. and are also invited to share information with regional or international organizations on illicit trade routes and technique of acquisition.Section II.23. Cooperation is mandated in particular with the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) and the World Customs Organisation,Sections II.37 and III.9. and, in the case of UN embargoes, the United Nations.Section II.32. International cooperation to strengthen states' ability to identify and trace weapons is called for,Section II.36. including through transfer of appropriate technologies.Section III.10. Furthermore, states are encouraged to conclude, ratify or fully implement relevant legally-binding regional instruments to combat illicit trafficking,Section II.25. and global instruments against terrorism and transitional organized crime.Section II.38.
In conflict and post-conflict contexts, the Programme of Action requires states to develop and implement public awareness and confidence-building programmes, in cooperation with civil society, including to encourage the voluntary surrender of small arms and light weapons.Section II.20. Public destruction of surplus weapons is specifically mentioned in this regard.Section II.20. In post-conflict contexts, the development and implementation of effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes is also called for, including through relevant provisions in peace agreements,Section II.21. in the mandate of peacekeeping operations,Section II.35. and through international cooperation.Sections II.30, II.34, and III.16. The special needs of children affected by armed conflicts are highlighted.Section II.22.
Confiscated, seized, and collected weapons will be destroyed, unless another use has been officially authorized, in which case they will be adequately marked and registered.Sections II.16 and II.21. The same applies to surplus stocks.Section II.18. Destruction will proceed based on the Secretary-General's report on destruction methods,Section II.19. and international cooperation is encouraged for weapons disposal programmes.Sections II.34 and III.14. In addition, states are invited to submit information to regional and international organization on confiscated or destroyed weapons.Section II.23.
States will establish a national coordination mechanism and nominate a national focal point for the implementation of the Programme of Action.Sections II.4 and II.5. Cooperation with civil society is encouraged.Section II.40. States in a position to do so are encouraged to offer financial and technical assistance to support the effective implementation of the Programme of Action.Section III. Action-oriented research should be supported to better understand the nature and scope of the problem.Section III.18.
States are invited to submit, on a voluntary basis, a national report on their implementation of the Programme of Action. This information is to be collated and circulated by the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs.Section II.33. States will also hold biennial meetings to consider national, regional, and global implementation of the Programme of Action, and convene a review conference every six years to evaluate progress made.Section III.1.
Last updated on: 08 September 2015