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 International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons was adopted on 8 December 2005.UN doc. A/CONF.192/15. The instrument was developed within the policy framework established by the 2001 Programme of Action on Small Arms, and makes reference to the 2001 Firearms Protocol, of which it echoes many provisions.
The need for an agreement on marking and tracing was highlighted already by the 1997 UN Panel of Government Experts on Small Arms, at the time when the UN process on small arms was taking shape. In 2000, France and Switzerland launched an initiative to promote a set of international measures on marking and tracing.P. Batchelor and G. McDonald, ‘Too close for comfort: an analysis of the UN tracing negotiations’, Disarmament Forum, Vol. 4, 2005, p. 39. A number of commitments were enshrined in the 2001 Firearms Protocol, as well as the 2001 Programme of Action on small arms. However, the need for a single, comprehensive instrument remained. It was largely considered an easy, technical, and non-contentious issue. The negotiations would prove more difficult than anticipated.
There was considerable support during the 2001 UN conference on small arms for a legally binding instrument on marking and tracing, but this was opposed by the Arab group, China, and the United States.Ibid., p. 40. The Programme of Action therefore limits itself to call for a UN study that would examine the ‘feasibility’ of such an instrument.Programme of Action, Section IV.1.c.
In December 2001, upon request from the General Assembly, the Secretary-General established a Group of Governmental Experts on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (GGE) to discuss the feasibility of a tracing instrument. The GGE met three times between July 2002 and June 2003 before issuing its report in July 2003 for the first Biennial Meeting of States. It unanimously concluded that it was desirable and feasible to develop such an instrument, and recommended that the General Assembly decide to start negotiations.Report of the Group of Governmental Experts established pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 56/24 V of 24 December 2001, entitled ‘The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects’, UN doc. A/58/138, 11 July 2003, §98. Yet consensus could not be reached on recommending a legally binding instrument, and the question was once again left open.
Another contentious issue was whether to include ammunition and explosives within the scope of the study. Ammunition raises different technical issues for marking and tracing than the weapons themselves. In the end, the GGE adopted the definition of small arms and light weapons developed by the 1997 UN Panel of Experts, also listing elements of the definition dealing with ammunition and explosives, but it did not mention ammunition or explosives in the sections of its report dealing with marking, record-keeping, or cooperation in tracing. In practical terms, this amounted to excluding ammunition from its report, while formally keeping the issue on the table.Batchelor and McDonald, ‘Too close for comfort’, p. 40.
These two ambiguities – about the character of the instrument under negotiation and the issue of ammunition – would plague the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) set up in December 2003 by the General Assembly to begin negotiations.UN General Assembly Resolution 58/241 of 23 December 2003. Negotiations opened in February 2004 with an organizational session, followed by three substantive sessions between June 2004 and June 2005. Other difficult questions included the definition of small arms and light weapons, marking at import, the length of time states would keep records, and the question of whether non-state entities would have the right to make tracing requests.Ibid., p. 41. The roles of the UN, Interpol, and peacekeeping operations also triggered difficult discussions.Ibid., p. 44. At the eleventh hour compromises were found on all these issues. Importantly, the instrument would be only politically binding; both the African and Latin American groups made statements expressing their disappointment at this outcome.
The UN General Assembly adopted the International Tracing Instrument in December 2005. In its report, the OEWG also recommended that ammunition be addressed in a comprehensive manner through a separate UN process.
The instrument's follow-up provisions provided it to be reviewed during Programme of Action review conferences (which in theory would also provide opportunities to review the political or legal character of the instrument). While the first review conference was held in July 2006 shortly after the adoption of the instrument, a more significant opportunity for review occurred with the July 2012 Review Conference.
In May 2011, an Open-Ended Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE) was convened to address ‘key implementation challenges and opportunities’. This first MGE brought together experts on marking, record-keeping, and cooperation on tracing of small arms to discuss challenges and opportunities relating to the International Tracing Instrument. It discussed very practical issues – such as how to prevent criminals from removing markings on a polymer-frame handgun – and presented its recommendations in an official reportUN General Assembly, Report of the Open-ended Meeting of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. A/CONF.192/MGE/2011/1 of 6 June 2011. and a more substantive Chair's summary.New Zealand, Summary by the Chair of Discussions at the Open-ended Meeting of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, 9 to 13 May 2011, New York, UN doc. A/66/157 of 19 July (Annex). Recommendations included the establishment of a technical committee to adapt marking requirements to new developments in weapons manufacture and design, overcoming challenges associated with electronic record-keeping, or measures to improve the success rate of tracing requests.G. McDonald, ‘Precedent in the Making: The UN meeting of governmental experts’, in Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving targets, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 219. At: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2012/eng/Small-Arms-Survey-2012-Chapter-07-EN.pdf. The 2011 MGE seems to have given momentum to the implementation of the ITI.
The International Tracing Instrument on small arms and light weapons is a politically binding instrument. Unlike the Programme of Action from which it springs, it begins with a definition of key terminology, namely ‘small arms and light weapons’, ‘tracing’, and ‘illicit’. Its operational provisions are then divided into five sections: marking, record-keeping, cooperation in tracing, implementation, and follow up.
While it leaves it up to states to decide on a method of marking, the International Tracing Instrument spells out detailed standards: markings have to be made on an exposed surface, be easily recognisable and readable, durable, and recoverable.Arts. 7, 8, 9, and 10. The markings must state the name of the manufacturer, the country of manufacture and the serial number.Art. 8(a). Alternatively, a combination of a geometric symbol and an alphanumerical or numerical code may be used. All state-held weapons must be marked.Art. 8(d).
Simple markings should be added when importing weapons, as required already by the Firearms Protocol, to identify the country and year of import.Art. 8(b). The same applies when permanently transferring weapons from government stockpiles to civilian use.Art. 8(c). In addition, illicit arms found or seized must also be marked if they are not promptly destroyed.Art. 9. Manufacturers are encouraged to develop measures against the alteration or removal of markings.Art. 8(e).
Records of all marked weapons in the national territory must be established and kept as long as possible.Arts. 11 and 12. In particular, manufacturing records must be kept at least 30 years, and all other records – including on transfers – at least 20 years.Art. 12(a) and (b). Companies going out of business will forward their records to the state.Art. 13.
States will ensure that systems are in place to undertake confidential traces,Arts. 14–23. including all necessary laws, regulations, and administrative procedures,Art. 24. and the designation of national points of contact.Art. 25. Traces can be initiated by states, by providing a set of initial information.Arts. 16 and 17. States receiving a tracing request will respond diligently,Arts. 18–23. including by cooperating with Interpol.Arts. 33–5. They will also share information with the United Nations, in particular on national points of contact and national marking practices,Arts. 30–2. and generally provide international cooperation and technical, financial, or other assistance.Arts. 27–9.
States will submit national reports every two years on their implementation of the International Tracing Instrument – possibly as part of their reports on the implementation of the UN Programme of Action.Art. 36. They will also discuss implementation at the Biennial Meetings of States.Art. 37. Finally, a review conference of the International Tracing Instrument, to enable future developments, will be held during the Programme of Action Review Conference.Art. 38.
Last updated on: 16 November 2015