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The ECOWAS Convention is a legally binding instrument regulating the manufacture, trade, possession, and disposal of small arms and light weapons, firearms, ammunition, but also landmines, bombs, and missile systems. It builds on an earlier 1998 Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation, and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa.
The ECOWAS Convention refers in its preamble to a number of instruments, particularly the ECOWAS Protocol Relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, Peace-keeping and Security, adopted in Lomé on 10 December 1999, which lays out the responsibilities of ECOWAS in controlling small arms and light weapons to maintain sub-regional security (Arts. 50 and 51). It also refers to the Wassenaar Arrangement, calling for the cooperation of arms producers in enforcing the Convention.
The West African region has been enmeshed since the 1990s in situations of armed conflict, including in Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to name a few. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of small arms and light weapons in circulation, which States struggled to contain. In Mali, a ‘Flame of Peace’ ceremony took place in Timbuktu (Mali) in 1996 which saw the symbolic incineration of 3,000 small arms. N. Florquin and S. Pézard, ‘Insurgency, disarmament, and insecurity in Northern Mali, 1990-2004’, in N. Florquin and E. G. Berman (eds.), Armed and Aimless: Armed Groups, Guns, and Human Security in the ECOWAS Region, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2005, p. 47. But such initiatives, while spectacular, did little to reverse the trend, and armed non-state actors continued to pose a significant threat to human and national security. The proliferation and misuse of firearms was a regional problem, one that would have to be tackled by the sub-region in a concerted manner. As it was, West Africa could turn to a longstanding sub-regional organization: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The proposal for a moratorium on arms import, export, and manufacture was first raised at a conference in Bamako organized by UNIDIR and UNDP in November 1996. ECOWAS Background Information, United Nations Programme of Action. In March 1998, the ECOWAS Council of Ministers instructed the Secretariat to prepare a draft treaty text. The Declaration on the Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation, and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa was adopted on 31 October 1998 by West African Heads of State and Government in Abuja. 1998 Declaration of a Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation, and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa; C. Nna-Emeka Okereke, ‘Implementing the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons: Challenges and Prospects’, 1 Arms Control: Africa 4 (2008) 12. It entered into force for an initial period of three years.
In December 1999, at the Lomé Summit, ECOWAS States adopted a Code of Conduct and a related decision on implementation of the moratorium. 1999 ECOWAS Code of Conduct. The Moratorium was expanded to include ‘components and ammunition’, and the Code of Conduct set out a stringent waiver procedure for any member state wishing to import, export, or manufacture firearms. It also provided for the creation in each member state of a national commission on small arms and light weapons. This move spurred the establishment in many West African countries of civil society networks on small arms, linked together under the umbrella West Africa Network on Small Arms. In addition, a five-year Programme for Coordination and Assistance for Security and Development (PCASED) was set up to support the Moratorium’s implementation, managed by the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, in Lomé (Togo).
The Moratorium would be renewed three times — in 2001, 2004, and 2007 — but the instrument was not as effective as had been hoped. In fact, the Moratorium and its Code of Conduct had several weaknesses, as a 2002 evaluation identified: its language was too succinct, its voluntary nature resulted in a lack of sanctions, and there was inadequate capacity at national level to implement it. I. Berkol, ‘Analysis of the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons and Recommendations for the Development of an Action Plan’, Note d'analyse, GRIP, April 2007, p. 1.
The idea of turning the Moratorium into a legally-binding instrument was therefore discussed. The UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, adopted by consensus in July 2001, did much to inform a more comprehensive agenda on small arms control. The decision to develop a convention was formally taken by ECOWAS Heads of State and Government on 30 January 2003, at a meeting in Dakar. The ECOWAS Executive Secretary set to work elaborating a draft, with inputs from the EU, Canada, Switzerland, West African civil society, and PCASED. ECOWAS Background Information, United Nations Programme of Action. Two drafts were produced, one by civil society and the other by PCASED, and eventually the ECOWAS Secretariat mandated two consultants to prepare the final text.
The ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials was adopted on 14 June 2006. 2006 ECOWAS Convention. That same month, the five-year ECOWAS Small Arms Control Programme (ECOSAP) was launched to support its implementation, replacing PCASED. On 29 September 2009, the Convention entered into force following the deposit of the ninth instrument of ratification by Benin (following the ratifications of Burkina Faso, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo).
The ECOWAS Convention covers small arms and light weapons as per the 1997 UN Panel of Governmental Experts definition, but adds firearms in the category on small arms, as well as ‘other destructive arms or devices such as an exploding bomb, an incendiary bomb or a gas bomb, a grenade, a rocket launcher, a missile, a missile system or landmine’ (Art. 1(2).). In addition, it covers ammunition (Art. 1(3).) and 'other related materials', defined as components, parts or spare parts and chemical substances (Art. 1(4).).
The basic principle of the Convention — as for the Moratorium that preceded it — is a general prohibition on arms transfers (Art. 3(1).). It also bans transfers of weapons to non-state actors not explicitly authorized, (Art. 3(2)) although the English definition of non-state actors (Art. 1(10).) seems to exclude mercenaries, armed militias, armed rebel groups, and private security companies while the French version makes it clear that these are included.
Exemptions can be granted for legitimate national defence and security needs, and participation in peace support operations (Art. 4(1).). Exemptions have to be requested from the ECOWAS Executive Security (Art. 5.), and will be refused inter alia if not all states directly concerned by the transfer have authorized it (Art. 6(1).); if the transfer would violate principles of international law (Art. 6(2).); if the weapons would be used to violate international humanitarian law or worsen the internal situation of the country of final destination (Art. 6(3).); if they would be used in violent crime, unduly divert human and economic resources, or involve corrupt practices (Art. 6(4).); or if they are likely to be diverted (Art. 6(5).).
Brokers — which comprise individuals or companies, including financial agents and transporters —must be registered and authorized (Art. 20.). Their activities are to be subjected to the same rules as other transfers (Art. 20(5).), and illicit brokering is punishable as a criminal offence (Art. 20(4).).
In addition, ECOWAS undertakes to strengthen its dialogue with national and international arms manufacturers and suppliers to ensure their support for the Convention (Art. 12.). Measures will also be taken to stem corruption (Art. 13.).
Permits can be delivered for temporary import of weapons (Art. 15.). Weapons imported unmarked must be marked (Art. 18(c).).
Member states undertake to establish computerised national registers and databases of firearms, combining information on firearms, their owners, and any international transfers (Art. 9.). A database is also to be established by ECOWAS at sub-regional level (Art. 10). Member states also undertake to exchange information on transfers (Art. 19(2)(b).).
Member states are required to control the activities of weapons manufacturers (Art. 7.). They must be listed and registered, and the information shared with ECOWAS. The Convention lays down conditions under which a request for manufacture of small arms and light weapons will be denied, such as when information related to marking has not been shared (Art. 8.). Weapons and ammunition must be marked at the point of manufacture (Art. 18.), and member states must exchange information on manufacturers and marking systems (Art. 19(2)(a).). Weapons stockpiles in the hands of manufacturers must be stored safely (Art. 16(3).). Measures are to be taken to stem corruption (Art. 13.).
Possession, use, and sale of light weapons by civilians must be prohibited (Art. 14(1).), while possession, use, and sale of small arms is to be regulated (Art. 14(2)), noting, however, that the broad definition of small arms introduces confusion into the distinction between the two categories (Art. 1(2).). Criteria include a minimum age; the absence of a criminal record; a legitimate justification; safety and competency training; and proof of safe storage (Art. 14(4).). In addition, member states can impose a limit on the number of weapons covered by a licence, and impose a delay of 21 days before authorization is granted (Art. 14(5).). Weapons in the hands of individuals and dealers must be safely stored (Art. 16(3).). Licences must have an expiry date and must be reviewed periodically (Art. 14(5).). If a firearm is misused, the licence will be revoked, the firearm seized, and penalties shall apply (Art. 14(5).).
Member states undertake to establish computerised national registers and databases of firearms, combining information on firearms, their owners, and any international transfers (Arts. 9 and 14(6).). A database will also be established by ECOWAS at sub-regional level (Art. 10).
States will establish or promote programmes for the voluntary surrender of weapons (Art. 17(3).). Seized, unmarked, and illicitly held weapons must be collected, registered, safely stored, and/or destroyed (Art. 17(1) and (2).). They are also required to undertake broad public education and awareness programmes (Art. 23.).
Member states are required to take the necessary measures for stockpile management and safe storage of their weapons stockpiles (Art. 16.). Standards include an appropriate site, physical security measures, inventory and record keeping, staff training, security during manufacture and transportation, and sanctions in case of theft or loss (Art. 16(2).). Computerised national registers and databases of firearms are called for (Art. 9.). Member states must exchange information on existing stockpiles (Art. 19(2)(c)), and a database to hold this information is to be established by ECOWAS at sub-regional level (Art. 10.). States must regularly review their stockpiles in order to identify surplus and obsolete stocks for disposal (Arts. 16(4) and 17(1)(a).). All necessary measures are to be taken to stem corruption (Art. 13.).
In addition, a database will be established to trace small arms, light weapons, ammunition, and other related materials used in peacekeeping operations (Art. 11.). ECOWAS and individual member states are responsible for enforcing adequate standards for stockpile management of weapons collected as part of peace operations (Arts. 16(5) and 17(1)(e).).
Member States are required to review their legislation for compliance with the Convention (Art. 21.). They must also work together, through ECOWAS, to strengthen border controls (Arts. 22 and 26).
Tracing requests will be initiated through ECOWAS (Art. 19(4)ff.). Member states must exchange information on trafficking and on illicit weapons seized (Art. 19(1).).
To implement the Convention, states parties must establish national commissions, allocate appropriate budgets, and elaborate national action plans on small arms and light weapons, making sure to involve civil society (Art. 24). At sub-regional level, the ECOWAS Executive Secretary will support and supervise implementation of the Convention, including through resource mobilization (Art. 25.).
In 2010, ECOWAS Ministers of Defence and Security adopted a five-year Plan of Action for the implementation of the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, as well as a database for the management of the exemption process. They also called for a five-year extension of ECOSAP.
Last updated on: 07 August 2017