The Firearms Protocol and the Programme of Action on small arms turn 20 this year. On the 26th of July 2021, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held a joint high-level side event on the continued importance of the two instruments. Esteemed experts, joined by voices from the ground, reflected on past achievements and challenges, but also shared their thoughts on remaining challenges and the linkages with the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) is the only legally binding instrument to counter the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition at the global level. The Firearms Protocol provides for a framework for States to control and regulate licit arms and arms flows, prevent their diversion into the illegal circuit, facilitate the investigation and prosecution of related offences without hampering legitimate transfers.
Under the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA), governments agreed to improve national small arms laws, import/export controls, and stockpile management – and to engage in cooperation and assistance.
Opening with the key achievements of the Programme and the Protocol in the past two decades, the speakers reviewed the work the two instruments have done in terms of tracing firearms, but most importantly, in terms of creating new arms control culture and norms. It takes a global village to create change, and this is what these two programmes aim for. A holistic approach of the issue that has favoured the spawning of a universe of regional and national programmes, all cooperating with each other to better trace and monitor small firearms, as well as limit their illegal use and trade.
The event displayed the achievements of the instruments but also laid out that there are still challenges to be addressed. The speakers emphasised that the focus should not be just on arms, but also ammunition, and that more attention should be given to the latter. New technologies related to trafficking trends should be monitored. This also implies that authorities will not only be following the technological challenges, but also using technology to fight arms trafficking. The importance of legislation to protect the licit commerce of arms and the much-needed assistance from civil society were stressed.
During the event it was noted that rather than lack of legislation, focus should be on increased implementation of the protocol. Resources are needed for these instruments to implement already existing legislation, and also fight against corruption that disrupts the work of said legislation.
When thinking about future challenges, it is important to also take into account the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The speakers made sure to include these future challenges and goals into an intersectional framework, adopting the above-mentioned holistic approach that one should take when tackling such an issue. Gender issues were at the core of the discussion, as small firearms often enable toxic masculinity in many countries. The speakers agreed on the urgency of investing in disarmament education since youth has proven to be a force for change.
20 years have passed since the beginning of these two programmes, and both have achieved much in that time. They have nevertheless a long way to go yet. It is important to adopt a holistic approach that allows seeing the problem as something more than a sum of smaller problems, as well as treat it in the context of sustainable development, taking into account other issues that may intersect, overlap, or be enabled by the illicit trafficking of small firearms.
Relevance for the GIFP
Illicit trafficking of firearms is a crime by itself, but also an enabler for other crimes. EUROPOL’s 2021 SOCTA (Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment) reports that the level of the use of violence associated with serious and organised criminality is perceived to have increased notably, both in terms of frequency and severity, over the last four years. High presence of firearms is a source of conflict, and in combination with corruption and weak institutions, they lead to the increase of criminal rates, since gangs and organised crime groups feel enabled and powerful to act, given their raw power.
Illicit trafficking of firearms is also a lucrative illicit business. Trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW) is part of the core business of organised crime groups and terrorist organisations, and firearms are the main tool for both criminal and armed violence, as they leverage other forms of criminality and are used for intimidation, coercion, and gang violence. The EU’s Global Illicit Flows Programme provides a coherent global response to fight polycriminality, the expansion into new countries and routes, and cooperation between criminal actors across regions. According to the UNDP, in South America, firearms are involved in 60% of homicides. In the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala), firearms account for 75–85% of killings. It is thus clear that illicit firearms are a much-needed commodity for organised crime groups, and that a global approach needs to be taken in order to effectively and efficiently tackle the issue.
It is for these reasons that the European Union, through the GIFP has established the Countering Firearms Trafficking project and the DISRUPT (Disrupting firearms trafficking flows) project. The Countering Firearms Trafficking project and DISRUPT aim at raising awareness, as well as legislative and policy development. They strengthen criminal justice responses for investigation and prosecution, implementing support and capacity building in firearms record keeping, marking and collection campaigns, and the stockpiling of seized and confiscated weapons. They also promote effective international cooperation, information exchange and south-south cooperation. Identifying links between firearms trafficking and other forms of transnational organised crime, as well as promoting proposals of common approaches in addressing them are also one of their main goals. An adequate legal framework on both firearms control and criminal justice enforcement measures and mechanisms is key, as are law enforcement operating procedures to ensure detection and seizure of illicit firearms and their systematic tracing. Enhanced awareness on and capacity to ensure the necessary follow up investigations of illicit trafficking offences and especially when occurring in the context of other serious crimes like terrorism and organised crime is vital, and importance is also given to detection and investigation of firearms trafficking activity through intelligence-led law enforcement operations. Finally, an effective flow of intelligence and information at national and international level. Firearms trafficking investigations must transcend national borders and involve countries along the entire chain.
This is what the Firearms Protocol, the Programme of Action on small arms, and the GIFP aim to do. As legally binding framework for states to control and regulate licit arms and arms flows, these instruments have helped prevent, to a certain extent, their diversion into the illegal circuit, and have facilitated the investigation and prosecution of related offenses. The PoA on small arms has also helped governments agree to improve national small arms laws, import/export controls, and stockpile management – and to engage in cooperation and assistance- all vital to reduce the illicit flow of firearms and by proxy reduce violence and organised crime.