Issue 19 - Article 17

Why should we have a humanitarian perspective on small arms?

June 2, 2003
Robert Muggah
8 min read

The UN is gradually beginning to respond to the issue of small arms – both from the perspective of reducing their illicit supply, and raising awareness of the dangers presented to humanitarian and development actors by their unregulated availability. UN activity on the issue peaked in the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, held in New York on 9–20 July. The conference aimed to draft a global action programme to confront the problem. Negotiated by the disarmament experts of represented governments, there were early concerns that procedural and technical recommen-dations would supplant basic humanitarian priorities. To be sure, the final document contains practical measures, including a Programme of Action that prioritises a long-term preventive strategy. This strategy is premised on strengthening regulatory controls over production, the management of stockpiles, exports (and re-exports), brokering, customs and record-keeping. Special emphasis is given to elaborating a marking and tracing regime, public-awareness programmes and a renewed investment in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR).

Although insufficiently represented in the implementation components of the text, lipservice is paid to humanitarian concerns in Preambular paragraph 2, where it is noted that states are ‘gravely concerned at … the excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread [of small arms] … which have a wide range of humanitarian and socio-economic consequences’. In the next paragraph, the Programme of Action also records that the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons ‘sustains conflicts, exacerbates violence, contributes to the displacement of civilians, undermines respect for international humanitarian law [and] impedes the provision of humanitarian assistance to victims of armed conflict’. While the Programme of Action is not legally binding, it is a consensus document and represents a significant first step towards raising awareness and formulating practical responses. Nevertheless, it still views what is a multifaceted issue requiring strategies from both a demand and supply perspective through a traditional arms-control lens.

The humanitarian perspective

Contemporary thinking on small-arms proliferation, availability and use is bitterly polarised, pitting pro-gun advocates and defence ministries against public-health specialists, the disarmament community and, increasingly, the relief and development sectors. A humanitarian perspective on small arms provides a critical space for consensus in an otherwise politicised arena. In essence, a humanitarian discourse privileges a focus on the practice and consequences of warfare. It impels ‘producing’ states to account for the lawful or illicit transfer of weaponry to regimes violating the basic human rights of civilians. Because the greater burden of the humanitarian impacts of small arms can be attributed to an abundance of older weapons that circulate from conflict to conflict, a humanitarian perspective usefully focuses attention on the rights of combatants and civilians who face arms-related violence on a daily basis. Although it is still early days, the humanitarian community has evolved a range of complementary approaches to the small-arms issue.

Human rights and supply-side controls

The first approach focuses on supply-side controls in order to prevent the export (or re-export) of small arms to regimes found guilty of human-rights abuse. Proponents of the supply-side approach call for increased accountability, government scrutiny and policies on brokering and end-user certification. They also demand more effective implementation and monitoring of arms embargoes and sanctions. Advocacy organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Alert, Saferworld and Oxfam call for stringent ethical policies and codes of conduct on the small-arms trade in order to improve transparency and responsibility in the production and transfer of weapons, thus reducing the risk of diversion and leakage. While this approach applies primarily to legal arms transfers, it nonetheless repositions the debate within the wider framework of states’ human-rights obligations.

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International humanitarian law and the protection of civilians

A second approach – preferred by the UN, the ICRC, enlightened donors and major international relief agencies – aims to heighten international awareness of the impact of armed violence on non-combatants and vulnerable groups. According to Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions (1949) and Protocols (1977), arms-producing and -distributing states have an obligation to ‘respect and ensure respect’ for international humanitarian law (IHL). In particular, ‘the knowing provision of arms into situations where serious violations of IHL occur or are likely to occur should be considered a matter of grave concern’.

Humanitarian and development agencies are particularly alarmed that civilians are increasingly the primary targets of armed conflict. In other words, the availability of small arms threatens the foundations of international humanitarian law – one of the principal means of protecting civilians during times of war. A number of field-based agencies, particularly the ICRC, aim to dissem-inate information on humanitarian norms, raise awareness, administer training on international humanitarian law and apply pressure on groups seen to be violating human rights. With combatants unaware of, avoiding compliance with, or in deliberate contempt of international humanitarian law, the implications for relief and humanitarian agencies seeking to deliver assistance are serious. In conflict and post-conflict settings where small arms remain widely available, there is a com-bustible mix of recently active or partially demobilised soldiers, widespread banditry and, in some cases, predatory state activity. As most relief workers can attest, a single armed person can block supply routes, while increased hostage-taking, banditry and violent theft are common in the aftermath of conflict, when weapons remain widely accessible. For example, in El Salvador, the number of violent deaths in 1998–99 was higher than that witnessed during the war. Perception surveys from Guatemala to Cambodia suggest that many urban residents feel more insecure today than they did during the war.

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Deteriorating security

A third perspective is concerned with the impact of arms availability on the protection of personnel and the effectiveness of relief and development operations. By the late 1990s, the UN considered over 50 countries to be ‘insecure’, and operations in complex emergencies had increased five-fold. More than 1,500 international and national civilian staff have been killed by weapons since 1945 – with rates increasing in the 1990s. A conservative estimate of the average homicide rate for UN staff and dependants is between 17 and 25 per 100,000 – on a par with reported civilian homicide rates in Lebanon, and higher than in Azerbaijan, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Russia and Sri Lanka. Although current rates indicate a decline, between 1990 and 1999 more than 93 ICRC delegates were killed with small arms, and some 280 injured.

Personal safety and security is a major source of stress for expatriate field staff working in violence-prone areas. The ICRC estimates that approxi-mately 50 per cent of its international and national staff suffer from emotional and behavioural difficulties during and following their assignment, while an estimated 30 per cent have endured a serious ‘security incident’ in the field. According to a UN survey, ‘armed conflict, mines, gunfire, murder, banditry, car-jacking, robbery, the narcotics trade, substance abuse and other criminal activities in the … surrounding area were reported stress factors’. The psychological stress of working in situations where one’s personal safety is continually jeopardised, of enduring extended separation from family who are constantly aware of loved ones’ extreme danger, and of being surrounded on a daily basis by armed violence – all of these factors contribute to critical levels of stress and the potential for psychological trauma.


While not the cause, small arms are the primary means by which states, non-state actors and civilians are able to violate international humanitarian law on a massive scale. More than 300,000 civilians are killed directly by small arms in conflict each year – and many millions more die from injuries and secondary illnesses or disease. As the technology and lethality of weaponry have evolved, so complex emergencies, internal conflicts and state collapse have exacerbated the scale and pace of human suffering. Furthermore, the growing availability of small arms in societies embroiled in, or emerging from, war indicates a long-term threat to the humanitarian community. Evidence from ‘peaceful’, conflict-affected and post-conflict societies alike suggests that armed violence, criminality and displacement increase where there is an abundance of small arms. Unregulated arms availability also threatens the physical safety and security of humanitarian personnel and agencies. Due to the increasing perception of risk in the field, scarce resources are diverted to security management, logistics, monitoring and evaluation. Indirectly, the presence of large quantities of small arms contributes to a culture of intimidation, violence and, ipso facto, humanitarian withdrawal. Pervasive arms-related insecurity hampers a ‘return’ to stability or human security, much less the creation of an environment conducive to reconstruction or development.


Robert Muggah is Senior Researcher at the Small Arms Survey, Geneva.


Documents relating to the UN Conference on Small Arms are available at the UN website,

International Action Network on Small Arms,

Small Arms Survey,

UN Department for Disarmament Affairs (UNDDA),

UN Development Programme (UNDP) Emergency Response Division (ERD),

Program on Security and Development,

Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT),

Small Arms Survey 2001: Profiling the Problem (Geneva: The Small Arms Survey, 2001).

Robert Muggah and Eric Berman, Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons (Geneva: The Small Arms Survey, July 2001).

Robert Muggah and Peter Batchelor, Development Held Hostage: Assessing the Effects of Small Arms on Human Development (New York: UNDP, August 2001)

C. Collins, The Humanitarian Implications of Small Arms Proliferation (New York: UNOCHA, 1998) Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict (Geneva: ICRC, 1999)


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