You are here: Ben Donaldson: small arms, big problem: can the Arms Trade Treaty make a difference?

The types of illicit arms deals are many; from corrupt officials running guns for personal profit to governments flouting arms embargoes.  About a quarter of all gun sales are illicit.  Small arms, and in particular illicit small arms, play a huge role in armed violence around the world – value-wise they constitute less than 10 per cent of the conventional arms trade yet they are responsible for more than 60 per cent of casualties in armed conflict.

More human rights abuses are committed with small arms than with any other weapon. Guns not only fuel conflict but also cause unquantifiable indirect damage; exacerbating poverty, facilitating gender-based violence and sapping resources that otherwise would have been spent on improving human development. 

Whilst small arms are the weapon of choice for armed conflict, their use outside of conflict situations also have grave consequences. Countries like El Salvador, Jamaica and South Africa suffer heavily. The easy availability of guns in these countries facilitates gang warfare and organised crime, and denies communities their right to live free from the threat of violence. 

So let's agree: small arms cause big problems. 

Some of these problems can be addressed by understanding how legally produced weapons find their way onto the black market and clamping down on these practices.

A well-documented route from legal to illicit is when states trade in violation of arms embargoes.  In these instances corrupt officials accept bribes in return for export licences for illegitimate recipients.  The crime is often facilitated by third-party states that allow weapons to be shipped through their territory.  Since 2000 in Africa alone, UN investigators have found neighbouring governments guilty of violating UN arms embargoes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Another route is through international arms traffickers.  Sometimes described as ”merchants of death” these unscrupulous brokers use complex, clandestine supply routes to evade laws and deliver weapons to war zones, dictators and crime syndicates.

The reason the illicit market is allowed to thrive belies a distinct lack of international standards regulating the arms trade.   As a commodity, there are very few international restrictions governing the transfer of guns.  This has given rise to a dangerous patchwork of national standards, enabling traffickers to capitalise on the weak links and for corruption to go unchecked.  A quarter of UN member states do not control the import of small arms.  Less than one half control the transit of small arms through their territories.  And just 52 states have laws regulating arms brokers. 

I could go on but I think you get the picture: the conventional arms trade is perniciously under-regulated.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  The UN Arms Trade Treaty, adopted in 2013, means to establish common global standards for regulating the international arms trade.  The Treaty covers small arms and light weapons, as well as seven other categories of conventional weapons - from tanks to warships.  It has already been signed by well over half of UN member states and will enter into force once 50 states have ratified –likely to happen within the next year. 

At the heart of the Treaty lie strong provisions to prevent of war crimes and human rights abuses.  But it also addresses the illicit arms trade.  Exporting states must assess the risk of arms being diverted to the black market before approving transfers, and the Treaty's control measures apply to all those engaged in the supply chain.  The Treaty will be enforced at a national level, with states required to implement relevant legislation to operationalise it within their territory. 

Whilst the Arms Trade Treaty will not be a one-stop remedy for all that is wrong with the trade, if implemented widely and robustly, it will make it much harder for those profiting from the illicit market, which in turn will go some way to reducing the catastrophic fallout from armed violence.


Ben Donaldson is UNA-UK's Communications and Campaigns Officer and leads the Association's Campaign for a Strong Arms Trade Treaty.  Click here to read more on UNA-UK's Arms Trade Treaty work.