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Ammunition - the next round in arms trade control

All small arms and other weapons collected are documented by type, calibre, serial number and origin of armed group – then sent for destruction under the supervision of MONUSCO
DDRRR in action in eastern DRC: Small arms collected are documented by type, calibre, serial number and origin of armed group, before being destroyed (Guy Oliver/IRIN)

For a couple of hundred dollars or less an arms dealer can illegally source a blank end user certificate with the required signatures and stamps - needed to transfer weapons across international borders - and “if no one checks its authenticity (often the case) he can ship his wares to the world’s hotspots with minimal risk, for maximum profit,” a report by the Small Arms Survey (SAS) said in 2008.

Since then “not much has changed” Glenn McDonald, based in Geneva and author of a chapter in the SAS 2008 yearbook entitled Who’s Buying? End-user Certification, told IRIN. Arms spending has not broken step following global slowdowns and economic recession: In 2011 US$1.7 trillion was spent on the world’s military, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

There is no internationally binding agreement on the trade in conventional weapons, which according to civil society organizations results in fewer bureaucratic burdens on legal conventional weapons’ exports and imports than on such commodities as bananas, bottled water and MP3 players.

The four-week meeting at the UN in New York attended by all member states kicked off on 2 July - after a decade of campaigns by civil society organizations. It aims to rectify the paucity of controls on international weapons transfers and usher in an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) for conventional weapons.

“From [the Democratic Republic of] Congo to Libya, from Syria to Mali, all have suffered from the unregulated trade in weapons and ammunition allowing those conflicts to cause immeasurable suffering and go on far too long. In the next few weeks, diplomats will either change the world - or fail the world,” Anna Macdonald, head of Oxfam's arms control campaign, said in a statement.

The meeting will tackle three overriding issues in formulating a conventional arms treaty: Scope - to determine which categories of weapons will be included; criteria - establishing a minimum threshold for the transfer of weapons and taking into account UN arms embargos, as well as the potential for an arms shipment to be denied if weapons could be used in violation of international human rights law; and implementation - covering the establishment by each potential signatory of transparent and competent regulating authorities.

Arms re-exports

Nearly 75 percent of arms exports originate from six countries, the USA, Russia, Germany, UK, China and France. Five of these are permanent members of the UN Security Council. SAS’s McDonald said southern hemisphere countries were also major exporters through the practice of re-export. (South Africa is the only significant manufacturer in Africa though Algeria and Egypt produce large amounts of ammunition).

''Re-export is a problem generally. It can occur decades after the original deliveries''

“Re-export is a problem generally. It can occur decades after the original deliveries. Angola is on the radar at the moment, as it has significant surplus stocks [of weapons],” he said.

The proposed treaty will first have to define which conventional weapons should be included and which should not. The starting point for four preliminary meetings ahead of the ATT meeting in New York were the 1991 voluntary reporting mechanisms UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNRCA), and its seven conventional weapons categories: tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery pieces, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missile and missile systems.

Analysts say this list is outdated as it excludes tank transporters, light armoured vehicles, reconnaissance helicopters capable of being armed, anti-aircraft weapons with a calibre less than 75mm and ammunition and short range missiles which, along with other military equipment, have evolved over the past two decades.

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) were added to UNRCA’s voluntary reporting mechanism in 2003 and since then about 80 UN member states have declared SALW imports and exports. The SAS says “there are an estimated 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide, produced by more than 1,000 companies from nearly 100 countries.”

Small arms are classified as revolvers, automatic pistols, rifles, sub machine guns and light machine guns, while light weapons include heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, mortars with a calibre of less than 100mm, and portable anti-aircraft missile systems.

The inclusion of ammunition, SALW, technology used to manufacture or maintain weapons, and exports of weapons in component form, have also been put on the negotiating table at the ATT talks.

ISS report

A report submitted at the ATT talks on 5 July by the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) entitled Negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty, A Toolkit for African States posits a 7+1+1 formula (the seven UNRCA conventional weapons categories plus SALW and ammunition).

The report said 136 states, including 50 in Africa, had “expressed strong support for the inclusion SALW” and 120 states also wanted ammunition to fall within ATT.

“African states have been recipients of most categories of arms that appear in the UNRCA. In addition, the voluntary reports on SALW by some states reveal that SALW is a substantial component of global arms transfers to African states. Added to this, much of the trade in SALW is unreported,” the ISS report said.

But since 2001, voluntary reporting to the UNRCA by African states has “declined from 17 states reporting in 2002 to four in 2010. Most reports by African states in fact indicate `nil’ conventional arms transfers,” the report said.

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Ben Coetzee, a co-author of the report and a senior ISS researcher, told IRIN African states had concerns about national security issues relating to the proposed treaty, because if military inventories were open and transparent for all to view “it would not take a brain surgeon to figure out what your defensive capabilities are.”

The ISS report said SALW and ammunition in many “African countries were among the main instruments of violence… SALW and ammunition [with maybe the exception of South Africa] would have originally been transferred from foreign territories to these African states either legally or illegally. It is worth noting that almost all of the states that have expressed an objection to the inclusion of SALW and ammunition in the ATT do not appear on the list of the top 58 countries experiencing lethal violence.”

Ammunition controls are seen as a particularly pertinent issue, as although small arms have a shelf life of many years, ammunition is a disposable item needing constant replenishment, but “politically” SAS’s McDonald said “it may be a bridge to far” and has its detractors, including the USA, Iran, Egypt, Algeria and Venezuela.

He said West Africa’s conflicts have “moved around from one state to another and then back again. There are weapons in huge numbers [in the region]; border controls are difficult and there is really not much that you can do…But if you can prevent ammunition [supplies] and if ammunition runs out it will change the nature of the conflicts.”

“Expensive doorstops”

An Oxfam briefing paper, published in May 2012 entitled Stop a Bullet, Stop a War. Why ammunition must be included in the Arms Trade Treaty, said a 2003 attack on the Liberian capital Monrovia by anti-government forces was interrupted after ammunition stocks ran low and forced a withdrawal, only for the assault to resume once illegal ammunition supplies had been sourced from neighbouring Guinea. Likewise in 2007 “a lack of ammunition forced warring pastoralists in [what is now] South Sudan to resolve their disputes peacefully.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a submission to the ATT meeting noted that there were “already massive numbers of weapons in circulation, but their impact depends on a constant supply of ammunition”.

Coetzee said without ammunition guns become “expensive doorstops”, but while the USA probably had the administrative capability to monitor ammunition exports, other countries did not, and he did not expect at this stage that the monitoring of ammunition would be included in the treaty.

He said drawing up the treaty was a delicate balancing act, as “you don’t want to settle for an agreement of the lowest common denominator,” but if you included ammunition the issue of compliance could undermine ATT. “There is a risk of non-compliance [related to ammunition controls] and if you don’t have compliance, it [the proposed ATT] is not worth the paper it is printed on.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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