The OAS Firearms Convention


  Introduction | U.S. and the Convention | Recent Developments 
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Introduction

New FAS Report:
Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS Firearms Convention

For arms traffickers, the world is a very small place. If the price is right, these criminals have the capacity to move weapons from country to country, or even from continent to continent. Examples are plentiful. In January 2001, a West African arms and diamonds dealer emailed a long list of weapons, including sniper rifles, anti-tank weapons, and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, to an Israeli arms dealer operating out of Guatemala. The Israeli forwarded the request to another Israeli, who forwarded it on to one of his contacts in the Nicaraguan military. The weapons were for the West African's "friends in Africa." The West African had many friends, included the horrifically brutal Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and America's enemy number one, al Qaeda. Fortunately, the deal fell through but not because Nicaragua's arms export controls were air tight. Less than a year later, the same arms dealer duped the Nicaraguan government into selling them 3000 AK series assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition, which he claimed was for the Pananamian National Police. Instead, the weapons were shipped via boat to Turbo, Colombia, where they ultimately ended up in the hands of the United Self-Defenses Forces of Colombia (AUC) - a paramilitary organization that is on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations.

In addition to arming terrorists, the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SA/LW) fuels internal conflicts which, in turn, breed the lawlessness in which terrorism, drug trafficking and other transnational crime thrives. Latin America is a textbook example of the ill effects of this trade. From armed guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia to street gangs in El Salvador, illicitly trafficked and manufactured SA/LW contribute to many of the region's most pressing problems.

On 14 November 1997 the Organization of American States (OAS) took a significant step toward reining in this deadly trade by adopting the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and other Related Materials - the first legally binding regional agreement on illiicit firearms trafficking. Currently, 33 states have signed the Convention and 24 have ratified it. By signing the Convention, these states commit to

  • establishing as criminal offenses the illicit firearms manufacturing and trafficking;
  • setting up and maintaining an effective system of licenses and authorizations for the export, import and transit of firearms;
  • marking firearms at the time of manufacture, and when they are imported;
  • sharing information that is needed by law enforcement officials who are investigating arms trafficking offenses;
  • strengthening controls at export points; and
  • and ensuring that law enforcement personnel receive adequate training.

Through these requirements, the Convention raises regional standards for firearms export controls. By creating a mechanism for exchanging information, cooperating on investigations, and ensuring that law enforcement personnel are adequetely trained, it also increases the regional capacity to identify, investigate and prosecute illicit firearms manufacturers and traffickers.

The United States and the Convention
While the United States was among the first countries to sign the Convention, it is now one of only a handful of other countries that still have not ratified it. Ratification would boost the credibility of the Convention and U.S. exhortations to comply with its provisions. It would require no new laws, and any modifications to US regulations and policies needed to comply with the Convention would be minimal.

Even though U.S. laws are already largely in compliance with the provisions of the Convention, ratification by the United States is important for several reasons:

  • Failure to ratify reduces U.S. credibility in OAS Meetings. By not ratifying the Convention, the U.S. has relegated itself to observer status at meetings of the Convention's Consultative Committee. While observer states are permitted to attend meetings and make statements, their status detracts from the persuasive power of their statements and recommendations; representatives of full States Parties to the Convention have expressed annoyance with observers that make strong recommendations at Consultative Committee meetings.
  • Failure to ratify undermines U.S. efforts to compel other states to implement the Convention's many important provisions. As revealed by a recent OAS survey of compliance with the Convention, several member states have yet to implement many of the Convention's key provisions. U.S. exhortations to comply with the Convention ring hollow when the U.S. itself has not ratified it.
  • Ratification would boost the credibility of the Convention. Officials from member states and the OAS General Secretariat emphasize the importance of U.S. ratification, claiming that it would provide an immediate boost to the Convention's credibility. Conversely, continued failure on the part of the United States to ratify the convention would damage its prestige over time.
  • Ratification would help to reduce resentment generated by our refusal to adopt other popular international agreements. This resentment has a direct impact on the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives. For example, the international community took the unprecedented step of voting the U.S. off the UN Human Rights Commission in May 2001 in part because of U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court Statute. Ratification of the OAS Convention would send a strong signal to the international community that the United States does in fact recognize the value of, and need for, international cooperation on terrorism and other important issues.

Recent Developments
In the spring of 2004, the hopes of the Convention's many advocates were raised and then dashed when the Convention was not taken up as part of a June 17th hearing on law enforcement conventions.

That July, Senator Feinstein introduced the Security and Fair Enforcement in Arms Trafficking Act of 2004, which, inter alia, calls on the Secretary of State to encourage hold outs to ratify the Convention. It also requires the State Department to submit an annual report on U.S. efforts to achieve universal ratification and implementation. The bill is a strong show of support for the Convention by several prominent law makers and, as such, increases the likelihood that the U.S. will finally ratify this important treaty.

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  • Marcela Sanchez, "Disarming Latin America", The Washington Post, 18 February 2005.
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