Statement before the United Nations Conference on the 

Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects

Tamar Gabelnick
Federation of American Scientists
16 July 2001

I am speaking today for my organization, the Federation of American Scientists, and on behalf of the US Small Arms Working Group, an alliance of non-governmental organization and individual working to reduce the proliferation and misuse of small arms.  We stand firmly behind the idea that the Program of Action should include a call for norms and standards on the export of small arms and light weapons.  And we believe that such norms should be developed at the international level.

Some delegates have challenged the pertinence of export criteria to a document focused on the illicit trade in small arms.  But the connection is often short between government-authorized sales and the illicit trade.  Small arms exported to states with weak border controls, poor stockpile security, or even corrupt government agents can quickly end up in the black market.  Breaking the legal to illicit link therefore depends on prudent exporting decisions that take into consideration the recipient states’ records on diversion, among other factors. 

But I will go one step further and argue that some government-authorized sales must be considered illicit in the first instance.  Just because a government grants permission for an export does not mean that it is legal under international law.  The most obvious example is when a state approves weapon transfers to a state or armed group in violation of a UN arms embargo.  While government-authorized, it is still illegal.  Likewise, small arms exports that violate states’ obligations under other international treaties – such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons or the Landmines Treaty – are also obviously illegal.

Beyond these express limitations on states’ freedom to transfer small arms and light weapons, there are also indirect limits on exports based on the use of the weapons.  According to the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on State Responsibility, a state that aids another state to commit an international crime is internationally responsible for that action.  If I were to hand a gun to someone about to commit murder, I could be considered an accomplice to that crime.  And so it is with international weapons transfers.         

Under current principles of international law, states have a responsibility not to authorize arms exports when there is a clear risk that the weapons would be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, to engage in acts of genocide or other crimes against humanity, or to violate norms of the UN Charter.  Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war – which requires states to “respect and ensure respect” for its provisions – reinforces the notion that states must not sell arms that would be used to violate the Conventions.

The norm of state responsibility for the use of its exported weapons has also been enshrined in many states’ national laws and has been included in regional agreements such as the EU Code of Conduct and the OSCE Document on Small Arms.  The international community must now build on the norms accepted by many of the major arms experts and agree to them at the international level. 

Mr. President and distinguished delegates, my recommendation to you today is therefore to include in the Program of Action, in the section entitled “at the global level,” a call to “create common norms and standards for the export of small arms and light weapons based on international humanitarian and human rights law and respect for the UN Charter.”  This is essential and fully relevant language that only serves to reinforce principles that states have already committed to, and should already be implementing.

Thank you very much.