Years of agreement, little result

In a quarter-century of discussion on conventional arms control, effective ‘record-keeping has been one of the most persistent recommendations raised. Thousands of pages of global standards, policy statements, UN and regional resolutions, reports and handbooks have urged or mandated robust record-keeping for weapons. Despite this, an estimated 88 per cent of civilian firearms remain unregistered¹. In many smaller nations, police, military and other state-owned small arms and ammunition are also undocumented or poorly recorded. In 2020 there were 29 outstanding international assistance requests from states in Sub-Saharan Africa alone to improve their record-keeping capacity for conventional arms².

In all this, the international community has yet to promote a comprehensive computerised solution for weapon accountability which encourages compliance with international norms and is readily accessible to low-capacity states. Even key arms control components mandated by regional agreements such as the ECOWAS Convention (2006) remain unrealised for lack of simple software.

In the real world of national policy and enforcement, ‘small arms record-keeping requires a permitting system for individuals authorised to possess firearms, plus a separate, but linked record of each weapon to document every transfer. Across almost all the world’s jurisdictions, these two closely inter-dependent components are described in legislation as ‘gun owner licensing and ‘firearm registration.

While industrialised countries can afford multi-million-dollar arms registers, smaller and developing states have not been offered an effective, low-cost equivalent to tick the many boxes of arms control. From first importation or seizure through licensing, registration, marking and tracing, to comply with arms embargoes and to generate internal, regional and international reports which hew to global norms, a cradle-to-grave record-keeping system must follow every weapon through each owner transfer, all the way to eventual re-export or destruction. This is ArmsTracker.

Here are just a few of the high-level UN and EU conclusions reiterated in recent years:

United Nations Secretary-General

Among its recommended Good Practices the 2020 ‘Consolidated Small Arms Report of the Secretary-General promoted ‘the establishment of national systems that include centralized national small arms and light weapons records… a robust licensing process… a well-maintained centralized record-keeping system’ and consistent recording of any weapons, pending destruction.

United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research

The 2019 UNIDIR assessment on ‘The Role of Weapon and Ammunition Management in Preventing Conflict and Supporting Security Transitions’ found that: ‘…transfer controls, marking and record-keeping, as well as tracing… are often neglected or under-developed.’ Further, ‘poor record-keeping remains one of the primary shortcomings among States in Africa.’

United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs

In its 2020 guidance ‘Effective Weapons and Ammunition Management in a Changing Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Context – A Handbook for United Nations DDR Practitioners, UNODA concluded that ‘Registration and record-keeping of weapons, ammunition and explosives are critical’, and require ‘a simple database’ with ‘close-up and full-frame photographs… of each piece of matériel’.

European Union

The 2018 EU Strategy against illicit firearms, small arms and light weapons and their ammunition ‘Securing Arms, Protecting Citizens found that ‘The secure management of national small arms and ammunition stockpiles is instrumental in curbing illicit proliferation and that ‘marking and thorough record-keeping are vital for successful tracing. It also promised that ‘The EU and its Member States will continue to help other countries to improve the management and security of state-held stockpiles by strengthening national legislative and administrative frameworks and institutions that regulate the legitimate supply and stockpile management of SALW and ammunition for defence and security forces, with a particular focus on marking and record-keeping.

United Nations Human Rights Council

In his 2016 report ‘Human Rights and the Regulation of Civilian Acquisition, Possession and Use of Firearms the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that ‘control over the legal possession of firearms by all persons and companies should be effected through licensing, registration, monitoring, auditing and mandatory training.

Small Arms Survey

In its 2018 study ‘Implementing the [UN] Programme of Action and International Tracing Instrument – An Assessment of National Reports, 2012–17 the Small Arms Survey found that ‘76  requests  for  assistance  to  build  capacity  for  record-keeping  represent  the  highest  number  of  assistance  requests  during  2012–17.

1) Karp, Aaron (2018). ‘Estimating global civilian-held firearms numbers’. Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper. Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Geneva: 13 June.
2) See ‘International Cooperation and Assistance‘. United Nations Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons. UNODA, New York: accessed 23 Aug 2020.

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