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2 June 2015, Vol. 7, No. 2

Editorial: “New” challenges, or old ones?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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On the opening day of the second meeting of government experts (MGE2) on small arms and light weapons (SALW), experts and delegates discussed new and emerging technologies that have implications for effective marking, record-keeping, and tracing of weapons. Presentations, prepared remarks, and an interactive exchange indicated a shared understanding of the challenges related to new and emerging technologies, but disagreement over the best way forward. Some suggested upgrading marking technologies—which some pointed out is costly and technically challenging; others suggested adjusting the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) and International Tracing Instrument (ITI) to accommodate new weapon technologies—which some felt was not possible or desirable. But very few states raised concerns about the crux of the issue: addressing production of SALW in the first place.

Concerns raised in the meeting about emerging technologies included the increasing use of polymer components in SALW, the development of modular weapon systems, and the production of guns using 3D printing. All of these are posing challenges for the marking and thus tracing of weapons.

  • Polymer components, made mostly from plastics or other synthetic materials, are difficult to mark and it is easier to remove any marks that are made. Entire frames of weapons are now made from polymer. These weapons are cheaper to produce and thus buy, and they are lighter to carry, making them ideal for trafficking.
  • Modular weapons are those with parts and components that can be changed by the manufacturer, in an armory workshop, or on the field by a user. For example, a rifle can have interchangeable barrels with different lengths. This raises questions about which component of the weapon should be marked; or, if multiple components are marked, which one needs to be traced.
  • 3D printing of guns poses potential concerns regarding mass availability and lack of control over unlicensed production. These weapons are difficult to trace, have proved challenging to forensic techniques, and easily destroyed.

The ITI is very specific about what kind of marks are required—they must be on an exposed surface, conspicuous to the naked eye, easily recognisable, readable, durable, etc. All three of these emerging technologies present challenges to fulfilling these requirements. There are no international standards for the marking of such weapons, which as a working paper by Austria, Belgium, and Germany argues, “risks creating a situation where the tracing of these weapons will be increasingly hampered and even become impossible.”

The experts giving presentations on Monday, as well as the working paper from Austria, Belgium, and Germany, offered some specific recommendations for overcoming these challenges or adapting marking, record-keeping, and tracing practices. Some experts and delegations even suggested amending the ITI to adapt to these new technologies—though South Africa raised several procedural questions around doing so.

But as some delegations such as Costa Rica, Kenya, Mali, and Sierra Leone pointed out, trying to keep up with the new technologies necessary to effectively mark and trace weapons these types of emerging weapon technologies is increasingly expensive. In many cases, the equipment available to mark weapons upon import is already out of date or broken down. Obtaining new equipment and training people to use it is a significant financial investment for countries that have little assistance for such undertakings. And the technologies themselves make marking upon import even more difficult. For example, as a working paper from CARICOM points out, polymer weapons might be marked with a metal tag inserted during production, but these are often “not large enough to accommodate post-manufacture marking.”

Should the approach to these challenges really be to “keep up” with emerging technologies? Or could a more effective, human security-driven approach be to focus on the point of manufacture and production?

The UNPoA and its framework is about dealing with the illicit trafficking in SALW. It is designed to deal with the fact that the world is awash in weapons and that many of these weapons are being traded illegally. The Arms Trade Treaty is about dealing with the so-called legal trade in weapons and ensuring “responsibility” for this trade. While the effective implementation of these instruments is crucial, they are insufficient to deal with the crux of the problem: weapons are still being produced en masse. And those making weapons, and selling them, have only one motivation: profit.

Sierra Leone challenged this reality on Monday, saying the weapons manufacturers are working for money; that they want to produce SALW at the lowest possible cost. But, the delegate pointed out, weapons are lethal. At the very least, they must be manufactured in a way that officials can at least keep account of them properly. Either we need to rewrite our instruments like the ITI to meet the needs of manufacturers, Sierra Leone declared, or manufacturers need to rethink the products they are making.

This is the most compelling solution offered during yesterday’s meeting. While technical fixes might be necessary to deal with this issue in the short-term, the long-term solution must be much more comprehensive. It must get to the heart of the problem, which is the manufacture and sale of instruments of death and destruction for profit. This is the same challenge we have always had with SALW and that we will continue to have until the issue of production is addressed head on.

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