Security Council Open Debate: The impact of the diversion and trafficking of arms on peace and security

By Laura Varella and Paula Soumaya Domit
1 December 2021

On Monday, 22 November 2021 the UN Security Council (UNSC) met for an Open Debate on “the impact of the diversion and trafficking of arms on peace and security”. The Debate was chaired by Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard as a key part of Mexico’s November presidency of the UNSC. The debate boasted over 50 speakers and a thoughtful and engaging discussion on how best to address the threats posed by the diversion and trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their ammunition. The Debate began with two briefings from Robin Geiss, Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), and Maria Pia Devoto, Member of the Control Arms Governance Board  (a coalition of 150 civil society member organisations), representing civil society. UNSC members and non-members followed the briefers with their statements.

Robin Geiss said during his briefing to the Security Council that the diversion and trafficking in weapons and ammunition is “a defining factor” in undermining peace and security. All speakers agreed that the illicit diversion and trafficking of arms pose a grave threat to international security, particularly human security, and discussed numerous adverse short-term and long-term impacts. The trafficking and diversion of SALW is particularly dangerous in conflict and post-conflict situations noted Niger, Kenya, and the Arab Group (in a statement delivered by Qatar), as it can prolong conflict and endanger post-conflict peace. Countries like Tunisia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Iraq, Brazil, and El Salvador, among others, emphasised how the illicit flow and diversion of SALW fuel organised crime and terrorism across the world. Many others noted that illicit arms trafficking and diversion impedes sustainable development, hinders the provision of humanitarian aid, and facilitates human rights abuses.

Many speakers, including the European Union (EU), Canada, Chile, Niger, and Morocco raised concerns about the disproportionate impact of the trafficking and diversion of SALW on women and children. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that in South Sudan, a quarter of those surgically treated for gunshot wounds over the last decade were women and children. The proliferation and illicit trafficking of SALW has specific gendered impacts and exacerbates other phenomena such as gender-based and sexual violence and human trafficking, as many states noted. The United Kingdom (UK), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala, South Africa, Norway, and Ukraine called for the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women in disarmament and arms control decision-making. The Nordic Countries (in a statement delivered by Sweden) called for the streamlining of work on this issue with the UNSC’s Women, Peace, and Security Agenda. Italy specifically called for more participation of women in the implementation of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UNPoA). Colombia, among others, also called for more participation from youth, given that young people are also uniquely impacted by SALW. There was a clear call from states to focus on gender and youth sensitive solutions to the problem of the illicit trade and diversion of SALW.

In discussing possible measures and solutions, speakers highlighted the importance of taking action on various levels, including internationally, regionally, and sub-regionally. Internationally, a majority of states voiced their support for the UNPoA and its International Tracing Instrument (ITI), though lamented that in the 20 years since its creation it has still not been fully implemented. Maria Pia Devoto drew attention to the importance of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in curbing the illicit flow and diversion of SALW. The ICRC, EU, Canada, Guatemala, and China, as well as Devoto called for states to accede to and fully implement the ATT. Regional initiatives were also highlighted as important ways to address this issue without compromising the need for context-specific solutions. There was a broad outpouring of support for the African Union’s Silencing the Guns initiative, as well as the Western Balkans’ SALW Control Roadmap and the Caribbean Firearms Roadmap. Many also discussed the imperative to strengthen national capacities for preventing arms diversion throughout the entire SALW lifecycle, including by securing stockpiles and enforcing more stringent export assessments (particularly in states which manufacture and export weapons). States noted that solutions to the illicit flow of SALW should include help with such capacity-building, particularly in developing or post-conflict states.

Several comments were made regarding the UNSC’s role on the issue of SALW. Russia argued that the struggle against the illicit flows of SALW need to be addressed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and that the UNSC should not duplicate the responsibilities of the UNGA on this issue. It further argued that this topic falls outside of the Council’s mandate. However, the large majority of states disagreed with this position and argued that the UNSC is strategically placed to oversee substantial discussions on the matter. In fact, several suggestions for effectively increasing the Council’s work on the issue were made. China, Japan and Turkey stated that the UNSC should provide support in post-conflict situations to prevent arms diversion and proliferation; South Africa, Viet Nam and Switzerland stated that the UNSC could provide capacity building for states; Bulgaria, Malta and Brazil suggested that the UNSC should encourage synergies between the numerous instruments at states’ disposal (UNPOA, ITI, ATT, and Firearms Protocol); and Japan, Germany, and Latvia noted that the Council could address new technology developments on the issue.

The need for increased monitoring and enforcement of UN arms embargoes was highlighted by several states, among them Belgium, Bulgaria, Liechtenstein, India, and Ireland. Devoto underscored that the UN Group of Experts charged with monitoring compliance with arms embargoes stated in March this year that the arms embargo in Libya was ‘totally ineffective’. Liechtenstein highlighted the same and added that the embargo measures imposed on Yemen were equally ineffective, as the flow of SALW continued. The United States argued that the UNSC’s body of work is sufficient, but the shortfall comes from states not implementing their commitments and obligations. China argued that arms embargoes and sanctions are a means and not an end, and should not be used to infringe on the sovereignty of countries or their ability to develop their security capabilities. Nevertheless, several states made suggestions on how the UNSC could approach the issue in order to achieve better compliance from states. The UK, for example, suggested that the Council should lift embargoes only when states are fully ready to prevent SALW diversion and misuse. Tunisia and Slovakia suggested improved international cooperation for implementation of embargoes. Belgium noted that the Group of Experts on arms embargoes has a vital role, as they oversee compliance with embargoes and their reports provide information on trafficking points and routes. In the same sense, the representative of the Control Arms Coalition highlighted that the Groups of Experts charged with monitoring compliance with arms embargoes have underscored problems linked to their implementation and have made recommendations to address this, and stated that countries had at their disposal the tools, knowledge and experience to combat illicit trafficking and diversion of SALW, and that it only comes down to finding the political will for it.

The issue of peacekeeping operations was also discussed in the meeting. Albania, Kenya, and India, among others, stated that the illicit flow of SALW undermines the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations. Brazil added that the diversion of SALW can threaten the safety and security of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, thus hindering the implementation of peacekeeping mandates and the provisions of assistance. Nevertheless, countries like Belgium highlighted that law enforcement usually has insufficient capacity and that UN peacekeeping operations are well positioned to assist the host state with the management of stocks and the destruction of SALW surplus stockpiles. Tunisia, Italy, and Greece agreed with this, with Greece stating that considerations should be given to adding small units of personnel to peacekeeping missions to focus on illicit arms trade.

It is evident from the Debate that states agree that the illicit diversion and trafficking of arms pose a grave threat to international security and strongly affect the stability and sustainable development of countries. The disproportionate impact on women and children was recognised by many delegations, as was the role of the UNSC in addressing the issue. It is essential, therefore, that states prioritise the trafficking of SALW as a central element in their agendas, and contribute to efforts within UN bodies to tackle the challenges associated with the diversion of these weapons and their ammunition. As stated by Maritza Chan, the Permanent Representative of Costa Rica, “Peace cannot be forced or imposed at gunpoint. We have to convince ourselves that human security remains a requirement for global security”.