Small arms and light weapons



Small arms* are responsible for more casualties than any other type of weapon; they aggravate conflicts, destabilise societies and hinder development.

The control of small arms and light weapons, including their ammunition, as a key element in crisis prevention and post-conflict peace-building is one of the German Government’s central concerns in the field of conventional arms control.

Security is crucial for development. The proliferation of illegal small arms hinders economic and social development and plays a major role in the violent escalation of conflicts, especially in urban areas. It impedes investment and eats up resources for private security measures – not to mention the immediate consequences for those affected.

The control of small arms is therefore a flanking measure for German development cooperation. In many parts of the world, small arms can be acquired by civilians relatively easily and cheaply, either legally or, more usually, illegally. In many crisis regions, they are widespread beyond the confines of the regular armed forces and security forces. It is estimated that over 875 million small arms, with an average service life of 30-50 years, are in circulation worldwide. Many small arms can be used without difficulty even by children. In the internal and cross-border conflicts of the last decades, the large majority of casualties, especially among the civilian population, were caused by small arms.

They can continue to endanger public security long after a conflict has ended, cause conflicts to flare up again, destabilise societies and states and hold back economic development. In particular, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems or “man-portable air-defence systems” (“MANPADS”), which are regarded as light weapons, represent a serious threat to both civilian and military aircraft if they fall into the hands of terrorists.

United Nations

Germany takes an active part in the UN Small Arms Process, which constitutes the global reference framework for efforts in the field of small arms control. The UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects adopted the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons in July 2001.

It contains statements and recommendations on various aspects of small arms control (laws, production, marking and registration, cooperation on tracing, storage, destruction of surplus arms, awareness-raising among the population, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, as well as international trade) and has been the launch-pad for a host of global and regional initiatives. The aim is to help states implement the Programme of Action and to find the broadest possible consensus on the most important elements. All important documents on this, including the country reports on national implementation, are available on the internet platform created for the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs with German support:


  • Meeting of States as part of the UN Small Arms Process

The status of implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms is discussed every two years at the Meeting of States and more comprehensive stock is taken of the situation at a Review Conference every six years. The Fourth Biennial Meeting of States in New York from 14 to 18 June 2010 succeeded for the first time in adopting a final outcome document by consensus. It contains numerous recommendations on how to improve implementation in the key areas discussed: border control, international cooperation, marking and tracing and the institutional framework. The German Government played an active part, pressing in particular for improved international cooperation on implementation.

The Second Review Conference of the Programme of Action on Small Arms in August and September 2012 was successfully concluded with a political declaration reaffirming the goals of small arms control and with outcome documents on the implementation of the Small Arms Programme of Action and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI). Furthermore, the Conference agreed on a follow-up process for the next six-year cycle until the Third Review Conference in 2018. In support of the Programme, the German Government has joined an initiative launched up by Australia to back a new facility to fund projects to implement the Programme of Action on Small Arms and a future ATT. To this end, it pledged to make 500,000 euros available for projects by the end of 2013.


In four years of work involving up to 300 experts around the world, the United Nations has created the International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS), a comprehensive set of recommendations on dealing with small weapons and ammunition which spells out the guidelines of the Programme of Action on Small Arms, the International Tracing Instrument and the Firearms Protocol and translates them into concrete instructions. Germany is supporting this project by financing a software instrument which renders the ISACS practicable and means it can be used to assess the state of any given country’s small arms control by way of benchmarks and indicators.

  • Marking and tracing

In June 2005, a politically binding UN instrument on the marking and tracing of small arms was adopted with active German support. In this instrument, UN member states undertake to mark the weapons they have produced or imported in line with uniform international rules, to compile arms registers and to work together on tracing illegal arms supplies. In addition to implementation of the instrument at national level, a particular priority is to encourage its international implementation. The status of implementation and recommendations for improving it are discussed at the Biennial Meetings of States on Small Arms and, for the first time, at a Meeting of Governmental Experts in May 2011.

  • Inventory management

One of the main concerns of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms is how to manage and secure official stocks of small arms and light weapons. Since 2007, the German Government has placed increasing emphasis on inventory management, a subject which lends itself particularly well as a starting-point for a substantive bilateral security dialogue. The recommendations of an international meeting of experts on issues of management and securitisation, but also on the reduction and destruction of stocks of conventional weapons and ammunition, held during Germany’s Presidency of the European Council, form the basis for technical cooperation activities.

  • Conventional ammunition

Since the negotiations on the UN instrument on marking and tracing, Germany has sought an appropriate approach to the problem of ammunition. Since 2005 Germany has, together with France, sponsored resolutions on how to handle ammunition stocks in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. On this basis, a UN Group of Experts drew up recommendations for dealing with excess stocks of conventional ammunition which were endorsed in 2008 and recommended to the UN member states for implementation. This resolution also called for the elaboration of technical guidelines for the implementation of these recommendations. The IATGs (International Ammunition Technical Guidelines) have since been completed by a group of experts in which Germany participated. They give states a comprehensive guide, which they can use on a voluntary basis, on how to deal with ammunition and explosives.

  • Group of Interested States

In addition, Germany is continuing its involvement in the Group of Interested States (GIS), which meets in New York. This Group was created in 1998 following a German initiative. It provides a forum in which all relevant parties with an interest in the UN small arms control process can exchange views on project work and political measures to underpin the implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms. The importance of the GIS’s practical work has been highlighted since then in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly by a resolution sponsored on a regular basis by Germany and adopted by consensus (most recently UN Resolution A/Res/67/50 of 4 January 2013).

European Union

Due to their commitment in the small arms sphere, in particular small arms project work, the European Union and its Member States are among the key global players in this field. In December 2005, the European Council adopted the European Union Strategy to combat the illicit accumulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition. The EU’s Small Arms Strategy aims to exploit all the political and financial instruments at the EU’s disposal, so as to facilitate a coordinated, coherent EU policy on small arms. The three main pillars of the Strategy are effective multilateralism, the prevention of illegal arms supplies and project cooperation with the affected states/regions.

In keeping with a decision by the European Council in December 2008, all new third-state agreements will include elements relating to cooperation on the implementation of the Small Arms Strategy (the “small arms clause”).

During the last few years, project cooperation has focused on improving the management and securitisation of stocks of small arms and conventional ammunition, on destroying surplus stocks, and on measures for the registration and marking of small arms. In regional terms, the focus has been on Ukraine, the Western Balkans and Africa. Projects being carried out during the current implementation phase include a dialogue among civil societies in Africa, China and the EU on the importance of controlling conventional weapons transfers organised by the NGO Saferworld, the establishment of a database to identify suspicious air transports, the funding of capacity-building measures in the judicial, police and political spheres in Central America, as well as the improvement of the storage of small arms and ammunition in Libya.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

The OSCE adopted a Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons as early as November 2000. The Document sets out common criteria relating to exports and excess stocks, creates regional transparency for small arms transfers and establishes the basis for a comprehensive exchange of information. This is the most far-reaching politically binding document on military small arms at regional level and has a pilot function for the implementation and further development of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms. The OSCE set out practical aids for implementation in its Best Practice Guides of 2003. A supplementary annex on securitising stocks of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems (MANPADS) was completed in 2006.

It was with the same goal that the OSCE adopted a document on stocks of conventional ammunition in December 2003. A Handbook of Best Practices on ammunition was published in 2008 with active German involvement.

The combination of standardisation, exchange of experience and project work is unique in the OSCE. Many OSCE states make use of the possibility, provided for in the Documents on small arms and conventional ammunition, of asking other participating states for help in securitising and destroying excess stockpiles of small arms and ammunition. Germany takes part in assessment visits, training activities and other project work, including in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. The implementation of the OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons is always discussed at review conferences, most recently in Vienna in May 2012.

Bilateral engagement

Germany has entered into a range of bilateral commitments in the field of small arms. For example, since 2003 Germany has been providing 800,000 euros annually for a project operated by the British NGO HALO Trust to collect and destroy the remnants of war in Afghanistan. Sub-Saharan Africa is a particular focus of the project work. In addition to projects in the field of Disarmament, Demobilization & Reintegration (DDR), other priorities include training programmes to improve the management and securitisation of official stocks.

The German Government regards small arms control as an active contribution towards crisis prevention. This engagement fosters stability, especially in post-conflict areas. For instance, Germany became engaged in Libya soon after the armed conflict. Back in 2011, the German Government provided 750,000 euros for the development of the Libyan Center for Mine Action and Remnants of War in Libya; from 2012 to 2017, GIZ is funding a long-term programme to develop capacities (volume: total of around 8 million of which 5 million are being provided via the EU). In Côte d’Ivoire, GIZ has been charged by the Federal Foreign Office with carrying out an overarching small arms control project, within the framework of which the small arms commission is being bolstered and a programme to collect weapons is being devised. In Central America, the UN Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) holds seminars on arms control for decision-makers in the police force, judicial system and the world of politics.

Click here for an up-to-date overview of the bilateral German projects: www.diplo.de.

* Definition:
Small arms and light weapons (SALW), referred to in this text as small arms are weapons and weapons systems which are manufactured to military specifications for use as weapons of war or which are converted into such weapons and are normally reserved for military use.

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