Tighten the Nuts and Bolts

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[On April 30, we posted a news item on a new report from Instituto Sou da Paz that has a lot to say about ISACS.  Below is a guest post by the reports author, Daniel Mack, who presents the relevant part of the report.  The ISACS project looks forward to further interaction with global civil society on on their use of the International Small Arms Control Standards]


Guest Post by Daniel Mack, Instituto Sou da Paz

Even in the absence of the transformative changes to production and holdings of small arms recommended in our paper “What Next?”, a proper, strategic and systematic “nuts and bolts” approach – on a local, national or global level – could pursued by civil society in an impactful manner regarding surplus, destruction and stockpile management. Define how many guns are needed, properly lock them up, and destroy the rest. Simple!

While often duly emphasized (and properly operationalized) only by government agencies or by civil society dealing with conflict or post-conflict/DDR programs, better knowledge and implementation of the concepts of surplus and destruction would be absolutely essential almost everywhere, as, in some cases “small arms stockpiles greatly exceed immediate and likely future needs.”[1]

To some extent, the lack of advocacy attention is understandable. Pushing for an exact, transparent public account of how many firearms a country has, how many it can prove essential for military and law enforcement purposes, and precise destruction plans for any discrepancy between those numbers, may be deemed too technical or ‘cold’ to many in civil society. Moreover, definitions render the enterprise complex, as the notion of “surplus” is flexible and can be manipulated.[2] An internationally agreed, evidence-based definition could be an important contribution by civil society experts.

Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of evidence that in many (most?) countries, there are many more firearms than “necessary”. For the specific case of military firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey, around 76 million of the world’s 200 million small arms in the hands of armed forces are “surplus”. In other words, an estimated 38% of military stockpiles are not operationally needed! While a similar estimate for law enforcement would be significantly more difficult to make, and the estimate for civilians very complex indeed, one can expect significant surpluses therein, regardless of the methodologies used.

 In South America alone, about 1.3 million military small arms are “undoubtedly superfluous” and, therefore, should be immediately destroyed. For example, Argentina has over a half million unnecessary firearms (over 77% of its holdings), while in Guyana up to 83% of small arms may be surplus.

It is possibly no coincidence that, in Sou da Paz’s recent research, all apprehended heavy weapons originating from Argentina had been diverted from its armed forces. And yet, globally, recent levels of surplus destruction have been insufficient, as estimated at about 430,000 units annually, “probably less than new military production”.

Clearly more needs to be done: “even after years of effort, destruction programs are not reaching more than a small proportion. Destruction is organized, but not systematic. It is enduring, but it is not growing. It is highly legitimate, but not authoritative”.

Evidently, surplus destruction is more crucial than exciting. Yet, ensuring that all guns apprehended by police forces, or returned in buy-back campaigns, are destroyed as swiftly as possible – rather than increasing diversion risks by having several levels of needed bureaucracy – is absolutely crucial.

Likewise, there is possibly nothing less sexy, in all of human history, than ‘stockpile management’. Yet, “the secure management of small arms stockpiles held by police or national armed forces is instrumental in curbing small arms proliferation. Poor stockpile security is a prime means through which arms and ammunition are diverted from the legal to the illicit markets. Lax security makes theft easy. Corrupt officials may sell or otherwise transfer weapons under their care to criminal groups or rebel forces”.[3]

None of this is particularly novel. In 2007, an experts meeting in Berlin, for example, already had as its “purpose to put the issue of stockpile management on the international agenda” and concluded that “stockpile management was a complex issue which was not receiving sufficient political attention. Often the political will to address the resulting problems in a comprehensive way was missing… moving from best practice to multilateral legally binding instruments on stockpile management issues needed to be considered”.

How much the debate has evolved since, particularly inasmuch as civil society engagement, is unclear. Luckily, blueprints for stronger efforts on stockpile management and surplus destruction already exist; the work left in many countries is to compel governments to accept and implement them.

Of particular note, in addition to the guidance provided by the OSCE Handbooks, are the so-called ISACS (International Small Arms Control Standards), initially launched by the UN (in a trickle fashion) in August 2012. It should come as no surprise that the most important recent step forward on international efforts on small arms did not emerge from First Committee negotiations, but rather was UN-led but not contingent on unanimous governmental approval.

Indeed, the ISACS are “maintained and updated by a voluntary global network of experts drawn from the United Nations, governments, international and regional organizations, civil society and the private sector”. Even so, the vitriolic resistance from some governments to their development further suggests that it is unlikely that all UN Member States can be expected to agree and implement truly transformative instruments.

As Denise Garcia explains, the ISACS are a “mechanism to assist United Nations member states in implementing effective controls on small arms availability, from manufacture, marking and record-keeping, international transfer, tracing, collection, and destruction of illicit weapons. These are all new norms now established and some of them emanated from the Program of Action. While there is no doubt that norms have flourished and consolidated, especially weapons destruction, marking and tracing, and brokering, the hardest test remain implementation of the collection of norms the Program of Action prescribes. The ISACS are key in this respect”.[4]

As Glenn McDonald reminds us, “the normative framework at the global level is quite comprehensive” and “you could argue that it’s sufficient, that the key challenge is, not the creation of new norms, but the ‘full and effective implementation’ of existing norms”.[5] If one considers ISACS to be part of this broad normative framework (supported by a majority albeit not universally consensual), this claim appears even stronger.

Furthermore, the practical implementation of ISACS on a local, national and global level could be pushed by civil society also as many of the standards are common sense, easy, inexpensive, practical gun control measures not dependent on national legislation or international negotiations. ISACS are meant to be achievable by all nations rather than necessarily “best practices” that may demand high technology or expensive solutions.

It could be said that ISACS has only two gaps: their entirely “voluntary” nature and the absence of ammunition. The final piece of the puzzle missing is proper investment of political capital by governments, fully committing to effective implementation. As noted by Ed Laurence, ISACS is an “important effort but has moved at the speed of governments”.[6] 

But governments can hurry when catalyzed by a strong civil society push. Greater worldwide attention – also by NGOs in the area – and awareness-raising would be an important first step as, despite a mention in the first UNSC resolution on SALW and in several Secretary-General reports, ISACS are less known than they warrant. For example, the progress report of its first year notes that only about 4000 unique users had visited the website. Its Twitter feed (@SALWstandards) has, in early March 2014, only 145 followers. Civil society should help in growing both numbers considerably.[7]

So far mostly an internal UN tool for its myriad agencies dealing with some aspect of small arms control, it remains to be seen whether it can definitely enter the “toolbox” of national and sub-national governments, as well as civil society – and if indeed this scenario is of interest to its UN coordinators.[8]

A self-assessment software project by UNIDIR and MIIS, currently ongoing, could be a decisive step forward in this direction. Nevertheless, global civil society should consider whether ISACS provide a roadmap for the measures – and therefore a focus for advocacy – that implemented locally and nationally could significantly reduce gun violence levels.


[1] McDonald in Batchelor, Peter and Kenkel, Kai. (editors), Controlling Small Arms: Consolidation, innovation and relevance in research and policy. London: Routledge, 2013, p. 154.

[2] Indeed, as noted by the Small Arms Survey, “in this field, definitions are tantamount to policy… surplus identification and destruction are unlikely to accelerate or become more systematic until international organizations and donor governments gain more influence over definitions and standards... Nothing will facilitate surplus identification as much as shared understandings of how much equipment is reasonable and what is excessive. Such understandings might be codified through formal negotiations… (or) might emerge less formally through multilateral dialogue. But without wider agreement on how much is enough, surplus destruction seems likely to remain sporadic”.

[3] McDonald in Batchelor and Kenkel, 2013, p. 154.

[4] Garcia in Batchelor and Kenkel 2013, p. 244.

[5] Email interview with author (Daniel Mack), January 2014.

[6] Interview with author, Geneva, January 2014.

[7] For example, on stockpile management SDP offers the ISACS module on its webpage for dissemination: http://www.soudapaz.org/upload/pdf/0520_en.pdf

[8] There may be a desire to keep ISACS “apolitical”, non-controversial or purely “technical” instead of a tool for advocacy.