Ammunition in the Arms trade Treaty: Is it possible?

Rights in crisis article written on the 04 Mar 2011

Image courtesy Control Arms

Since I’ve been working on the Control Arms campaign with Oxfam Australia, I’ve been particularly interested in the issue of ammunition, and how it should be addressed within an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

The ATT will be an instrument that will seek to regulate the trade in ‘conventional arms’. Exactly what this definition includes will be set out in the scope of the treaty, which will list the equipment that is subject to the regulations of the treaty. So far, states have been trying to build this list starting with the seven categories of arms in the UN Register of Conventional Arms, plus small arms and light weapons, and the ammunition for these weapons (often referred to 7+1+1).

Ammunition has posed a particularly interesting question. As a smaller, single use commodity, produced in far higher quantities than other types of weapons (there are billions of rounds produced every year), it presents particular challenges around record-keeping, marking and tracing. At the same time, it’s arguably the most lethal part of a weapons system – arms cannot kill without bullets, and with a steady supply of ammo, illicit arms can be used for decades. Particularly given the problems caused by guns left over from prior conflicts, or the relative ease with which homemade guns can be produced, ammunition flows become a critical factor in determining whether conflict, crime and armed violence can be prolonged.

Whilst the humanitarian basis for including ammo in the ATT is clear, there’s still some resistance from certain states about including it in the Treaty. Most prominent in these opponents in the United States. My colleagues from Oxfam America, Scott Stedjan and Colby Goodman, have written a really interesting blog on the reasons behind this opposition. The US argues that including ammunition will be too difficult in terms of reporting and that it will be impossible to trace ammo to its final users after it has been exported. In other words, they see it as impossible to measure the risk of diversion, or the risk of human rights violations when assessing whether to authorise a transfer of ammo, because they have no way to track where that ammo will end up. That said, the US, like most countries already applies export and import controls on ammunition, so the real question is, is it a matter of capacity, or more political pressure?

Today I got to attend a really interesting workshop on the feasibility of including ammo in the ATT. Holger Anders of Small Arms Survey talked about some of the successes he has had in marking and tracing ammunition after it has ended up in conflict zones or with criminal end-users. He emphasized that whilst marking and tracing presents greater challenges with ammo than with arms, that there were still a number of success stories he could point to t. Additionally, Eden Charles from Trinidad and Tobago pointed to a number of new technologies like micro-stamping (a marking on the firing pin on a gun that stamps an ammo round when it is fired) that are already being implemented in parts of the US and elsewhere.

Positively, it reminded all of us that the debate on ammo is far from finished, and that there are many opportunities for advocates and states to put pressure on the skeptics and look to practical ways to ensure that ammunition movements are effectively monitored and regulated to ensure accountability and save lives.

Ben Murphy is Humanitarian Advocacy Officer with Oxfam Australia. Ben will be blogging and tweeting (@Ben_Murphy83) from inside the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference all this week.

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