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The UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and the Sustainable Development Goals

by Shruti Chopra

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The UN Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA) and Agenda 2030 together represent the global commitment to security and development. Since the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States on the PoA (BMS5) in 2014, much has changed. With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) having been adopted by the General Assembly in 2015, it is important to underline the mutually

reinforcing nature of the PoA and Agenda 2030 at this Sixth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS6).

This brief paper aims to illustrate the direct relationship between the PoA and the SDGs, and how fulfilling the obligations in the PoA can help States to achieve their commitments in the SDGs.

The paper highlights three specific aspects of how the PoA advances fulfillment of the SDGs - combating illicit arms trade, the empowerment of women and the protection of children.


The UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects1 (PoA) was approved by all states in July 2001, nine months after they had agreed on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The preamble of the PoA recalls the Millennium Declaration, which had paved the way for the MDGs.2

The Millennium Declaration emphasized human rights as well as peace, security and disarmament. Yet the MDGs that emerged from the Millennium Declaration contained no mention of any of these topics - nor of justice, the rule of law, conflict or of freedom from fear or violence. Instead the eight goals focused on traditional development priorities such as hunger, school enrollment and maternal health. By 2015 when the MDGs expired, one billion fewer people were living in extreme poverty. However, success was not spread evenly across the globe: some regions, articularly sub-Saharan Africa, fell far short of achieving the goals.3

Violence is a key reason for impaired development in some regions.

In 2011 a World Bank report noted: “One-and-a-half billion people live in areas affected by fragility, conflict, or large-scale, organized criminal violence, and no low-income fragile or conflict affected country has yet to achieve a single United Nations Millennium Development Goal.”4

To reinforce their commitment to sustainable development, UN Member States adopted Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on 25 September 2015.5 The SDGs are not only more comprehensive in scope than the MDGs; they also reflect significant advances over the last 15 years in how the international community understands development.

The SDGs are 17 goals, each accompanied by targets and further elaborated through indicators focused on measurable outcomes. There are 169 targets in total.6 These goals lay down a holistic framework covering a wide range of factors affecting development including health, energy, environment, food security, employment, inequality and violence. A major achievement in the Agenda 2030 is the recognition that the new, broader range of development goals cannot be achieved without dealing with the issues such as armed

violence that undermine development. Of particular relevance is Goal 16, which calls for Member States to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.


Under the PoA, States have resolved that prevention and eradication of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is possible only by mobilizing the political will throughout the international community to prevent and combat illicit transfers and manufacturing of small arms and light weapons in all their aspects, to cooperate towards these ends and to raise awareness of the character and seriousness of the interrelated problems associated with the illicit manufacturig of and trafficking in these weapons. 7

This basic commitment is echoed and strengthened by the SDGs.

Member States’ efforts to implement the PoA in cooperation with international organizations and civil society can benefit from similar action to implement the SDGs.

SDG Target 16.4

Goal 16 is a commitment to achieve just, peaceful and sustainable societies. More specifically, SDG Target 16.4 requires Member States to by 2030, significantly reduce illicite financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime. The PoA has a central role in action, monitoring and reporting among several international and regional instruments created to control the availability, movement and use of illicit small arms.

The PoA lays out how States should have better control over production and trade of smalls arms and light weapons - requiring States to control and regulate exports, imports, transit or retransfers, seeking to preent illegal manufacturing and illicit trafficking of such arms or their diversion to unintended recipients.8 It calls upon States to ensure that licensed manufacturers apply appropriate and reliable marking on each weapon as an integral part of the production process, enabling national authorities to identify the manufacturer and serial number so that each weapon can be identified and traced. 9 Member States are asked to regulate the

activities of brokers of small arms and light weapon transactions.

Regular reporting under the PoA on the extent of application of these mechanisms could allow for regular and objective evaluation of Target 16.4. These indicative methods provided under the PoA can also be used by Member States to develop national indicators to measure progress under the SDGs.

Since the PoA already lays out a comprehensive framework to fight illicit arms proliferation, it serves as a guide for achieving Target 16.4. The synergy between the PoA and the SDGs is strengthened by the POA’s reporting mechanisms and its associated policy discussions.

As the UN Secretary General noted in his 2015 report on small arms to the Security Council, “Guns can be licensed, marked or confiscated; ammunition can me tracked, removed or detsroyed; and depots can be guarded, cleared or secured”,10 all within the scope of the PoA.

Humanitarian and human rights impact of gun violence

The world is awash with small arms and light weapons, estimated in 2007 at 875 million, or one gun for every ten people on earth. The excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons through many regions of the world, many vulnerable due to armed conflict, has had a wide range of humanitarian and socio- economic consequences, posing a serious threat to peace, reconciliation, safety, security and stability at all levels of governance.

The economic burden of armed violence alone is alarming, estimated at USD 171 billion in 2010 alone. The human cost is even more overwhelming. Between 2007 and 2012, an estimated 508,000 persons died violently every

year, including approximately 60,000 women and girls, mostly in situations other than armed conflicts. In the last decade, small arms and light weapons have played a major role in over 250 conflicts, killing hundreds of thousands

of people and displacing of millions. Beyond the conflictzones, an estimated 44% of all violent deaths are carried out using firearms.

The PoA recognizes the grave consequences of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The devastating impacts are most starkly seen in women and children: denial of education and health, criminality, violence against women and girls, gang violence, collapse of the rule of law, and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Sources: Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Small Arms Survey, Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts, Cambridge University Press; Human Cost of Illicit Flow of Small Arms, Light Weapons Stressed in Security Council, SC/11880, 13 May 2015, Security Council Meetings Coverage.


Goal 5 of the SDGs is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Target 5.2 specifically calls for the global community to work cohesively to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

In conflict and post-conflict zones, one consequence of the proliferation of guns is sexual violence against women.11 For example, as noted by the UN Secretary General, in Central African Republic 2,527 cases of conflict related sexual vioence were documented in 2014.12 Whether in conflict zones or not, women and girls suffer from armed gender-based violence including rape,

violence in the home, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.13

The death of a husband or intimate partner often leaves women without enough income to cover expenses related to children and households, thus sinking deeper into poverty. Eliminating all violence against women will not be possible without them first controlling the use and trade in small arms and light weapons. This is especially true in regions prone to conflict, where such distress, exploitation and violence becomes systematic. For example, during the conflicts in Bosnia and the DR Congo, reports of the rape of women and girls by armed combatants reached astronomical levels, and this is currently the case in Syria. To achieve Target 5.2 and ensure women’s safety and, the use and trade of small arms and light weapons, must be controlled, especially in conflict zones and areas with high levels of criminal violence.

The overarching aim of SDG 5 is equality and empowerment of women. Over the past 15 years, the small arms process has evolved to reflect this commitment, recognizing women are part of the solution, not just symbolic of the problem. In the original PoA - and subsequently in the Arms Trade Treaty - women are mentioned (along with children) as victims of armed violence.

Meanwhile, a suite of resolutions in the Security Council has

increasingly generated awareness and obligations on the role of

women as agents of change. Beginning with UNSCR 1325 (2000), these resolutions were mainly framed specifically in terms of contexts of armed conflict (rather than armed violence and crime generally); and with a focus on women's participation in conflict resolution and peace processes (rather than decisions about weapons specifically).

Resolution 2122 (2013) brought the focus to control of weapons, urging Member States and UN agencies to ensure women’s full and meaningful participation in efforts to combat and eradicate the illicit transfer and misuse of small arms and light weapons.14 General Assembly Resolutions 65/69 (2010) and 67/48 (2012) recognized the valuable contribution of women to disarmament at all levels, calling on Member States to support and trengthen women’s participation and to empower women, including through capacity-building efforts, as appropriate, to participate in the design and implementation of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control efforts.15

This theme received solid support at BMS5 in 2014, when Member States undertook To promote the role of women in preventing, combating and eradicating the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, including through access to training, as well as through their meaningful participation and representation in policymaking, planning and implementation processes related to the implementation of the Programme of Action, including

stockpile management and physical security measures, and awareness-raising and education.16

The most obvious benefit of increasing the participation of women in decisions related to small arms is that the resulting policies are likely to be more relevant and effective for protecting ordinary civilians from gun violence - for example, by recognizing the link between guns in the home and armed violence against women. However, an additional benefit is an empowerment effect that has become evident through women’s peace activism. Armed conflict often necessitates women organizing, advocacy and action to protect and support their families and communities. The emancipating effect of these activities justifies their continuation in the post-conflict phase, promoting women's equality and empowerment under SDG5.17


Agenda 2030 envisages a world “which invests in its children and in

which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation”.18 Target 16.2 specifically aims to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.

When Member States adopted the PoA, they expressed their grave concern about the devastating consequences of small arms proliferation and misuse on children, especially those who are victims of armed conflict or forced to become child soldiers.19 It should be borne in mind that under international law, specifically the Convention on the Rights of the Child, every person under the age of 18 years is classified as a child and has specia rights. Therefore "children" are often the majority of the population in certain countries and localities. In the PoA, Member States promised to adress the special needs of children affected by armed conflits, in particular the reunification with their family, their reintegration into civil society, and their appropriate rehabilitation.20

In 2004 it was estimated that 500,000 children under the age of 18 had been recruited into both state and non-state armed forces.21 Over a decade later, child soldiers continue to be forced and cajoled into conflicts, especially in Africa and Middle East. In the Central African Republic, UNICEF and its partners removed nearly 2,000 children from armed groups during 2015; but those children were immediately at risk of re recruitment.22 The UN Special Rapporteur on Children and Armed Violence has pointed out that the easy availability of small arms is one of the factors directly contributing to the use of child soldiers.23

Most small arms violence occurs in non-conflict zones, in the context of crime in the community. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Children, the flood of guns contributes to physical and psychological harm to children and young people, through homicides, assaults, kidnappings, abuse, rape, torture and forced displacement. In a parallel to the conflict scenario, children are recruited at gunpoint into gangs and criminal organizations.24

Armed violence causes physical injuries as well as lonstanding psychological harm. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, homicide claims approximately 36,000 children under the age of 15 every year, which is roughly 8 percent of all victims.25 About 43% of all homicides are of adolescents and young people aged between 15 and 29. Overall, 40% of homicides are by firearms; howevern among children and youth killed in the Americas that figure grows to almost 70%.26

In both conflict and non-conflict zones, armed violence undermines children’s access to education and health care, by forcing the closure of schools and clinics and by endangering the lives of civilians walking outside. These rights are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in SDG Goal 4 (Education) and SDG Target 3.8 (Access to healthcare). Thus, by implementing the PoA effectively at national level, States will reduce violence and fulfill the SDGs related to children.


The use of small arms and light weapons for widespread atrocities

against women, men and children and the denial of many of their

economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights as well as the right to development, is a major impediment to sustainable development in many countries. This is facilitated and exacerbated by the on-going proliferation of small arms and light weapons across exporting, transiting and importing countries and the ease of access to these weapons once they flood into communities and irresponsible hands. The SDGs have peace, security and the rule of law as their most essential themes, yet without reducing the illicit use and trade of small arms and light weapons, little can be achieved. Open dialogue about the causes of such small arms and light weapons proliferation and abuse and the warning signs of sexual violence and exploitation in conflict and post-conflict zones, will help achieve common understandings of how to achieve the SDGs as well as the PoA. By working in good faith to curb and eradicate the illicit manufacture and trade of small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, Member States can reduce violence and human suffering, thereby increasing the respect for life and dignity of a person.

This requires more concerted practical measures. For example, while the marking of all SALW and the tracing of illicit small arms and light weapons is called for in the PoA, the participation by Member States in such efforts has so far been limited. Member States should also cooperate to increase their capacity to manage the control of small arms and light weapons particularly through better stockpile management and more professional use by law

enforcement agencies. There also needs to be a system in place at national level to enable States to track the availability of illicit arms, thereby providing insights and data on which weapons are being illicit traded, where and by whom. Sharing such data needs to be encouraged between Member States.

By following the requirements laid down under the PoA including the establishment and enforcement of effective national legislation to combat the illicit manufacture and trade of small arms and light weapons and to monitor the ill-effects of the unauthorized use of such weapons, the world community can go a long way towards achieving the sustainable development goals.


1. UN Document A/CONF.192/15

2. A/RES/55/2, Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 8, 2000

3. Emmeline Booth, “Millennium Development Goals - An Uneven Success”, IRIN 7 July 2015, available at

4. The World Bank, World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security and development, available at

5. A/RES/70/1, Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2015

6. United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform our World, available at

7. A/CONF.192/15, Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, July 2001 at Section I.22(d).

8. Ibid at Section II.2

9. Ibid at Section II.7


11. United Nations Security Council, Small arms and light weapons: Report of the Secretary General, 27 April 2015

12. United Nations Security Council, Conflict-related sexual violence : Report of the Secretary General, 23 March 2015

13. Ibid.

14. S/RES/2122 (2013), 18 October 2013

15. UN General Assembly Resolution 67/48. Women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, 3 December 2012, paragraph 4.

16. UN General Assembly, Report of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, 26 June 2014, A/CONF.192/BMS/2014/2, Annex, paragraph 17(d).

17. Clingendael Institute of International Relations, Women's Roles in Conflict Prevention, Conflict Resolution and Post Conflict Reconstruction (Summary)

18. Agenda 2030 Clause 8

19. POA Paragraph I.6

20. POA Paragraph II.22

21. Edward Mogire, The Humanitarian Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Threat to Security, (2004): 255-281

22. UN Human Rights Council, “Annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict", UN General Assembly 28 December 2015, Document A/HRC/31/19

23. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Chidren and Armed Conflict, "Small arms", available at

24. UN General Assembly, “Annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children”, 15 August 2015, Document A/70/289

25. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, "Global Study on Homicide 2013: Trends, Contexts, Data", available at

26. ibid

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