The 2001 United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) and other associated Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) international commitments and measures are widely understood to encompass not only the weapons but also their ammunition. Unfortunately, progress in implementing the PoA in relation to ammunition remains particularly patchy and inadequate. This is partly because it has too often been considered as a residual category. But control and reduction of ammunition raise their own distinct and challenging issues. This relative neglect is resulting in large numbers of avoidable deaths and injuries.
Risk of loss and diversion: Many of the problems relating to ammunition stocks are essentially the same as for weapons stockpiles. Vast quantities of ammunition are legally held by armed forces, police and other state bodies, and also by authorised private organisations and individuals. But legal stocks are vulnerable to loss through capture, theft, corruption or neglect. They are by far the main source of ammunition obtained by criminals, bandits, armed opposition forces and terrorists. Many official storage facilities are inadequately managed or secured. These problems are particularly acute for ‘surplus’ arms and ammunition, since there is a tendency to devote inadequate resources for secure storage of ‘redundant’ goods.
Safety hazards: The presence of stores of conventional ammunition and explosives is a hazard to communities that live and work in or near to them. Major explosions can and do occur due to factors such as fire, human error, lightning strikes, instability of propellants or explosives, or sabotage.
Problems of safe disposal and destruction of ammunition: Destruction and other safe disposal of excessive, surplus, insecure or unsafe ammunition stocks is a priority. Safe and effective disposal and destruction of ammunition is a much more challenging technical task than it is for most weapons, due to the presence of explosives, toxic materials or propellants. Thus disposal of SALW ammunition is a distinctive task area, closer to that of other conventional ammunition and explosives than to disposal of small arms and light weapons themselves.
The Scale of Insecure or Surplus Ammunition Stocks
Global stocks of SALW ammunition are several orders of magnitude more numerous than those of small arms and light weapons, which themselves number 600 million worldwide. There is little reliable information about the size of SALW or other conventional ammunition. But many countries have accumulated enormous stocks of ammunition over the years. Over the past decade stocks of surplus ammunition in many countries have increased dramatically as a result of a reduction in the size of the armed forces. Stocks of thousands of tonnes of ammunition that are well beyond their shelf life are quite common. The sheer scale of ammunition stocks means that in many countries the resources and institutions required for safe management, secure storage and responsible disposal are not available.
While the potential harm from ammunition stores is readily acknowledged, the scale of the risks they pose does not appear to be widely understood. In fact, the probability that explosions will take place is significant – they occur frequently around the world – and the injuries and damage caused can be very severe. Initial studies show that in almost all post-conflict environments, and in many transitional or developing countries, a substantial physical risk exists to communities from the presence of abandoned, damaged or inappropriately stored and managed stockpiles of ammunition and explosives.
Standards for Safe and Secure Management and Disposal of Ammunition The principles and practices for high standards of management, security and disposal of ammunition stocks are widely agreed amongst the relatively small community of technical experts around the world. Some regional standards are widely acknowledged to represent best international practice (such as NATO standards) and the regional guidelines such as those established in the OSCE, SADC and by SEESAC are probably technically uncontroversial amongst expert practitioners in all regions.
However, in many regions the scale of the problems of insecure or unsafe ammunition stores are so large that it is unrealistic to expect achievement of best international practices in the foreseeable future. The priority is to develop and universally implement at least minimum ‘emergency’ standards. In relation to disposal of SALW and other conventional ammunition, there are several wellestablished methods: sale or gift; increased use in training; deep sea dumping, or stockpile destruction. Destruction is generally greatly to be preferred over other options, in terms of costeffectiveness, security and public confidence. Several well-established methods for destruction exist: in many countries national industrial-scale destruction facilities are probably cost-effective.
International Co-operation Programmes for Secure Storage and Destruction
National state authorities have primary responsibility for ensuring safe and secure management and disposal of the ammunition stocks that they hold or authorise. But many lack the capacity to discharge this responsibility, and international assistance is urgently required. In line with obligations in the PoA, a number of useful international assistance projects and programmes in this area have recently been conducted. But the scale of international assistance is far below the levels required to achieve urgently needed results.
Developing International Action: Priorities and Recommendations
The international community needs urgently to prioritise action to promote safe and secure management and destruction of SALW and other conventional ammunition stocks. The following measures are needed:
Develop specific global norms: In contrast to some other aspects of the global agenda for SALW, there is wide informal agreement amongst technically-expert practitioners across the world on international best practices and guidelines relating to safe and secure management and disposal of SALW and other conventional ammunition. Specific international norms and standards on these issues need to be officially developed, and adopted at global level. In the context of the PoA on SALW, this should be a major focus for international discussion and negotiation in the lead-up to the 2006 Review Conference. But, the links between SALW and other categories of ammunition need to be properly recognised.
Identifying Priorities: While best international standards and practices need to be encouraged and adopted where possible, the scale and urgency of the problem means that priorities need to be set. Programmes are needed to tackle the most vulnerable stocks: either by urgently enhancing the safety and security of stocks to avoid completely intolerable risks or (preferably) by destroying such stocks. Thus international professional understandings of ‘emergency’ minimum standards and of prioritisation criteria are also needed.
Developing an adequate international assistance programme: Measures are needed to develop a much larger and more co-ordinated international action programme in this area. In contrast to the present efforts, this needs to be widely supported, well-resourced, more institutionalised, and have mechanisms for information exchange, co-ordination, and emergency action. The UN 2006 Review Conference would be an important opportunity to launch or promote such a programme,
International Information Exchange: Lack of official information relating to ammunition stocks has hampered efforts to tackle the problems. Specific national, regional and international mechanisms for information exchange are required to address this problem. Further research is also required.