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“Has the Firearms Protocol reduced armed violence?”

Emile LeBrun - July 2, 2021

The year 2020 marked the 15th anniversary of the coming into force of the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime’s Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (“UN Firearms Protocol”). As of June 2021, it counts 120 parties (significantly fewer than the two other Protocols of the Convention, on Trafficking in Persons and on the Smuggling of Migrants). The Firearms Protocol remains a central arms control instrument at the international level, and one likely to gain momentum thanks to the Convention’s recently established Review Mechanism.

The objective of the Protocol, which is the first legally binding instrument designed to prevent the illicit manufacture and trafficking of firearms adopted at the global level, is to promote, facilitate and strengthen cooperation among States Parties in order to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition. By ratifying the Protocol, States make a commitment to adopt a series of crime-control measures and domestically implement three sets of normative provisions: the establishment of criminal offenses related to illegal manufacturing of, and trafficking in, firearms on the basis of the Protocol requirements and definitions; a system of government authorizations or licensing intending to ensure legitimate manufacturing of, and trafficking in, firearms; and finally a set of measures on the marking and tracing of firearms. But beyond its title objective ‘to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition’, the Protocol has the ultimate goal of making the world safer, by reducing the negative impacts of such illicit practices. This higher objective is shared not only with its parent Convention but also more broadly with the 2030 Agenda.

Specifically, a significant reduction in illicit arms flows is part of the SDG Target 16.4. Considering that at least 38 per cent of all killings are committed with firearms, it is clear how important such a reduction can be for achieving another SDG Target, 16.1., aiming at reducing all forms of violence and related death rates.

Is it reasonable and feasible to consider whether the Firearms Protocol has made a contribution to changing levels of armed violence since its adoption? This was the subject of a session at the 24-hour Conference on Organised Crime, a virtual conference organised in 10 November. Among the key issues that the speakers identified at that session were:

  • Limited transparency about implementation and effective compliance
  • Questions of the violence impacts of enforcement of criminalisation measures, prevention measures, and cooperation
  • Isolating the role of the Firearms Protocol from other legal obligations and norms
  • Establishing causation between specific national laws and enforcement initiatives and changing rates of firearms violence
  • The dynamic relationship between criminal firearms markets and control measures (e.g. technological innovations in illicit manufacture)

The speakers discussed how some of these considerations might be taken account of in the recently adopted Mechanism for the Review of the Implementation of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto, while emphasising the need for information exchange, cooperation, technical assistance, as well as clearly defined roles for international civil society for contributing to transparency and inclusiveness and connection to the 2030 Agenda.

In the months ahead, Kennis will continue to work towards contributing to a research approach to address these points. This is envisioned to include qualitative and quantitative components that draw on relevant data from a variety of sources, including criminal justice, law enforcement and public health.

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