Conventional Weapons


Conventional weapons refer to weapons that are not weapons of mass destruction. They include but are not limited to: armored combat vehicles, combat helicopters, combat aircraft, warships, small arms and light weapons, landmines, cluster munitions, ammunition and artillery. They are the principal tools used in all wars up to the present day. However, while they inflict dramatic damage, they often get less attention compared to weapons of mass destruction.

Development impacts

The use of conventional weapons and their unregulated trade have a devastating human cost. Indeed, thousands of people are injured, killed, raped and forced to flee their home during armed conflict. Insecurity is reinforced at the local level with the growth of criminality, and at a regional level with the development of arms races. Heavy conventional weapons inflict huge damages on infrastructures by destroying housing, industries, roads and so on. They also affect future generations by weakening economic and political stability, damaging the environment, and increasing dependency on foreign assistance.

Moreover, States spend huge amounts of money on conventional weapons which strengthens the commercial interests related to this type of weapons and diverts resources from basic human needs.

Arms transfers

Global arms transfers have remained relatively stable since 1995, with the USA accounting for almost 30% of the total, followed by Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The top five suppliers account for 75% of all arms exports. The top five recipients – India, South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore, account for 30% of all arms imports. (SIPRI)

International humanitarian law (IHL) is intended to protect civilians from the indiscriminate effects of conventional weapons and mass atrocities. Nevertheless conventional weapons have repeatedly been associated with massacres and acts of genocide. Hence governments should ensure that the arms they transfer to others do not, for example, violate embargoes, end up being used for human rights violations, destabilise a region, or affect sustainable development. But in reality, States don’t always take these facts into consideration. For instance, the Arab Spring had small impact on arms transfers: the USA and Russia remain major arms suppliers for, respectively, Egypt and Syria, regardless of the risk that the weapons sold be used to commit mass atrocities (cf. SIPRI).


Measures to control arms

In 1983 the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects came into force (more commonly known as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – CCW – or the Inhumane Weapons Convention). It bans or restricts the use of specific types of weapons considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately. As of October 2011, it has 114 States parties. It contains general provisions in order to ensure its flexibility/ adaptability. It is supplemented by 5 additional protocols. Its original scope was to cover intra-state conflict, but in 2001, 75 states agreed to extend it to internal armed conflicts.

Measures to regulate arms trade

The Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) is the first global multilateral arrangement on export controls for conventional weapons and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies. It received final approval by 33 co-founding countries in July 1996 and began operations in September 1996. The WA countries maintain effective export controls for the items on the agreed lists, which are reviewed periodically to take into account new developments. Through transparency and exchange of views and information, suppliers of arms and dual-use items can develop common understandings of the risks associated with their transfer and assess the scope for coordinating national control policies to combat these risks.

In 2003, the Control Arms campaign was launched to promote the adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to further regulate the arms trade. The basic idea is to negotiate an international legally binding instrument which stops transfers of arms and ammunitions that fuel conflict, poverty and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Civil Society calls for a comprehensive treaty which covers all types of weapons.

The campaign received strong support from over a million people worldwide, urging the UN to adopt in 2006 the resolution A/RES/61/89 and to start negotiations on a legally binding instrument in order to establish international standards for the arms trade. The final negotiating conference will take place in July 2012 in New York.

The European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) was created in 1984 during an international conference on arms production and military exports. It brings together representatives of European activist organisations campaigning against arms trade.

Measure to strengthen transparency

The UN Register of Conventional Arms was set up in 1991. It is a unique global co-operative security instrument with a mandate to deal with the challenges related to the proliferation of conventional arms. It aims to promote greater transparency in international arms transfers and discourage arms accumulation, both as a confidence-building measure and as an early warning mechanism. It covers 7 categories of weapons: battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missiles launchers. Over the past 10 years, more than 100 countries have reported annually to the UN Register. A total of 164 Member States have reported to it one or more times. Despite these encouraging figures, some challenges remain regarding its full effectiveness and implementation. Indeed, states report to the UN Register on a voluntary basis. It is still not a requirement for participants to describe the type of equipment being transferred, which weakens the transparency efforts the UN Register was designed to foster. The effectiveness of the Register might also be improved by the addition of new categories of weapons (such as small arms and light weapons).


Archivio disarmo

Bonn International Center for Conversion, BICC

British American Security Information Council, BASIC

Control Arms

Campaign Against the Arms Trade, UK

Ceasefire Campaign, South Africa

European Network Against Arms Trade, ENAAT

Federation of American Scientists, FAS, Arms Sales Monitoring Project

Observatoire des armaments

Peace Action, USA

Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute


War resisters’ international