Taking stock of action on the illicit small arms trade: Implications for the International Tracing Instrument of marking and tracing polymer and modular weapons
Small Arms Survey Online Forum Inventory 10
By: Emilia Dungel and Paul Holtom
The International Tracing Instrument (ITI) was adopted in 2005 and outlines requirements for tracing illicit small arms and light weapons in a timely and reliable manner. Since the time of its adoption, however, some new methods in design and manufacture of small arms and light weapons have emerged that pose new challenges in terms of marking and tracing. The tenth panel of the Small Arms Survey 2020 online forum ‘Taking stock of action on the illicit small arms trade’ featured a discussion on how to address such challenges, specifically regarding polymer and modular weapons, in the context of the upcoming seventh biennial meeting of the UN Programme of Action on small arms (PoA BMS7).
The issue of emerging technologies and the potential challenges they pose (see below) has been on the international small arms control agenda for almost a decade. The Open-ended Meeting of Governmental Experts on 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 placed special emphasis on polymer and modular weapons already in 2011. In 2014, the UN Secretary-General invited states to consider adopting an annexe to the ITI on recent developments and implications for marking, record-keeping, and tracing. The Third Review Conference on the Programme of Action (RevCon3) in 2018 requested the issue to be considered further. In response, the UN Secretary-General laid out a non-exhaustive list of elements to assist states in their consideration of a possible annexe to the ITI. As a result of all this preparatory work, the BMS7 Chair-Designate has put consideration of a possible ITI annexe on the agenda for BMS7.
What’s the problem?
Up until the early 1980s, weapons were mostly made of steel, perhaps with a wooden buttstock and handgrip. Subsequently, it became more commonplace to explore alternative materials such as aluminium, and also technical plastics like polymer.
Unfortunately, markings on polymer-frame weapons are easy to remove and obliterate compared to those on metal components, which makes tracing a challenge. While very few polymer-frame weapons are seized or recovered in conflict settings, this could change if countries systematically adopt such techniques. Outside conflict zones, however, polymer-frame firearms are purchased and used by law enforcement agencies as well as civilians, where the tracing challenges are already evident.
Modular weapons contain core components that can be swapped with another core component — for example, changing an upper receiver or barrel. Within the modularity approach, there can be single models available with different designs including varied buttstocks, accessories, and so forth. The family approach includes one model with different designs and calibres, and the common-receiver approach involves one model with different calibres and some essential parts — mostly receivers. Although the modularities mean that the weapons are different, they look very similar so there’s often a risk of confusion between models which can lead to tracing requests based on erroneous data. Modular weapons are encountered in conflict settings, providing useful lessons for how to address the challenge of having components with different identification numbers on a single weapon.
What can be done?
Putting out the fire
Polymer-framed weapons have metal components that can have markings which can be used for tracing purposes. Therefore, it’s important to ensure marking not just at the time of production but also to promote marking of metal components by importing and end-user states, with the records of these marked weapons maintained indefinitely (and backed up). This way, tracing efforts can start with the last authorized end-user to determine the point of diversion and chains of custody as opposed to having to work from manufacturer records which might only be able to identify the first end-user country.
In addition, those who trace need to know what they are looking at and for. For example, there can be confusion between serial numbers and logistics numbers, where tracing requests are mistakenly launched for the latter instead of the former. Working with industry to enhance clarity is one way to tackle this issue.
Preventing the fire
There are practical measures that can be taken to make it more difficult to remove or mask markings on polymer or modular weapons and thus hamper efforts to trace their point of diversion. As marks on polymer parts are easy to alter, manufacturers can insert metallic inserts with markings that are more difficult to remove. Similarly, ‘windows’ can be added to such weapons in order to allow for the reading of inscriptions on metallic parts located under a polymer element. These metallic parts need to contain vital information to enable record-keeping and tracing. In the same vein, manufacturers could consider that removing such metallic parts would render the firearm permanently unusable, though this remains a challenge. These are practical measures to be considered when considering a possible annexe for the ITI.
For modular weapons, an international standard could call for essential parts of modular weapons to be defined by the original manufacturer and approved by an expert committee for marking. All other manufacturers producing the same or compatible models or spare parts should then abide by the same marking protocols. Such an international standard could also help to ’level the playing field‘ for manufacturers and assist those governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations involved in tracing to determine the point of diversion and inform future efforts to prevent and mitigate the occurrence of diversion.
Practitioners have spent a decade outlining the challenges and potential solutions presented by technological advances for implementing the ITI, and the international small arms control community is now well-prepared for concrete work on this issue, including discussions on a possible ITI annexe that would ensure the instrument remains fit for purpose.
The speakers in this panel were:
- Chair: Katherine Prizeman, UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA)
- Thierry Jacobs, FN Herstal
- Jonathan Rickell, Conflict Armament Research (CAR)
To learn more about emerging technologies and the PoA-ITI framework, see:
- Ways Forward: Conclusions of the Small Arms Symposia (Small Arms Survey Briefing Paper; also available in French and Spanish)
- Behind the Curve: New Technologies, New Control Challenges (Small Arms Survey Occasional Paper)