This module is a resource for lecturers
Authorized and unauthorized arms transfers
Authorized arms transfer is the term most widely used to refer to the physical or nominal movement of arms from one owner to another a priori, regardless of any physical movement of the weapons. Without the adjective ' international', the term transfer is widely used in practice to include intra-national movements and nominal transfers of ownership within the same State jurisdiction. However, when is a transfer illicit? What constitutes an unauthorized transfer?
According to the Firearms Protocol and the Arms Trade Treaty, the term arms transfer mostly relates to international transfers. The Protocol refers to arms transfers as the cross-border movement (import, export and transit) of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition, and their unauthorized movement from or across at least two State territories, as well as to the movement of firearms without proper marking as illicit trafficking. However, the Arms Trade Treaty uses the term transfers to refer to the international trade in general, which comprisea broader category of transfers, namely "export, transit, trans-shipment and brokering, hereafter referred to as 'transfer'" (Article 2, 2 Arms Trade Treaty).
The dividing line between the legal and the illicit trade is not always easy to draw and depends on national legal frameworks and international law. Generally identified are three types of market and stages, or types of transfers of firearms, referred to by the Small Arms Survey (2001) as the ' Legality Spectrum':
Legal or regulated transfers
These include, in general, all legally manufactured arms and international transfers that importing, exporting or transit States legally authorize in accordance with their respective national law and international law.
Illicit grey-market transfers
These transfers have some authorized elements while other aspects may be illicit, such as when authorized by either importing or exporting country but not both. Grey transfers can also occur when, for example, governments or their agents exploit loopholes or circumvent national and/or international laws or policies. These ' grey market firearms' can also include largely unregistered firearms (including ' misplaced, lost or forgotten' firearms, antiques, souvenirs and battlefield trophies, all of which might still be capable of live firing, or easy conversion to live firing), " not held, used or conveyed for criminal purposes but identified as often ending up in the illicit market" (Bricknell, 2012: 23).
Illegal black-market transfers
These are transfers in clear violation of national and/or international laws, which take place without official government consent or control, including cases of diversion and illicit cross-border trafficking. Black-market firearms include therefore all illegally brokered, traded, diverted or trafficked arms, or those in active criminal, insurgency or terrorist hands, or stockpiled by such groups.
Module 5 (International Legal Framework) and Module 6 (National Regulations on Firearms) further explore how not all authorized transfers are automatically legal, given that some fully authorized transfers could still violate international law (e.g. transfers to a State under arms embargo) (UNODC, 2015). This is true, for example, in cases of illicit transfers that were approved for shipment by government officials where licensing or customs agents failed to spot fraudulent claims in export and shipping documentation, or the shipment was diverted to an illegal end-user en route to the authorized recipient. In both cases, data on unauthorized and authorized shipments are likely to be reported together.
Whilst the clear majority of transfers of circa 80-90% are legal (Small Arms Survey, 2011), there are also illicit transfers, either through the grey market as defined above, or else through the black market where there is a clear violation of international laws. Despite being a small percentage of the global trade, the illicit market is associated with consequential damage in terms of harm, and various methods of transfer through this market identified.
Next: Illegal firearms in social, cultural and political context
Back to top