This is the third blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2024 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, often offering recommendations.
A lot has changed since the single shot .380 ACP ‘Liberator’ by Defence Distributed made headlines back in 2013. The blueprints, or computed aided designs (CAD), are no longer limited to the households and workspaces of hobbyists and enthusiasts. This was established by EUROPOL, which recently helped dismantle 10 illegal firearms workshops in Canada, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in December 2023. With recorded cases of their use in an attempted murder in Reykjavik, mass shootings in Halle synagogue, and arrests for their illicit manufacture in Indiana (in relation to ISIS) and Winnipeg, these weapons have also found their way in a major armed conflict, by the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) in Myanmar.
International instruments and the current state of play
3D-printed firearms and their components are within the scope of existing international instruments regulating the transfer of small arms and light weapons (SALW), namely the UN Program of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA), the Firearms Protocol, and the Arms Trade Treaty, under which the method of production is irrelevant. Perhaps most important is the UN PoA adopted by all UN member states in 2001. It assembles every six years for a review conference and every two years for a biennial meeting of states to report on their progress in implementing the commitments and deliberate on novel and pressing issues regarding the illicit trade of SALW.
Previously in 2015, at the Second Meeting of Government Experts (MGE2), the overarching theme of discussion was the growing threat of fabrication and sharing of schematics for undetectable firearms. While some states considered it exaggerated given their operational limits constraining major dangers in the years ahead, others appraised it to be an imminent threat.
At the 3rd Review Conference (RevCon3), which took place in 2018, states noted the recent developments in SALW manufacturing, technology, and design and welcomed initiatives that raise awareness of possible associated risks, notably the difficulties encountered in marking and tracing these “ghost” guns. They agreed to streamline relevant national laws, regulations, and administrative procedures and strengthen cooperation and information exchange between law enforcement agencies to prohibit their illicit trade across online platforms and the dark web. Pushback was seen in the inclusion of “3D printing, polymer, and modular weapons” in the draft outcome document, with states expressing concerns over their explicit mention inhibiting their access to technology and how the situation was not as dire as being portrayed. While a technical annex to the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) was proposed during RevCon3, it was ultimately dropped. Suggestions of using less aggressive and generic language and removing the paragraphs altogether suggest a lack of agreement on the severity of the issue, let alone a consensus to adopt measures for the changing security landscape. Despite the back and forth on the language used, from “distributed manufacturing” to “additive manufacturing," the outcome document had no reference to 3D printing and backtracked on the limited progress made by states who had pushed for more.
During the seventh and eighth Biennial Meeting of States (in 2021 and 2022, respectively), the topic of new and emerging technology, remained a contested locus among states for being “overly specific” on the implications of 3D printing for arms production. More recently, at the 78th UN General Assembly meeting in 2023, states discussed the sobering impact of conventional weapons, including the proliferation trends associated with 3D printing without engaging in a deeper dive into the affair.
Projections for 2024
The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has since 2022 launched a multiyear project for advancing global policies and commitments in the context of RevCon4 of the UN PoA, undertaking “New technologies and innovation – challenges and opportunities for the UN PoA and ITI'' as one of its 3-pillar approaches. A noteworthy agenda item from the BMS8 Outcome Document for the upcoming conference scheduled for June 2024 is to reflect on the UN Secretariat proposal for the establishment of an open-ended technical expert group to assess recent developments in SALW manufacturing, technology, and design of modular and polymer weapons and 3D printing.
RevCon4 presents an opportunity to assess the current state of play in the use and misuse of technology and, alternatively, how new monitoring technologies could be used to effectively track and control SALW throughout their entire life cycle. Substantial progress is anticipated under the leadership of President-designate of RevCon4, Amb. Maritza Chan, on ways of addressing the impact of new technologies, among other topics, with a series of expert-level roundtable discussions and regional preparatory meetings taking place over the next three months.
Some experts are of the opinion that the UN PoA and its ITI are too weak and inflexible to address the problem of illicit trade and manufacture of firearms posed by additive manufacturing due to their “vague or unelaborated” commitments and agreements, which are politically and not legally binding. However, doing away with the existing frameworks will not garner any strategic advantage unless replaced by a more effective mechanism, which is easier said than done. Getting states to agree on a legally binding text is an arduous task requiring years of negotiation and diplomatic deliberations, which at the end may result in a loss of critical momentum and a watered-down version. Instead, employing the same resources to revive trust in the efficacy of the existing frameworks, such as the PoA, by strengthening their ability to fulfill the aims that are reflected in the purpose and object of their text, could potentially yield more robust results.
Even though the issues surrounding additive manufacturing may appear incidental, their growing usage across fields merits greater consideration than the lowest common denominator and should be on the radar of security analysts. By bolstering existing norms and regulations and keeping them relevant to emerging threats, progress can be ensured on issues that have already been identified and anticipated in this sphere.
Monalisa Hazarika is an Intern at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and holds a M.A. in Conflict Management and Development from Banaras Hindu University, India. She is one of the #Leaders4Tomorrow & Leaders2theFuture under the UNODA’s Youth4Disarmament initiative.
Inclusion on the Forum on the Arms Trade emerging expert program and the publication of these posts does not indicate agreement with or endorsement of the opinions of others. The opinions expressed are the views of each post's author(s).