Poorly managed ammunition – a key driver of conflict and crime

Information on global ammunition flows is difficult to obtain. More than 80 per cent of ammunition trade seems to remain outside of reliable export data. In contexts of sustained use, such as conflict situations, ammunition stockpiles are rapidly depleted, contrasting with the relative longevity of arms. Preventing their resupply in situations conflicting with the rule of law should be a matter of prime concern.

What is more, in 103 countries, over the past five decades, poorly-stored ammunition stockpiles have led to grave incidents resulting in accidental explosions and humanitarian disaster. Thousands of people have died and the livelihoods of entire communities have been disrupted. Poorly-managed national ammunition stockpiles also lead to considerable diversion to illicit markets. Diverted ammunition is increasingly used to assemble improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Therefore, security as well as safety measures with regard to ammunition stockpiles need to be urgently addressed.

Controlling supply

The popularity of certain types of weapons among armed groups seems to correspond to the availability of their ammunition (see S/2010/91). Interestingly, patterns of ammunition supply may influence the development of a conflict, including by causing changes in shooting discipline and rendering existing weapons useless. Therefore, a focus on preventing the resupply of ammunition, in particular in situations of high risk to civilian populations, should be a priority.

Controlling the supply of ammunition can have an immediate impact on the intensity of armed violence. Ammunition production and supply chains in military markets are different from civilian markets. Therefore, monitoring flows of the military-style ammunition generally used in armed conflict offers greater scope for identifying sources, trafficking patterns and diversion points than monitoring ammunition for handguns and pistols. If – particularly in settings of conflict – large numbers of ammunition are found, a process of elimination may lead to likely sources of diversion.

Contrary to the arms themselves, bullet cartridges contain explosive chemicals. Adequate ammunition management may include specific procedures on determining the origin of ammunition and on ensuring its safety. The Panel of Experts on the Sudan has made a first analysis of the precursors and components necessary for the manufacture of small arms ammunition. These and similar approaches aimed at better determining the origin of ammunition could be considered for effectively restricting illicit supply (see S/2015/31).

Stockpile management

Unsecured or poorly monitored national ammunition stockpiles are prone to explode and seem to account for a substantial percentage of global diversion into illicit markets. A readily available source of ammunition can be a key factor in the protraction and escalation of armed conflict, as well as in terrorism, crime and other forms of armed violence. Significantly, diverted conventional ammunition, in particular that of a larger calibre, is increasingly being used to assemble improvised explosive devices, including booby traps, improvised mines, roadside bombs and armour-piercing projectiles.

The loss of ammunition by a soldier often goes unnoticed or can be explained without difficulty to superiors, in contrast to the loss of a firearm. Well-orchestrated forms of diversion originating higher up the command chain, which may result in large illicit transfers of ammunition, are of even greater concern. Corruption, negligence, the absence of end-user verification and poorly implemented border controls all contribute to habitual stockpile diversion and illicit ammunition flows in many parts of the world.

Expert groups monitoring United Nations arms embargoes noted years ago that the lack of basic accountability systems was a factor in the diversion of ammunition (see S/2006/525). The severity of ammunition proliferation in violation of Security Council arms embargoes has been underlined in various reports by Council committees, monitoring groups and panels of experts (see S/2010/596, S/2010/571, S/2010/179, S/2010/91 and S/2009/689).

Effective stockpile management and security should be priorities in any peacekeeping mission. Ammunition confiscated in the course of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes requires specialized handling and management. Poorly managed stockpiles of conventional ammunition in danger of explosion place peacekeeping personnel and others at risk; the possible diversion of such ammunition for use in renewed hostilities poses another hazard.

The Security Council has recommended that stockpile security and the management of arms and ammunition be promoted “as an urgent priority” (S/RES/1952).


Because ammunition does not usually have unique markings, cartridges are more difficult to trace than small arms. Most often, small arms ammunition bears a headstamp with a factory and production year code. The serial number of the lot or batch which may include thousands of cartridges, is typically marked on the packaging of that lot or batch. When the serial number is available because the packaging has been found, it may still be difficult to ascertain a point of diversion. Ammunition from the same, identically marked lot may have reached multiple customers, which hinders the identification of a single point of diversion.

Ammunition marked with its production year remains a critical element in monitoring the implementation of Security Council arms embargoes. Panels of experts tasked with such monitoring rely on recovered ammunition to determine whether it was transferred to embargoed actors or destinations after the imposition of the embargo.

Staff of peacekeeping missions with embargo-monitoring mandates need further training in the correct recording of information from recovered ammunition. Such training could be targeted at the mission personnel most likely to encounter ammunition, including members of an embargo monitoring cell, military observers and police personnel. Just as with records of weapon markings, the collected information could then be made available to arms embargo monitoring groups. A prime example is the Group of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire, which has provided assistance to the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) Embargo Cell in its efforts to improve the technical capacity of the Operation’s military observers and police personnel charged with conducting inspections of military facilities (see S/2009/521).

In addition, expert panels that monitor arms embargoes would be aided in their work if Member States provided information about the markings applied to ammunition for small arms and light weapons by producers under their jurisdiction and the markings on ammunition recovered from illicit use.

The systematic collection, adequate recording and publication of information concerning the markings on recovered illicit ammunition for small arms and light weapons would enhance transparency and accountability in the arms and ammunition trade and help significantly to limit the scope of the illicit trade.