Skip to main content

Urban Violence: Adapting Arms Control to New Environments

Urban Violence: Adapting Arms Control to New Environments

01/01/1970 - ,

Armed violence patterns are evolving quickly. Major armed conflict no longer takes place on the open battlefield and conventional warfare has moved increasingly to villages, towns, and cities. Moreover, the intensity of terrorism, violent crime and civil turmoil is blurring the lines between conflict and non-conflict. Worldwide, more than half a million people die violently every year with the vast majority of violent deaths (82%) occurring in non-conflict settings, mostly in towns and cities.[1] The impact of such violence is extremely diverse, ranging from direct effects such as deaths, injuries, or psychological harm to long term effects such as mass displacement, deprivation of access to health and education, and impediments to investment and economic growth. Urbanization of both conflict and non-conflict related violence brings new challenges considering that 60 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2030 and that 90 per cent of this urban development is projected to take place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.[2] Are States, communities and multilateral institutions prepared and equipped to address armed violence in these urbanized environments?

Saving lives and protecting people from armed violence is at the core of the United Nations Secretary General’s Agenda for Disarmament. Urban violence endangers the lives of civilians, affects the resilience and wellbeing of communities and hampers efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet understanding and responding effectively to urban violence is challenging, as this phenomenon is heterogeneous. It raises challenges for existing arms control tools and normative approaches, which are predominately State-centric and designed for use at the national level. For example, a wide variety of conventional weapons are deployed by States and non-State actors in urban environments, including small arms and light weapons, explosive weapons and emerging technologies, yet the regulatory and doctrinal frameworks guiding their use have been developed, primarily, for and through inter-state conflict frameworks and processes.


Scope of Research

In light of this, what could UNIDIR do to better understand how armed violence is occurring in urban settings and how could it be better prevented, reduced or mitigated in its effects? UNIDIR is currently exploring a research approach to the consider urban violence with a view to: 1) analyze and diagnose the problem and its effects with a view to obtaining a more diversified and accurate picture of its scope and impact; 2) identify how arms control-related tools and approaches can contribute to reducing and addressing the effects of urban violence with a particular focus on mitigating civilian harm and enhancing security; and 3) develop policy proposals to support preventative actions. This approach will draw upon the Institute’s experience and research to date, for instance in the domains of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition and explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Potential questions to be addressed by UNIDIR’s research could be:

  • What are the profiles of illicit small arms and ammunition in circulation and in misuse in urban settings across regions? How are they enabling urban violence (i.e. what are the enabling factors and characteristics) in conflict and non-conflict settings?
  • What is the extent of the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas, including direct and indirect costs, as well as their long-term impact? How can actors document and assess both the immediate harm and the reverberating effects of EWIPA with a view to improving relevant policies and practices in conflict and non-conflict settings?
  • To what extent do existing arms control tools and instruments need to be adapted and revised to respond effectively to urban violence (i.e. what policies and regulations could be adjusted to be effective in urban environments)?
  • What are the challenges to applying existing guidelines, principles and practices on the use of lethal force in urban environments (in conflict and non-conflict settings)?

These research questions will be further developed in cooperation with a range of partners, including OCHA, OHCHR, WHO, UNDP, UNODA, UN Habitat, World Bank and other specialized civil society organizations and academia. The initial focus of this research may be case study examinations of urban violence in cities in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Proposed Preliminary Outputs


  • Map initiatives and stakeholders in this domain and identify gaps and opportunities for further research needs across weapons categories (though a series of brainstorming workshops with relevant partners and organizations)
  • Promote knowledge and generate ideas for means and methods to address various aspects of urban violence through the convening of an informal steering body on urban violence
  • Examine and identify, through a series of case studies, potential policy and operational challenges, gaps and opportunities to better understand the applicability and utility of arms control in urbanized environments.




[2] UN-Habitat:


Manuel Martinez Miralles