Beyond the UN Conference on Small Weapons

It has become broadly accepted that controlling the spread and use of small arms is vital in establishing genuine human security.  The abuse of small arms is directly related to the violation of the right to life. In practice, it is small arms which are killing today both in armed conflicts and in domestic and community violence. 

The multiple dimensions of the problem of the unrestricted flow and wide availability of small arms range beyond the confines of arms control and disarmament.  Nevertheless, it was in the structure of the UN’s disarmament division that "The UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) was drafted in 2001.

The PoA as it is called by its few friends took the model of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  Both the NPT and the PoA have provisions for a five-year review conference.  The PoA called for the UN General Assembly to "convene a conference no later than 2006 to review progress made in the implementation of the Programme of Action."  The PoA five-year review was held at the UN in New York 26 June to 7 July 2006 The lack of a "Final Statement" also called an "Outcome Document" left those who have not participated in NPT reviews frustrated and bitter.  There was no progress in action, and most of the ideas had been heard often before.

Diplomats at the UN can usually come up with a compromise text which has some good principles and no lines with action verbs.  When they are not able to come up with such a statement (whose content is usually written largely in advance) it is a sign of deep divisions.  However a review conference does not lend itself to voting; a "Final Statement" must be agreed by consensus, even if, as at the NPT reviews, a number of governments made ending statements saying that, had there been a vote, they would have voted against the "Final Statement". Thus, in a review conference each state has a "veto" and so the level of generalization must be high.  Some NPT reviews have failed to agree on a "Final Statement"  even with the conference going several extra days.

Having chaired the representatives of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) at the first two NPT reviews in 1975 and 1980 and having participated actively in 1985 and 1990, I have some feeling for the possibilities and limits of review conferences.  One needs to understand the role of ritual in UN conferences.  NGO representatives who are new to the process can easily become frustrated and see diplomats as hypocrites unwilling to face the reality of the world in which many people die thanks to the wide availability of guns and other forms of light weapons.

Review conferences exist as a ritual of collective reaffirmation of the general principles of a treaty.  Anything that has been done is considered "progress";  there is a sharing of "best practices" which is usually praise for what the state is doing anyway, and there is usually some mention of vague and unnamed obstacles and constraints in case anyone asks why more has not been done.

Today, much of the UN system is dealing in one way or another with the consequences of armed conflict and the recurrent use of small arms.  Some of the most intractable armed conflicts are those in which there is a recurring cycle of violence, an erosion of political legitimacy, and a loss of economic viability. Among the most serious challenges is the task of reducing the large number of small arms circulating from one conflict to another, killing and wounding civilians, the majority of whom are women and children and destroying the economic and social livelihood of communities.

The reasons why people and groups wish to have such weapons vary widely, as do the social conditions and settings in which light weapons are a factor.  Thus measures which address demand-related issues will have to be various and may be concerned less directly with the weapons themselves than with the complex of social and economic conditions which shape the demand.

Part of the frustration felt by NGOs and some governments arises from an editing procedure at the drafting of the PoA.  The words "in All Its Aspects" was added to give the impression that the Programme might do more at a later stage than they were willing to do at the time of the drafting.  The Programme had a limited aim: to deal with illicit trade.  Governments by definition do not like illicit trade of guns, drugs or people though most turn a blind eye and a few contribute directly.  There are, however, powerful and well organized groups which deal in weapons, drugs or people and sometimes all three, but these groups are not analysed or even named in arms control meetings.

The UN and governmental efforts against organized crime is weak, but there is general agreement that criminal networks are a bad thing and that there should be cooperation among governments.  If the fight against organized trans-national crime and the prohibition of arms sales to insurgent groups fighting governments were all that the PoA represented, most governments would go along with at least verbal agreement.

However, there has been from the start the fear by many governments that if one starts looking at illicit trade, someone would start asking about licit trade – that is arms sales from one government to another.  In fact, many of the NGOs during the drafting stage were pushing for a control on all arms sales since most of the flow of arms begins with legal government to government sales.  Some countries fear that there may be limits placed on the sale of arms, others on the purchase of arms.  If you start looking too closely at arms flows, you do not know where the process may lead to.  It is better not to look too deeply, and both arms selling and arms buying countries work hard so that the investigation spot light does not shine too widely.

Another topic to be avoided in government circles is how weapons are used.  If one looks at gang violence, one might have to look at persistent poverty and some might raise the issue of "why the poor stay poor"- certainly too large a topic for a ten-day conference.  Domestic violence might lead to discussion of family tensions – certainly not a subject for arms control specialists.  Some people might raise the issue of the sale and possessions of arms by civilians.  The US National Rifle Association was there to make sure no one could undermine democracy and freedom by placing limits.

Is the ritual worth the time and effort?  The USA delegation said "No".  The US had opposed having a review when the PoA was being first negotiated, and they repeated their view on the danger "to bureaucratize" the process.  It is likely that in five years there will be another review. Five- year reviews are to the UN what five-year plans were to the USSR – a way of setting goals but rarely a working strategy.

However, neither governments nor NGOs need wait five years to deal with the flow of arms.  The emphasis has to be on stopping their use in on-going conflicts, on destroying weapons once a cease-fire has been reached, and making sure that weapons are not used in a neighbouring country.  If one looks at a problem in too broad a way, you end with generalities.  If you ask specifically where do the weapons in Darfur come from and is there a danger of them being used in Chad, you may focus on a specific flow of arms. Once the flow has been identified, the sellers and buyers must be confronted.  There is a need for world law to prevent such arms sales and punish both buyers and sellers.

There are still many guns around. They are being used.  There is still much work to be done.

For a useful analysis of what governments publicly say they are doing concerning small arms see Elli Kytomaki and Valerie Yankey-Wayne "Five Years of Implementing the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (Geneva: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2006, 239pp.)

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva