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The UN’s small arms and light weapons control agenda takes a (very) small step forward

UN soldiers lined up
Mark Bromley

On Friday 10 June the 6th Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) to Consider Implementation of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (POA) and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) concluded at UN Headquarters in New York. The final outcome document of the 2016 BMS was agreed by consensus late Friday afternoon, something that looked unlikely on Thursday when states were still engaged in heated debates about the content until late in the evening. Despite resistance from a number of states, the document contains strong language in a range of areas and lays important groundwork for improving the content and focus of both the UN POA and ITI.

Background on the POA and ITI

The UN POA was agreed in 2001 and the ITI in 2005. Both are politically binding instruments negotiated on the basis of consensus under the auspices of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. While lacking effective verification measures, they nonetheless represent a key set of normative standards—agreed to by all UN member states—detailing the steps that states need to take in order to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW). States are also encouraged to provide regular reports on their national implementation of these measures.

The biennial meetings allow states to consider implementation of the instruments. More in-depth review conferences —where states can adjust the text of the instruments themselves—have been held in 2006 and 2012 and a third is planned for 2018.

Since its adoption, the UN POA has had a bumpy history. The 2006 Review Conference was unable to reach agreement on an outcome document largely due to disagreements on whether, and how, to include language on civilian possession and transfers to non-state actors. In subsequent years, the amount of attention paid to the UN POA and ITI by states and NGOs fell considerably, largely due to resources being redirected towards the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

With the entry into force of the ATT in December 2014, states and NGOs have sought to breathe fresh life into the POA process. This has been given added urgency by a range of regional crises fed by the illicit trade in SALW, not least in the Sahel where insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria have been exacerbated by the flow of weapons from looted stockpiles in Libya.


What was agreed in New York?

Perhaps the most significant inclusion in the BMS outcome document was the detailed language on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the accompanying SDGs were adopted in 2015. SDG 16 focuses on peace and security issues and target 16.4 specifically commits states to reduce illicit arms flows. Generating data that can effectively measure attainment of this goal will be a difficult undertaking. The UN Statistical Commission announced in March that the initial focus will be to collect data on the proportion of seized weapons that are ‘recorded or traced, in accordance with international standards and legal instruments’. However, data on seized weapons will tell only part of the story.

As the Small Arms Survey and others have noted, a fuller picture will require data on the measures states are taking to combat the illicit trade in SALW. As such, it is significant that the BMS outcome document encourages the development of ‘national-level indicators, based on the POA and ITI, which could be used to measure progress made in the implementation of SDG Target 16.4’ and for the utilization of national reports under the POA and ITI ‘to support data collection for relevant SDG indicators’. For these calls to bear fruit, there will need to be an increase in the number of national reports submitted and the efforts to analyse their content. In both areas, there has been significant decline in recent years: 76 states submitted reports on their national implementation of the POA and ITI during 2014, down from 111 in 2010. Meanwhile, the analyses of states reports previously produced by the Small Arms Survey, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) have not appeared in recent years, largely due to a lack of funding.


Cooperation and assistance, ammunition and the ATT

The outcome document also includes a range of detailed points on how to achieve international cooperation and assistance aimed at ‘the full and effective implementation’ of the POA and ITI. It focuses on the importance of ‘national ownership’, ‘drawing on the expertise available in developing countries’, and identifying ‘opportunities for complementary programming’. On the latter point, the database that SIPRI and the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) have recently developed for mapping ATT-relevant cooperation and assistance activities may be of use. The searchable database covers cooperation and assistance activities focused on building state capacity in either arms transfer controls or SALW controls and can be used to build links between different assistance activities. Currently focused on sub-Saharan Africa, the database is being expanded in partnership with UNLIREC to also cover Latin America and the Caribbean.

There is also an indirect reference to ammunition in the outcome document. Many states and NGOs have long sought to include ammunition in the scope of the POA and ITI but have faced stiff opposition from a number of states, particularly the United States. In the end, the outcome document notes, in an indirect reference to ammunition, that ‘some States apply relevant provisions of the POA to material additional to that mentioned in the ITI definition of small arms and light weapons’—while other states do not. As a number of delegations and NGOs noted, highlighting differences in national interpretation of the POA risked setting a dangerous precedent. Indeed, Iran appeared to come close to blocking adoption of the outcome document in an attempt to get this language modified or moved to a less prominent part of the text. However, other states clearly felt that the inclusion of this language was a potential stepping stone to a more explicit reference to ammunition in the POA and ITI at the 2018 Review Conference and Iran’s efforts were resisted by the Chair.

Attempts to block a direct reference to the ATT in the outcome document were more successful. An early draft noted that ‘States welcomed the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty’. Despite this being the same language that was adopted at the UN First Committee in late 2015, it was removed from the final outcome document at the insistence of key ATT sceptics, including Egypt and Iran. Given the significant overlaps between the POA and ATT there is clear logic to building links between the two instruments. However, the way in which the text of the ATT was adopted—by a vote in the UN General Assembly—continues to be a source of bitterness for states wanting to uphold the principle that all disarmament-related matters at the UN should be adopted by consensus.


Ways forward

The successful outcome of the BMS was due in no small part to the effective chairmanship of Ambassador E. Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica. Supported by national officials and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, Ambassador Rattray carried out many months of preparatory work that laid the groundwork for success in New York. While the goals may seem marginal—and the efforts involved disproportionate—it is worth recalling that 20 years ago it would have been essentially unthinkable that tackling the illicit trade in SALW, and linking these efforts to achieving sustainable development, would be a topic of consensus-based discussion and agreement at the UN. Even less likely would have been states setting concrete goals for achieving these ends and agreeing to report on national implementation measures. In the wake of the advances made by the BMS, the onus is on states to enact the potential improvements to the POA and ITI at the 2018 Review Conference, to invest the time and resources needed to assess whether POA and ITI goals are being reached, and to provide the assistance many states need to fill implementation gaps.


Mark Bromley is the Co-Director of the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control programme.