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Looking back to ensure future progress: developing and improving multilateral instruments to control arms transfers and prevent illicit trafficking

Between July and September this year, the international community will be faced with the daunting prospect of concluding negotiations on an international arms trade treaty and a review of the implementation of the United Nations programme of action on small arms and light weapons. How states respond to these challenges will have lasting implications for future efforts to control international transfers of conventional arms and prevent the illicit trafficking of weapons across the globe.


Negotiating an arms trade treaty: will it build on solid foundations?

In July, representatives of 193 states—closely watched by hundreds of civil society organizations—will gather at the United Nations in New York to conduct final negotiations on the text of an international arms trade treaty (ATT). The four-week negotiating conference will mark the culmination of a process initiated in 2006 with a UN General Assembly Resolution aiming to establish agreed practices for controlling international arms transfers. 

Diplomats will face a number of challenges during the negotiations. Perhaps their most daunting task will be crafting an ATT that encapsulates but also moves beyond the solid foundations that already exist in the field of international arms transfer controls. 

As with many other multilateral processes, negotiating the ATT has involved balancing the demands of states that want the treaty text agreed by consensus with the wishes of those hoping to avoid the so-called ‘tyranny of the minority’. The result has been a commitment to negotiating an ATT ‘on the basis of consensus’—an ambiguous formulation that, for many, still raises the spectre of a treaty which omits many elements necessary to effectively control international arms transfers. 

Such a document could potentially undermine the solid foundations that already exist in conventional arms transfer controls. These include the 1996 UN guidelines on international arms transfers—also agreed, incidentally, by UN member states on the basis of consensus—as well as various regional instruments and accepted international practices.

Learning from past experiences 

Two examples illustrate this potential threat. First, states arguing that an ATT should do little more than prevent exporters from violating UN arms embargoes ignore the fact that the 1996 UN guidelines already call upon states to consider other factors—including international tensions, promoting social and economic development, peacefully resolving regional conflicts and efforts to prevent bribery and corruption—before authorising arms transfers. 

Second, states wanting an ATT to do no more than commit states to control the transfer of items covered by the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms are ignoring the fact that a majority of states already control the transfer of most conventional weaponry. In fact, all states are implicitly required to do so under the terms of extant UN arms embargoes.

There is an alternative course of action. By acknowledging and building upon the foundations that already exist, states might create time to turn their attention in July to weightier topics on which agreed norms and standards are less clearly established—and where an ATT therefore has the potential to break new ground. 

Unresolved issues include clearly outlining states’ responsibilities in the field of import, transit and transhipment, as well as brokering and transportation controls; establishing how best to weigh foreign and security policy interests against the risk that transferred arms might be used to violate international humanitarian law; and identifying the most appropriate mechanisms for providing international assistance to states implementing the treaty. All of these elements can be included in a simple and effective ATT.


Reviving the Programme of Action 

States and civil society organizations will gather again in New York in August and September for the second review conference (RevCon) of the 2001 Programme of Action (PoA) on small arms and light weapons (SALW). The PoA outlines a set of measures to be implemented at the international, regional and national levels to counter the illicit trade in SALW, including in areas relating to stockpile management, surplus destruction and transfer controls.

During the first review conference in 2006 the PoA came close to collapse. States wanting to expand its scope to include provisions on ammunition, civilian possession and a prohibition on transfers to non-state actors saw their efforts blocked by the United States, with the silent support of others. At the time, many were concerned that the PoA was irrevocably damaged and that the project would collapse entirely as attention shifted towards the ATT. 

These fears were partially alleviated by the 2008 and 2010 biennial meetings of states and the technical discussions on marking and tracing and international cooperation and assistance at the 2011 meeting of governmental experts. Nonetheless, the 2012 RevCon faces the significant challenge of being held in the aftermath of the ATT negotiating conference. There is a risk that states and civil society organizations will not give the PoA the attention it deserves.


Taking stock and moving forward

The 2012 RevCon provides a useful opportunity to take stock of the international community’s efforts to address the issue of illicit SALW trafficking and the comprehensive work plan devised in 2001. An encouraging trend at the March 2012 Preparatory Committee meeting was the clear desire on the part of participants to avoid divisive debates about opening the document up for additional provisions. 

The 2012 RevCon should now focus instead on a review of implementing what was agreed in 2001 and identifying priorities for the short to medium-term. The review will likely reveal differences amongst UN member states about where implementation efforts should be targeted. One area where there is a good chance of building consensus is SALW stockpile-management and surplus destruction.

Recent events in Libya have hopefully focused attention on the issues of stockpile management and surplus destruction in Africa and other parts of the world. They have also demonstrated that considerable expertise in these fields already exists, and resources are available for rapid deployment in conflict areas. The 2012 PoA RevCon provides the ideal venue to review the work that has been carried out in Libya and elsewhere, and to consider priorities for future activities.


Making history

If successful, the ATT negotiating conference in July will mark a new beginning for strengthening controls on international arms transfers. As the 10-year history of the PoA clearly demonstrates, however, the real hard work begins when states have to transform words into action. 

That said, ensuring that the text is as clear and ambitious as possible is crucial. There is an understandable desire among many states for a simple ATT that will be easy to implement. While states may promise to paper over the cracks at a later date, experience indicates that this is unlikely to actually occur. States need to get this right in July 2012.

Despite the international community’s concerns about flows of arms to conflicting parties in Syria and the spread of looted SALW and ammunition from Gadaffi’s stockpiles, controls on international arms transfers and measures to prevent illicit SALW trafficking rarely command the level of international attention enjoyed by efforts to prevent WMD proliferation. 

This summer therefore provides a rare opportunity to set a positive tone for future work to regulate the international arms trade and prevent the uncontrolled proliferation of small and light weapons.


Paul Holtom Paul Holtom is the Head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at UNIDIR. He was previously the Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.