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United States Weakens Outcome of UN Small Arms and Light Weapons
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Rachel Stohl

From July 9 to 21, the United Nations served as the battleground for the first global meeting on the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. Countries came together in New York to develop an international action plan to deal with this issue, but the United States and an army of unlikely bedfellows did all they could to derail the conference’s efforts. Although the meeting managed to produce a program of action, the plan that was formulated is inadequate to deal with the myriad problems caused by small arms, and many countries and observers left the conference disappointed.

The conference was the culmination of many years of UN small arms initiatives, which started with then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1995 “Agenda for Peace” and resulted in meetings of experts in 1997 and 1999. In line with the latter meeting’s recommendations, the United Nations voted in December 1999 to hold the small arms conference, and preparatory meetings were held in February 2000 and this past January and March.

Many governments hoped that the conference would serve as the launching point for processes that would result in agreements on marking and tracing weapons, regulation of arms brokers, and strict export criteria for small arms. They also wanted the conference to address the humanitarian consequences of unregulated small arms proliferation and to establish a framework for action on small arms at the national, regional, and global levels.

But the United States’ dramatic and controversial position at the conference quashed most of these hopes. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, set the tone for U.S. participation with his July 9 opening statement, which other participants described as “undiplomatic” and “un-UN-like.” In his remarks, Bolton laid out the U.S. position with stark clarity, emphasizing that the conference should tackle only the illicit transfer of military-style weapons and should not discuss firearms and non-military rifles—the very weapons that are responsible for the most death and devastation caused each year by small arms.

Bolton further outlined “redline” issues that Washington viewed as unacceptable for inclusion in the conference’s program of action. These included restricting civilian ownership of weapons, limiting the legal trade and manufacture of small arms, restricting small arms sales to nongovernmental entities, committing to begin discussions on legally binding agreements, holding a mandatory review conference, and promoting international advocacy by nongovernmental and international organizations.

During the preparatory process, a significant number of countries had urged including many of these issues in the action program. With the majority of U.S. allies strongly supporting action on these items, the United States was isolated and forced to take the floor more often than it otherwise would have to voice its opposition. Bolton’s speech went far beyond what had been previously enunciated by Washington (despite assertions to the contrary by many U.S. officials throughout the conference) and put the U.S. delegation on the defensive, forcing it to take a reactive, rather than proactive, position.

The U.S. stance was based on three underlying principles. First, Washington did not want the conference’s recommendations to be more restrictive than those made by the UN experts’ 1999 report or than the policies of the Clinton administration.

Second, the Bush team wanted to placate the U.S. gun lobby, which has close ties to the administration and used the conference as a major fundraising and mobilizing event. For example, the U.S. delegation adamantly argued against a proposal on creating norms and legal standards for civilian gun ownership even though the proposal was less restrictive than existing U.S. law. In fact, the U.S. delegation offered language explicitly recognizing the legitimate civilian uses of small arms.

Third, the administration wanted to avoid the perception that the United Nations and other countries could influence U.S. policies and laws on weapons possession and transfers. It did not want the action program to include language that could be used to call for changes in U.S. policy or law, even though the program of action being negotiated was only a voluntary, non-legally binding agreement.

While deliberating on the most divisive small arms issues—restricting sales to non-state actors, limiting civilian possession of weapons, enhancing transparency on small arms transfers, establishing export criteria, and following up on the conference’s action program—some delegations made hard-line statements but later modified their positions. The United States, however, never backed off from the positions outlined in Bolton’s speech. Its only concession was on the issue of holding a review conference. Even then, the U.S. delegation only accepted a review conference process that was weaker than most others wanted.

In fact, the United States came close to blocking agreement on the action program by refusing to allow the document to mention restrictions on civilian weapons possession and sales to non-state actors, a topic of great importance to several African states. At the last moment, however, the Africans backed down to allow agreement on and conclusion of the document. In doing so, they put the importance of the UN process, and progress on small arms issues in general, over their own deeply held belief of what items should be included in the action program.

The other conference participants found the U.S. position particularly frustrating because, ironically, the United States already has some of the world’s best laws and regulations on controlling small arms. Beyond the 20,000 laws on ownership and possession constantly referred to by the National Rifle Association, the United States has taken the lead internationally in setting standards on arms exports, end-use monitoring, and arms brokering. Furthermore, Washington is already involved, unilaterally and bilaterally, in destruction and technical and financial assistance programs to reduce the number of illicit and legal weapons in global circulation. At the UN conference, the United States refused to push for higher international standards in an area where its own laws far exceed the international norm.

U.S. posturing also allowed other countries to hide behind the U.S. stance and remain quiet in their opposition to many issues. In fact, the United States ended up becoming silent partners with China, Cuba, and other “rogue” states, rather than working with its closest allies.

But the United States was not the only country to subordinate the conference’s goals to domestic concerns. China, for example, blocked a mandate to develop a regime to mark and trace weapons, in a bid to avoid changing its unique marking system and disclosing the recipients of its small arms exports. Furthermore, many Arab states used the conference as a venue to push issues outside the conference’s realm, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab states also said that they did not want to develop a system for enhancing transparency on small arms holdings and transfers until an effective mechanism for increasing transparency on the possession and transfer of weapons of mass destruction had been created.

As a result of being forced to cater to the lowest common denominator, the conference produced a weak action program that lacked important items included in earlier drafts and proposals. For example, the document has no provisions to launch processes that could eventually result in legally binding agreements on brokering and marking and tracing weapons. It also fails to encourage states to adopt legal measures to control small arms possession domestically or to enhance international transparency mechanisms on transfers and holdings.

Nevertheless, although the conference did not go as far as it could have to develop a comprehensive framework for international action on small arms, reaching consensus on an action program was still an important step forward. The program of action fosters future national, regional, and global work on small arms by providing a framework for donor states and countries adversely impacted by small arms to allocate resources and efforts.

The document also encourages enhancing programs on disarmament, demobilizing soldiers into civilians, and reintegrating soldiers into civil society. Furthermore, it advocates greater weapons stockpile security and organized destruction of surplus and illicit weapons. If implemented, such steps would help countries to rebuild political, social, and economic infrastructures damaged by the uncontrolled spread of small arms.

Additionally, the program of action refers to the cost of small arms on children and development, recognizing the grave humanitarian consequences caused by small arms proliferation and expanding the dialogue on small arms outside the disarmament realm.

On the follow-up issue, the conference ensured continued international action on small arms proliferation by agreeing to convene another conference by 2006 and to hold biennial conferences to gauge progress on implementing the action program. (The program of action is vague on how the two conference tracks relate to one another.) The action program also provides a framework for continued future collaboration among like-minded states and nongovernmental organizations.

Although international work on small arms will continue, even with a weaker program of action than was originally hoped for, the arrogant attitude the United States projected during the conference may be harder to overcome. The United States’ domestic political pandering and unwillingness to compromise left many governments and observers discouraged with Washington. Of particular concern was the United States’ go-it-alone attitude, exemplified by repeated U.S. assertions that, regardless of the program of action produced, it would work unilaterally and bilaterally on small arms issues where it deemed appropriate.

The small arms conference concluded the same week the United States refused to participate in the Kyoto environmental agreement, rejected a draft accord to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, and solidified its position on withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, distancing itself from its allies. How this disconnect between the positions of the United States and its allies will affect U.S. work in the United Nations and future multilateral discussions remains to be seen. But the United States could have and should have been a leader at the UN conference. Instead, the conference served to solidify the Bush administration’s perceived arrogance and penchant for exceptionalism on all things international.

Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

Posted: September 1, 2001