Small Arms Talks Hamstrung

Chris Affolter

As the United Nations prepares to host a review conference on curbing trade in small arms and light weapons, disputes over the extent of such measures and whether they should be legally binding are hampering progress. The disputes have helped block participants from even agreeing on an agenda, raising the possibility of a repeat of a 2001 conference that ended without an agreement on binding measures.

More than 50 countries met at a Jan. 9-21 New York preparatory meeting for the June 26-July 7 UN review conference. At the conclusion of the preparatory meeting, Chairman Sylvester Rowe of Sierra Leone compiled a document of possible policy options for the conference, including consideration of legally binding measures. But the lack of consensus on the document brought the meeting to a close without an agreed agenda.

A number of countries, including the United States, resisted any attempt to discuss legally binding measures and also rebuffed efforts to address limits on civilian ownership, legal trade and manufacture, and transfers to nonstate entities.

These views track those the United States put forward in July 2001 when UN members gathered in New York for the first global conference on the illicit international trade of small arms and light weapons. The 2001 conference was unable to agree on le gally binding measures, instead producing the voluntary Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. This document outlined a series of voluntary measures to stem the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons, which range from grenades, pistols, and rifles to machine guns and man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

However, in his opening statement to the January gathering, Steven Costner, deputy director for the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, expressed support for some measures advanced in the intervening years. Along with other foreign diplomats, Costner called for the implementation of a new international instrument, adopted in 2005, for the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons. In addition, he voiced support for the goals of the British-proposed Transfer Control Initiative, an effort to forge an international consensus on guidelines for the transfer of small arms and light weapons. (See ACT, September 2005.) It is unclear how participants will deal with these two issues at the upcoming conference.

Some U.S. lawmakers are pressing the Bush administration to pursue a new approach at the 2006 conference. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), along with a dozen colleagues, sent a Jan. 12 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to “push for strong, specific arms export criteria in or [that would] supplement” the UN Program of Action in June. Such criteria, the letter volunteers, could include the prevention of arms transfers that could result in human rights abuses or terrorism, violations of international treaties and embargoes, or disruptions to regional peace and security.

Similarly, the European Union has called for the creation of international guidelines for the transfer of small arms and light weapons, supporting, for example, the adoption of a legally binding international instrument on the tracing and marking of small arms and light weapons and ammunition. The December 2005 instrument supported by the United States is not legally binding. European countries are particularly concerned about the detrimental effects of illegal small arms and light weapons transfers to sub-Saharan Africa.

In hopes of preparing a formal agenda in time for the conference, countries are planning informal consultations in the interim. Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka, president of the review conference, is leading this dialogue. If the effort is not successful, approving an agenda will be the first order of business at the summer conference.