UN Small Arms Conference Deadlocks

Miles E. Taylor

A two-week UN conference in New York aimed at cracking down on the worldwide illicit trade of small arms ended July 7 without a final agreement on measures to reduce the spread of the weapons. Delegates also failed to create a road map for future action.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed disappointment July 10 in the conference’s inability to make headway on the issue, citing the urgent need to control illegal small arms and light weapons, which the independent Small Arms Survey in Geneva estimates account for one-fourth of the global gun trade and kill tens of thousands of people each year.

The conference was tasked with strengthening and updating an agreement produced when UN members met for the first global conference on the illicit international trade of small arms and light weapons in 2001. That agreement, the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, outlined a series of voluntary measures to curb the danger posed by the illegal trade of such weapons, which range from grenades, pistols, and rifles to machine guns and man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. (See ACT, September 2001.)

However, differences over proposed measures to beef up the Program of Action proved to be too great. Countries that blocked moves to agree on global controls included China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.

But the earliest and perhaps some of the strongest objections came from the United States.

In a July 28 speech at the outset of the conference, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, speaking for the U.S. delegation, stated that U.S. representatives would not support an agreement that, among other things, made any reference to ammunition, civilian possession of small arms, or weapons transfers to nonstate actors.

These demands put the United States at odds with dozens of delegations that wanted to expand the scope of the 2001 agreement.

Rwanda, for example, urged conference delegates to limit or ban small arms transfers to nonstate actors, a move that many insisted would keep illicit weapons out of the hands of insurgents, terrorists, and drug traffickers. However, the United States argued that such a blanket ban could unintentionally harm groups trying to rise up against oppressive regimes.

Richard Kidd, who led the U.S. delegation and currently heads the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, told Arms Control Today Aug. 11 that the discussion about nonstate actors “was one of the most dysfunctional debates of the entire process.”

Kidd insisted that if countries would simply enact and enforce the measures called for in the 2001 Program of Action, rather than trying to add new provisions, illicit weapons would not wind up in the wrong hands in the first place.

Instead, Kidd asserted, many countries came to the conference seeking to debate issues where there had historically been disagreement. “A large number of states find it a lot easier to talk than to do,” Kidd stated.

He said the United States sought to bolster countries’ enforcement mechanisms and end-user procedures, which are designed to ensure that exports go to legitimate recipients. He also said Washington favored doing more on cooperation assistance because many governments lack resources to implement the Program of Action. But, Kidd added, “there was a significant disconnect [at the conference] between policy posturing and practical, focused implementation.”

Others countries, though, maintained that the biggest holdup at the gathering was a U.S. refusal to agree to follow-up measures, such as setting a date for another review conference or creating a framework for future action on small arms. It was the only country to oppose such steps.

In a July 27 interview with Arms Control Today, Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, the president of the review conference, agreed that this was a problem. “ U.S. views on the follow-up hurt the conference because I do not think that the overwhelming majority was ready to accept [their position],” he explained.

The conference faced political pressure before it even began. In the days leading up to the meeting, members of the National Rifle Association flooded the United Nations with tens of thousands of letters arguing that the conference was going to take away their gun rights.

The outcry forced Annan to provide clarification in his opening statement at the summit. “Let me note that this review conference is not negotiating a ‘global gun ban,’ nor do we wish to deny law-abiding citizens their right to bear arms in accordance with their national laws,” he insisted. “Our energy, our emphasis, and our anger is directed against illegal weapons, not legal ones.”

But that assurance failed to translate into an agreement. Differences between states led to the creation of a draft document that was watered down to avoid disagreement and would have done little to expand the Program of Action. Because such conferences operate by consensus, all UN member states must agree on the final document before it can be approved.

Some states concluded that having no agreement seemed better than having a weak one. “I think there was a feeling that it was best to leave it like that rather than trying to agree on things that were less than what we agreed to in 2001,” Kariyawasam explained.

Although no new deal was reached, Kidd said that measures remain in place to curb weapons trafficking. “The Program of Action still exists, it’s still in effect, and if states implemented it, the problems of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons would be significantly reduced,” he stated.

Kariyawasam said he was optimistic about future action on small arms, noting that the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, which focuses on disarmament and international security, will have a chance to give the small arms debate some direction when it meets this fall.

Until then, he insisted, the world cannot afford to lose sight of the issue. “This subject has to be on the front burner, not on the back burner,” Kariyawasam said.