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UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Small Arms Conference Nets Agreement
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Jeff Abramson

After failing to achieve consensus at a 2006 review conference, this year's delegates to an international gathering to address the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons overcame procedural objections to vote for modest next steps.

By its very nature, the illicit trade is difficult to gauge. The independent research group Small Arms Survey estimates the authorized trade of small arms, light weapons, and related ammunition at more than $4 billion per year.

In 2001, UN member states adopted the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects and in 2005 agreed to an International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons. (See ACT, September 2001; June 2006.) Together, the instruments provide recommendations for national, regional, and global cooperation to limit the illegal transfer of small arms, such as revolvers, pistols and some machine guns, and light weapons such as heavy machine guns and other weapons that can generally be transported by a pack animal or light vehicle. The measures are politically binding, rather than legal agreements, meaning that although states commit to following the pacts, there are essentially no legal consequences for failing to do so.

In 2006, countries came together for a five-year review of the program of action but failed to agree on improvements to the plan. At the outset of that gathering, U.S. representatives indicated that they would not accept any final agreement that mentioned ammunition, civilian possession of small arms, or transfers to nonstate actors. Although not the only obstacle, the U.S. positions were viewed as a major cause for the two-week meeting's failure. (See ACT, September 2006.)

Following that meeting, the UN General Assembly in December 2006 called for a biennial meeting of states to be held no later than 2008. In order to improve the chance of reaching consensus, this year's chair-designate, Ambassador Dalius Čekuolis of Lithuania, began consultations seven months before the July 14-18 biennial. This led to a decision to focus the gathering on four topics for which consensus appeared possible: international cooperation, assistance, and national capacity building; stockpile management and surplus disposal; illicit brokering; and a review of the 2005 instrument on tracing.

Čekuolis and his advisers created a draft outcome document that included a section entitled "The way forward" for each of the topics. These sections generally reaffirmed that states are committed to addressing the issue, should work together, and should develop national laws when needed. Other key topics broached at the meeting but not resolved in the report include discussing ammunition in stockpile decisions, linking humanitarian assistance to progress on small arms goals, including gender considerations in small arms and light weapons decisions, and calling for legally binding instruments.

On the final day of the meeting, the chair asked for adoption of the report. However, Iran's delegation insisted on opening up the report for line by line debate. When consensus could not be reached on accepting the outcome document, its approval was put to a formal vote. In that final vote, 134 countries adopted the report with none opposed. Iran and Zimbabwe abstained.

The United States was absent for the vote. U.S. representatives attended only the fourth day of the meeting, dedicated to the 2005 tracing instrument. In responding to language calling for a legally binding instrument, a U.S. representative asked for an additional sentence in the report that ultimately read, "Other States believed that the character of the Instrument had already been decided through negotiations and that the critical task now was to implement it." Prior to this year's gathering, there were indications that the United States would not be attending the full meeting, raising the prospects for success as well as questions about the program's relevance. In its annual report submitted ahead of the meeting, the United States said it "strongly supports" the program of action and by its own analysis "is one of less than a dozen countries that have implemented all aspects" of the program. The report emphasized the need for implementation, stating that "[m]ore practical assistance, not more meetings, is what is needed to reduce illicit trafficking."

At the time of the meeting, 47 countries still had never submitted a report on their implementation of the program of action. Researchers noted that widely accepted standards for reporting and assessing progress on the effort do not exist. Fewer than 50 countries had legislation specifically addressing brokering.

Whether and when the next meeting of states is to be scheduled, as well as smaller gatherings as part of the UN process, is likely to be taken up by the UN First Committee, which focuses on disarmament and international security, when it meets Oct. 6-Nov. 4.

An adviser to the chair told Arms Control Today Aug. 18 that the meeting was a success and leaves the way open for significant future work. The International Action Network on Small Arms, a leading international advocacy coalition, called the agreement "a significant step forward for the international effort to tackle the illicit gun trade."