"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Tackling the Illicit Small Arms Trade: The Chairman Speaks
Share this

Ambassador Dalius Čekuolis

When I was nominated in December 2007 as the chair-designate of the third biennial meeting of states (BMS3),[1] my team and I immediately focused on the task of ensuring a successful outcome. This, of course, is the duty of any meeting chair; but in this case, the need for success was acute. The first two biennial meetings held to consider the implementation of the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) in 2003 and 2005 had been criticized for their lack of tangible results, specifically the absence of an agreed outcome. The 2006 Review Conference for the program had ended, amidst some acrimony, with no substantive agreement of any kind.

Small arms and light weapons are the instruments of choice in crime and conflict, undermining security, human rights, and social and economic development worldwide.[2] It is estimated that armed violence kills more than 740,000 people each year, both directly and indirectly, with approximately two-thirds of these deaths occurring outside war zones. The annual economic costs of armed violence in nonconflict settings (lost productivity due to violent deaths) approaches $100 billion, on a conservative estimate, but could be much higher. In addition to these statistics, one must take account of the costs inflicted on people, societies, and economies as a result of the (often permanent) injuries stemming from armed violence. Although the effects are not evenly distributed, with some regions suffering much more than others, every country is affected to some degree.[3]

The PoA provided the first global framework for tackling the small arms problem, committing all states to some essential initial steps designed, above all, to curb the supply of illicit small arms and light weapons. Along with certain regional initiatives, it also appears to have encouraged many states to become more transparent in reporting on their small arms exports. Following the 2006 Review Conference impasse, however, there was a risk that the PoA would cease to be taken seriously. The United Nations had established separate processes on illicit brokering, international arms transfers (the Arms Trade Treaty), and surplus ammunition, but a question mark hung over the broader framework. The third biennial meeting, scheduled for July 14-18 at UN headquarters in New York, was not supposed to be a make-or-break event; but in our assessment, another diplomatic stalemate or even an exceptionally weak agreed outcome would have undermined the PoA and slowed or halted global momentum on the small arms issue.

That view was shared by many others. From the beginning of our preparations, we sensed very strong backing from all stakeholders to get the UN small arms process “back on track” with a successful BMS3. Our sense was that unequivocal success required some form of agreed outcome that, along with the meeting discussions, would help to enhance and accelerate the PoA’s implementation, not amend it. Another priority for many states was to restore consensus on the process. The PoA itself was adopted in 2001 by consensus, and that was also true of the UN resolutions and meetings devoted to small arms during the following period.

Consensus began to fray, however, in 2005 and 2006 as the UN General Assembly committee that considers arms control and disarmament matters (the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security) registered the first abstentions and negative votes on certain small arms resolutions and decisions. In 2006 and again in 2007, the United States—alone—voted against the UN General Assembly’s omnibus resolution on small arms because of its opposition to the convening of a third biennial meeting. The question as to whether the United States would participate, in some form, in the BMS3 was the subject of much speculation during the months preceding the meeting. The possibility, even likelihood, that the United States would not participate was certainly a concern. We were equally worried that other states might follow the U.S. lead and elect to opt out of the UN small arms process. A second factor that troubled us was time. The July meeting was scheduled to last only five days. This left very little room for states to reach agreement on an outcome document. We concluded that extensive preparation and discussion would be needed if we were to secure an agreed outcome.

Preparations Pay Off

My early nomination in December 2007 coupled with that of the Bureau[4] a month later, helped us get the necessary groundwork underway well in advance of the BMS3. I was able to hold my first round of open-ended consultations with the UN membership in New York at the end of January 2008 and in Geneva in early February. At an early stage, we also sought the counsel of knowledgeable individuals and groups, including the Geneva Process on small arms.[5]

The outlines of the meeting agenda, including the themes on which most states wished to focus in the discussions, were already becoming clear. The statements made at the First Committee’s session in the fall of 2007 and my consultations in early 2008 revealed a strong preference for the themes of illicit brokering, along with stockpile management and surplus disposal. The cross-cutting issue of international cooperation, assistance, and national capacity building was another clear favorite. These were all core PoA issues, unlikely to elicit much controversy but important to effective implementation. We also had a general mandate from the General Assembly to use the meeting “to highlight…challenges and opportunities” in implementing the PoA.[6] At the same time, the General Assembly had decided in 2006 that the first meeting to consider implementation of the International Tracing Instrument (ITI),[7] an offshoot of the PoA, would occur within the framework of the July gathering.

So far, so good. An early start and agreement on the need to focus the discussions, coupled with much goodwill from UN member states and other groups and individuals in Geneva and New York, had put us on a good track; however, in order to maximize the transparency and inclusiveness of the process during the months preceding the July meeting, I held two further rounds of open-ended consultations and many meetings with individual states, regional groups, and other stakeholders.

We also needed a structure that could channel the views of all participants into the final outcome. Unfortunately, we could not rely on a formal preparatory process like so many other multilateral arms control talks. We had one important resource at our disposal—national reporting on PoA implementation, including the very useful analysis of the reports prepared by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Small Arms Survey.[8] We also opted for a facilitation process designed to optimize our use of time, both before and during the meeting, and to further enhance transparency and inclusiveness. I appointed facilitators from Colombia (international cooperation, assistance, and national capacity building), Egypt (ITI), South Korea (illicit brokering) and Switzerland (stockpile management and surplus disposal). They were joined at the BMS3 by Canada (other issues) and Finland (brokering). In June, based on their consultations and analysis of the national reports, the original four facilitators produced discussion papers designed to provide some of the raw material for the future Outcome Document. The national reports were another important source of draft text.

By the time the BMS3 began on the morning of July 14, most of the necessary pieces were in place: extensive consultation, more than 100 national reports on PoA implementation,[9] an analysis of reporting, the facilitator discussion papers, and suggested language for much of the Outcome Document. New parts of the document, including “the way forward” (recommendations) sections, were issued, in all six UN languages, the morning after the relevant theme was discussed in BMS plenary sessions, with the UN Secretariat working overnight to make this possible. On Thursday morning, July 17, the complete draft report was issued, again in all UN languages, with a revised version following the next morning, the last day of the meeting.

We came close to adopting the final report, including agreed outcome, by consensus. One state, Iran, blocked adoption of the report on Friday morning and could not be persuaded to join consensus. Not for the first time, Iran indicated that it wanted “line-by-line negotiations” on the text. A few other states also expressed reservations regarding the method of work. Nevertheless, Iran’s request for a recorded vote yielded a pleasant surprise. We achieved consensus of a kind, with 134 states voting to adopt the final report (and outcome) on Friday afternoon, none voting against, and two states abstaining (Iran and Zimbabwe).[10]

As one delegation pointed out that day, negotiations can take many forms. I elected to keep control of the text throughout the process, channeling inputs through the facilitators. Opening the text up to line-by-line amendment, as Iran requested, would in my view have led to an unmanageable blizzard of proposals and counterproposals. As I stated throughout the preparatory process and at the meeting itself, there was no time for classic, treaty-like negotiations; nor were we developing a new instrument, but rather considering the implementation of an existing one. I heard many expressions of support for this view and was certainly heartened by the result of the vote.

The Way Forward

The BMS3 Outcome Document incorporates the concepts and compromises that states thrashed out before and during the meeting. It undoubtedly has its weaknesses, which will probably have been analyzed in some detail by the time these lines appear in print. I am nevertheless confident that, despite its imperfections, the document offers UN member states a series of useful hooks for future work. I will not undertake a comprehensive review here but merely highlight some of the possibilities inherent in the document.

The first paragraph of the section on international cooperation, assistance, and national capacity building sets the tone for the rest of the Outcome Document, underlining the need for states to do more to exchange information and build national capacity for the effective implementation of the PoA. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs’ new Program of Action Implementation Support System and UNIDIR’s database for matching needs and resources, welcomed by states in the document, could play useful roles here, as could improved use of the reporting tool. The importance of national reporting to PoA implementation is reflected in its frequent citation in the BMS3 Outcome Document, including in the paragraph presenting proposals for a “forward-looking implementation agenda.” These proposals include asking states to report biennially (less often, but more comprehensively), further develop reporting templates (to increase comparability), and analyze reports more systematically.

On illicit brokering, the Outcome Document highlights the importance of implementing the recommendations of the Group of Government Experts, stressing also the contributions international cooperation and end-user certification/verification can make to a resolution of this problem. Verifying the identity of the end users of weapons shipments is an important means of preventing their diversion to the illicit market. The section of the Outcome Document on stockpile management and surplus disposal usefully emphasizes the link between good stockpile management and surplus identification. It also lists a range of areas in which resources may need to be expended for effective stockpile management and the responsible disposal of surpluses. The outcome on the implementation of the ITI, included as an annex to the main report, stresses the mutually reinforcing nature of weapons marking, record keeping, and tracing and highlights some of the essential initial steps states need to take in implementing the instrument.

The next steps for the ITI are relatively clear. According to the terms of the instrument itself, another biennial meeting should be held in two year’s time to consider its implementation. The United States participated in the two sessions devoted to the ITI at the BMS3, sitting out the other sessions devoted to the PoA, so it appears that there is unanimous support for a continuation of the ITI process.

Follow-up for the PoA remains an open question. No firm recommendations emerged from the BMS3, although several interesting ideas were introduced during the discussions and are reflected in the Outcome Document. These include regional meetings in years between biennial meetings of states and periodic meetings of governmental experts. Certain regions have pioneered efforts to tackle the small arms problem over the past decade and can be expected to continue to lead the way. The proposal for periodic expert meetings—with the UN framework—would, however, ensure that action at the global level keeps pace. A decision on the next PoA BMS is up for discussion at the First Committee’s 2008 session. The Outcome Document lists the issues that various states—not necessarily the UN membership as a whole—consider important to PoA implementation. These are, in essence, placeholders for future program meeting focus topics, subject to further discussion and negotiation.

This year’s First Committee should offer greater clarity on the next steps for the PoA. The BMS3, although quite successful, is only one additional step on the road. Long-term success in meeting the small arms challenge will require the sustained commitment of UN member states to effective action in collaboration with our partners in international organizations and civil society. It was an honor for me to have been able to contribute to our crucial goal. Although much hard work remains before us, we can take satisfaction in the important progress made at the BMS3.


A Recipe For Success?

The strategy we pursued for the third biennial meeting of states (BMS3) borrowed bits and pieces from various other arms control forums, in particular the meetings devoted to consideration of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Not unlike the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA), the BWC reached an impasse at its Fifth Review Conference in 2001. We drew inspiration from the ability of the BWC process to recover from this setback with a focused, practical program of work. These were our guiding principles for the BMS3: remain focused and avoid the politicization of technical issues. Of course, the method of work we used for the meeting has its unique features; it will not suit all arms control meetings. Yet, those fora that, like the BMS3, look at the implementation of an existing instrument while facing serious time constraints may find much of value in our approach. It had 10 key components.

1. Early designation of the chair and Bureau A short meeting with big ambitions required early and extensive preparation. My early nomination in December 2007 along with that of the Bureau in January 2008 bought us critical time for the necessary advance work.

2. Extensive consultation In advance of the BMS3, I held three rounds of open-ended consultations in New York and Geneva and participated in regional small arms conferences that were convened in Bogota, Brussels, and Seoul. I also held more than 100 meetings with individual states and regional groups, including the principal suppliers of small arms and light weapons and many of the countries suffering most from the effects of the illicit trade. I used these consultations to make direct contact with as many delegations as possible, listen to their views, and present my ideas for the preparatory process and the meeting. During these consultations, it was especially important to reach a common understanding on the mandate of the BMS3. In the weeks preceding the July meeting, consultations with the facilitators increasingly focused on draft language for the Outcome Document. The facilitators and I continued, indeed accelerated, our consultations during the meeting. The fundamental aim throughout was to maximize the transparency and inclusiveness of the process.

3. Keeping the Meeting Focused My initial consultations confirmed very broad support for the concept of narrowing the discussion to a few topics and deepening discussion on those. To be sure, there was some disagreement over the choice of topics. However, the concerns of states that had one or more preferred themes outside the final list were addressed by introducing an “other issues” session in the meeting and reflecting the content of that discussion in the agreed Outcome Document.

4. Use of facilitators If we wanted everyone on board, it was essential to structure the preparatory process. We opted for a facilitation process that would work continuously to solicit inputs from all states on the four issue areas. The discussion papers produced by the facilitators in advance of the BMS3 were the key elements here, allowing us to focus our attention on implementation gaps, challenges, and opportunities in each of the areas and provide concrete inputs for the Outcome Document. The facilitators played a central role during the meeting itself, consulting widely with states and channeling their inputs into the final text.

5. Timely national reporting The reports states submitted on their implementation of the PoA and International Tracing Instrument (ITI) constituted the other crucial set of inputs to the Outcome Document. We could only take them into account, however, if they came in relatively early. In consultation with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), we set the end of March as our target date for submissions. As it turned out, we received a substantial number of reports by that date or shortly thereafter, allowing the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and the Small Arms Survey to prepare their very useful analysis of reporting since the adoption of the PoA on the BMS3 focus topics.[1]

6. Reinforcing the New York-Geneva link Although PoA meetings are invariably held in New York, much of the expertise on small arms lies with the national missions and intergovernmental and civil society organizations in Geneva. In an effort to make full use of that expertise, I appointed two facilitators from Geneva along with two from New York. I also met extensively with representatives of governments, international organizations, and civil society in Geneva and New York.

7. Timely translation of key documents In order to increase transparency and outreach, we decided to release as official documents—in the United Nations’ six official languages—all of the key documents produced by the chair and the facilitators. This was new for a UN small arms meeting. The UN Secretariat’s willingness to translate draft outcome text overnight during the meeting greatly enhanced communication and decision-making between delegations and capitals.

8. Extensive use of UN Website Another means of improving transparency and communication was to use the UNODA Web site as a central repository for BMS3 documents, statements, and information. Instead of reading their statements, I encouraged delegations to place their statements on the Web site, reading only important excerpts.

9. Dispensing with the general exchange of views In one form or another, a general exchange of views had been a major, even dominant, component of the two preceding biennial meetings, as well as the 2006 Review Conference. If the BMS3 was to remain focused and results oriented, it was important that states spoke to the issues under consideration. States therefore agreed to structure the meeting agenda around the focus themes and, at my urging, mostly read only selectively from their national statements and national reports, posting full versions on the UNODA Web site.

10. Making better use of civil society expertise It was our conviction, at an early stage, that civil society had an important contribution to make to the success of the BMS3. Procedural rules adopted at the 2001 UN Small Arms Conference and applied to subsequent PoA meetings precluded civil society representatives from intervening during the meetings, except at a special designated session. There was no consensus on changing these rules for the BMS3, but states did agree to have representatives from Amnesty International and the Small Arms Survey give presentations to kick off the governmental discussions of illicit brokering and the ITI. This represents a first modest step, one hopes, toward a more interactive and productive relationship with civil society at future UN small arms meetings. I also continued the practice begun by previous BMS chairs and encouraged governments to include representatives of civil society on their national delegations. Many countries, including my own, followed this recommendation to good effect.

A good chair is, at least partly, a lucky chair. We were fortunate that several other factors, independent of our control, pulled toward rather than against a favorable outcome at the BMS3. These included strong support from the UN Secretariat, our facilitators, and the Bureau. The UN General Assembly had nudged things in the right direction, providing the BMS3 with a more focused mandate.[2] We were also able to draw on the expertise and innovative thinking of groups such as the Geneva Process when considering how to take that mandate forward. Finally, at the end of the day, there would have been no result without the strong commitment of the UN membership as a whole to a successful outcome.


1. Sarah Parker and Silvia Cattaneo, “Implementing the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons: Analysis of the National Reports Submitted by States From 2002 to 2008,”draft report, July 2008, http://unidir.org/.

2. UN General Assembly, Resolution 62/47, para. 8. The resolution’s reference to “priority issues or topics of relevance” helped us to focus the BMS3 agenda well in advance of the meeting.

Ambassador Dalius Čekuolis is permanent representative of the Republic of Lithuania to the United Nations and recently served as chair of the third biennial meeting of states to consider the implementation of the 2001 Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, which was held in New York July 14-18.


1. Third Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA), (A/CONF.192/15, July 20, 2001, http://disarmament2.un.org/cab/poa.html).

2. UN Security Council, “Small Arms: Report of the Secretary-General,” S/2008/258, April 17, 2008.

3. Geneva Declaration Secretariat, “Global Burden of Armed Violence,” September 2008, www.genevadeclaration.org/pdfs/Global-Burden-of-Armed-Violence.pdf.

4. The chairperson and vice chairpersons of UN arms control meetings are collectively known as the Bureau. Fourteen states were appointed by their regional groups to assist as vice chairs with the BMS3.

5. The Geneva Process on small arms brings governments, international organizations, and civil society together in Geneva for regular meetings on small arms issues, with a particular focus on PoA implementation.

6. UN General Assembly, Resolution 62/47, para. 8.

7. International Instrument to EnableStates to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, A/60/88, June 27, annex, http://disarmament2.un.org/cab/oewg/Report.pdf. The instrument commits UN member states to a series of measures designed to improve the traceability of small arms and light weapons in crime and conflict situations. See Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2006), ch. 4.

8. Sarah Parker and Silvia Cattaneo, “Implementing the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons: Analysis of the National Reports Submitted by States from 2002 to 2008,” draft report, July 2008, http://unidir.org/.

9. A record 109 states submitted reports by July 18, 2008, the final day of the meeting.

10. Department of Public Information, United Nations, “Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms Adopts Draft Report by Recorded Vote,” DC/3124, July 18, 2008, http://un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/dc3124.doc.htm. Ten additional states subsequently indicated that they would have voted in favor of the draft report had they been present. “Report of the Third Biennial Meeting of States to Consider the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects,” A/CONF.192/BMS/2008/3, para. 23 (note 1) (hereinafter BMS3 report). The United States did not participate in the vote.