Consensus Found at Small Arms Conference

Jeff Abramson

Delegates at a UN biennial meeting last month reached consensus on the next steps toward an international instrument to address the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. Although the commitments made were modest, the delegates’ ability to find consensus was seen as progress over their meeting in 2008, when they had to call a vote to reach agreement.

Ranging from items such as pistols that can be carried by hand to heavy machine guns and others weapons that are generally transported by a pack animal or light vehicle, the authorized transfer of small arms, light weapons, and associated ammunition is worth at least $6 billion annually, according to estimates by the independent research group Small Arms Survey. By its nature, however, the illegal trade is difficult to measure. It poses a “grave threat to peace and security,” Pablo Macedo of Mexico said in his opening statement as chair of the meeting. Delegates at the meeting discussed implementation of the politically binding 2001 Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects and the 2005 International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, which grew out of the program of action. (See ACT, September 2008.)

In contrast to 2008, when the United States attended only for the day dedicated to the tracing instrument, the United States attended the entirety of this year’s week-long conference. U.S. delegation head Steven Costner made interventions on each of the meeting’s four main topics: combating illicit small arms trade across borders, improving international cooperation and assistance, implementing the tracing instrument, and strengthening follow-up mechanisms and preparations for the 2012 review conference. U.S. delegate William Kullman authored a discussion paper prior to the meeting and led the meeting’s paragraph-by-paragraph review of the text on the international tracing instrument to be included in the conference’s final document.

In general, states agreed to measures similar to the ones adopted in 2008: that they are committed to addressing the issue, should work together, and should develop national laws when needed. In a June 24 interview, a U.S. Department of State official, although emphasizing that the conference was able to reach a consensus decision, described the final agreements as generally driven to the lowest common denominator.

Delegates did discuss measures to improve the value of national implementation reports and upcoming meetings. Although states are invited to submit annual reports on the implementation efforts, only nine did so in 2009, and more than 35 have never done so, out of 152 member states plus the Holy See. In 2008 and 2010, however, more than 100 states submitted reports. Those higher-reporting years aligned with biennial meetings, and delegates agreed to “make every effort to produce, on a voluntary basis, a comprehensive report…every two years, timed with biennial meetings of States and review conferences,” according to the final draft text. (An official text of the agreement has yet to be released.) They also encouraged use of a new reporting template.

An open-ended meeting of governmental experts is scheduled for January 10-14, 2011, and a review conference for July 2-13, 2012. According to the final draft text of the biennial meeting’s outcome document, the content of the 2011 meeting will include international cooperation and assistance and “one or two” priority issues. That language represents a deliberate focusing of discussion from an earlier draft that read “one or more” and therefore could have allowed too many issues at once, according to the State Department official. UN First Committee and General Assembly meetings later this year may provide more guidance on the topics for the 2011 meeting, whether preparatory committee meetings will be established prior to the 2012 review conference, and the ultimate dates for such meetings.