Interview with Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, President of the 2006 UN Small Arms Review Conference

Governments gathered in New York June 26 to July 7 for the 2006 UN Conference to Review the Implementation of the Program of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. The conference ended, however, without member states agreeing on binding measures to curb such trade. On July 27, Arms Control Today interviewed conference president Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka about his views on future steps.

ACT: The recent UN Small Arms Review Conference failed to meet its objective of building on the 2001 Program of Action on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons and was declared by some to be a “meltdown” for producing no agreement. Do you consider it a failure?

Kariyawasam: No, my view is that the conference was not a failure because it managed to bring a greater focus in the international community to the issue of illegal trade and trafficking of small arms. And in that context, there were a lot of views exchanged at the high level, and there was a lot of interest in continuing implementation of the Program of Action. In those terms, it was not a failure. What we perhaps could not do was [deliver] a concrete roadmap as to how further implementation will be achieved in complete terms in the future. The follow-up mechanisms were not agreed upon.

ACT: You said in your opening statement that it was “incumbent upon [member states] to display to the world at large that this organization can successfully address yet another issue of importance for many in the world.” The conference, however, ended unsuccessfully by most accounts. Is that damaging to UN credibility?

Kariyawasam: It would have been much better for the UN if we had concrete follow-up mechanisms. Short of that, the 2001 Program of Action provides us a basis to carry on the work. Therefore, in those terms, what the UN can do remains undiminished. But further work on issues connected to illegal trade such as how to handle transfer control and ammunition issues, those we could not agree upon in concrete terms. But the UN also has other mechanisms to kick start this process in the First Committee.[1]

ACT: How close were delegates to reaching consensus on a final document?

Kariyawasam: At the end of the day, a final document could not be agreed upon [because of] issues pertaining to follow-up. But I think we had agreed on almost 95 percent of the text. 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.

ACT: The United States has been roundly criticized for its role in stalling progress at the conference. In your observation, did U.S. “redlines” prevent an agreement from being reached?

Kariyawasam: Each country has their national positions, and each country will work from that basis. I believe the United States worked from that basis, so that will obviously have an impact on a final outcome. This causes delegations to negotiate. If the United States has concerns and draws redlines, that will have an impact on the final outcome no doubt.

ACT: What other countries had significant holdouts that prevented a final text from being agreed upon?

Kariyawasam: There were differences between, let’s say, the European Union on one side and countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt that had a slightly different view. Then you also had members of the Non-Aligned Movement[2] with different views—some Non-Aligned countries supported the EU. The interests of countries were not dependent upon the political groupings or regions that they belong to. It’s a very unique program, and unique interest groups have been created. Very interesting, strange coalitions have been created in small arms.

ACT: Even if a final agreement had been reached, some in the arms control community have said that it would likely have been very weak. Do you feel that the requirement of consensus was a burden on developing a good final document?

Kariyawasam: Yes. I have to grudgingly accept that. The tradition that we have in the UN that major conferences of this nature produce documents by consensus makes it very difficult to agree on overwhelming majority views. There is the possibility of one or two countries pulling out against a major consensus. It has not only happened at this conference but at other conferences of this nature. But let me add to this that arms control issues are very critical for the national security interests of countries, so I don’t think we have any other method than this, especially if we are thinking of global action. If there is regional action, then regional groups can decide and go ahead, but if we are thinking of global action, we’ll have to have global consensus. It’s an unfortunate reality that we work with today in arms control.

ACT: One of the major sticking points between the United States and other countries was, as you mentioned, the fourth section of the draft document—the follow-up—detailing a future for the Program of Action and for combating the illicit trafficking of small arms. How did disagreement on this contribute to the demise of the conference?

Kariyawasam: U.S. views on the follow-up did hurt the conference because I do not think that the overwhelming majority was ready to accept [the U.S. position]. That will affect this process, but I don’t think it will have a major affect because the 2001 Program of Action is still alive and kicking. It has been agreed to. There are prohibitions in the program that can run on their own without having further support from a review conference of this nature. More than anything, just because we could not agree on an outcome document this year does not mean that the [UN] General Assembly First Committee is precluded from taking further action on the program in the future. There is always the possibility for further development of global action on the basis of the Program of Action when the time is better.

ACT: Does that mean that there is the possibility in the future for another review conference?

Kariyawasam: There is the possibility for an action-implementation conference, a review conference, or any other global meeting. This issue can be discussed. That possibility has not been precluded because we did not agree on anything. If we had agreed on something lower than that, then of course the possibility would have been precluded. Now it seems that since nothing was agreed to, everything is still open. The only thing is that we will have to work on this in the UN General Assembly and the First Committee when the time is right. In my view, therefore, the conference gave an impetus to the Program of Action in a sense that there is now a feeling that there is a greater interest in the world on this subject. This subject has to be on the front burner, not on the backburner. I don’t think it went back to the backburner—that, I don’t accept. It remains on the front burner.

ACT: What were some elements of controlling small arms that you thought were really worthwhile and should be pursued in the future?

Kariyawasam: There was the Transfer Control Initiative from the UK (See ACT, September 2005) that one should pursue. The issue of how to address the nonstate actors is something else that will have to be pursued. The issue of ammunition is very key to many countries, who argue that the small arms trade cannot be curbed without addressing ammunition. That has to be followed up as well. These things will have to be followed up by the First Committee and by other forums in the time to come. I think [the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs] must now work on issues for which they have been given some direction by the discussion of the conference and take things piece by piece to see how far we can go.

ACT: Do you think that this fall the First Committee will try to finish what was started at the conference?

Kariyawasam: I think that for the First Committee it is time to take stock and give some direction, and then maybe a little later we can take concrete actions as things become clearer. [In the meantime], countries must work with each other and create these coalitions that will push these ideas forward in such a manner so as to make everyone feel comfortable. There were a lot of misconceptions around this whole idea, especially in the U.S. public. This gun control debate in the U.S. had a negative effect on the conference. These issues have to be handled carefully, but I think we can do it.

ACT: The UK and six other nations recently wrote a letter to member states proposing a plan to form a Group of Governmental Experts to study the feasibility of an arms trade treaty. How much support do you think is out there for that type of proposal?

Kariyawasam: At the moment, not much. Many in the Non-Aligned Movement think that an arms trade treaty by itself could be a measure to preclude states from obtaining their legitimate security needs while perhaps not closing the door for nonstate actors that abuse the system of trade today. There is that suspicion. But at the same time, there is a good coalition from the North, South, East, and West keen on this issue. I believe that discussion will expand in such a manner so as to bring in more players and give confidence to countries that this is not some kind of restrictive regime to deny countries [their rights] but rather a regime that will be promoting peace and security. I think these are very early days for the idea, but I wish them luck. They need to take into account the concerns and apprehension of countries not willing to join it as yet, but it’s a good start.

ACT: Would an arms trade treaty be more effective then something like the Program of Action?

Kariyawasam: An arms trade treaty would be much bigger than the Program of Action, which is only for preventing and combating illegal trade in small arms and light weapons. An arms trade treaty involves all trade, not only illegal trade. That’s where the catch lies.

ACT: Thank you.