Head of the U.S. delegation to the 2006 UN small arms and light weapons review conference and director of the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
From June 26 to July 7, UN member states met in New York to review progress in implementing a five-year old Program of Action to stem the illicit global trade in small arms and light weapons. The meeting ended without a final document or future action plan because of widespread differences among the participants, including the United States. On Aug. 11, Arms Control Today interviewed Richard Kidd, who led the U.S. delegation and heads the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, about the issues debated at the conference and its outcome.
ACT: The recent UN Small Arms Review Conference was deemed by many observers and participants to be a failure. Do you agree with that assessment?
Kidd: No. The recent UN Small Arms Review Conference reaffirmed the interest and commitment of states to an agreement that was made in 2001. Those who consider it a failure are those who did not focus on what was agreed upon and chose rather to focus on elements of disagreement.
ACT: Why do you think the conference did not reach an agreement? What were the issues that prevented an agreement?
Kidd: I don’t think that there was any one set of issues. I think the answer to this question is actually very simple and straightforward: there was no consensus amongst a wide range of states on a wide range of issues for an outcome document. There were 13 different paragraphs that were in dispute when the conference ended. Many of these paragraphs had to do with Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), the Transfer Control Initiative, and other issues.
Again, the reason [why no outcome document was reached] was that large segments of the international community and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) wanted to focus on the items that were not agreed upon in 2001. It was an opportunity lost. None of the things that would really have addressed the illicit trade—talking about import/export control regimes (which we all agreed to do), talking about putting laws in place to criminalize illicit possession, or talking about establishing strong end-user certification processes—were discussed in great detail. Instead, a lot of the energy went into items that the states had not agreed upon in 2001. And there was no indication that they were going to agree upon them in 2006.
ACT: Why do you think that some of the countries wanted to revisit the issues from the 2001 conference?
Kidd: I can’t really comment on the motives of other states. But if I was going to say anything, it’s that a large number of states find it a lot easier to talk than to do. If you look at the record of implementation of the Program of Action, the United States has, we would say, the best record of implementing the Program of Action. In fact, we are one of only nine countries that have moved in all areas of the Program of Action.
What about the other 140 countries? Rather than do the hard thing—in terms of legislation, law enforcement, establishment of control regimes, and functioning government process—it’s a lot easier to go to the United Nations, give a speech, and go home.
ACT: Would you explain to our readers what you meant by “import/export control regimes?”
Kidd: In the case of the United States, it’s our comprehensive set of laws as well as international commitments in their totality that provide a system for regulating the export of munitions of all types, small arms and light weapons in particular. There’s the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the  Arms Export Control Act, appropriate domestic legislation, and of course the commitments such as the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which collectively create a regime.
The United States, we would argue, has the best set of laws and the widest array of meaningful commitments of any country. We take a cradle-to-grave approach for all of our munitions, and we claim universality on any U.S. citizen and any munition involved in the trade. Very few other countries do that.
ACT: How would the Transfer Control Initiative fit into this set of U.S. commitments?
Kidd: The Transfer Control Initiative is a reflection of current U.S. practice. That’s why we were able to support it.
ACT: Some have contended that the biggest sticking point at the conference was that the United States refused to agree on follow-up issues, such as setting dates for additional review conferences or a roadmap for future work on the Program of Action. Did this refusal hold back progress?
Kidd: Those who say that have a caveat. They caveat it within the context of the United Nations system.
The United States has agreed to follow-up. We back that follow-up commitment with dedicated resources, staffing, and diplomatic effort. We have the largest budget in the world to support the destruction of small arms and light weapons. We have a comprehensive set of assistance programs on border training, stockpile security and management, and law enforcement, as well as assistance on a whole array of aspects of the Program of Action. We are going to meet our commitment to the Program of Action and we are going to help others meet their commitments to the Program of Action.
ACT: What about follow-up through the UN system? Why is that different than the U.S. following up on its own national initiatives?
Kidd: We want our follow-up efforts to make a difference.
ACT: Are you contending that they wouldn’t through the UN system?
Kidd: The obligation for follow-up resides with the states themselves. If the states don’t take the action, the UN can’t make them.
ACT: Under what circumstances would you see the possibility for something like the Program of Action to be reviewed again multilaterally?
Kidd: I’m going to have to give you the classic dodge on that because it is a hypothetical question. You used two hypotheticals in that question: “what circumstances” and “possibility.” I’m not going to establish conditions for the next review conference.
ACT: On which small arms issues from this recent conference does the United States believe there is still wide agreement? How should those issues be addressed?
Kidd: I think that there is a growing recognition of the need to take a closer look at who is getting these weapons. I think there is a growing recognition to provide and establish a better end-user certification process for exports. I think there is a growing recognition of enhanced stockpile security and management and a growing recognition that states don’t need massive stockpiles of munitions to guarantee their security. In fact, these stockpiles of legacy munitions and small arms are in many ways a liability, not an asset. I say growing recognition because, unfortunately, it is not as widespread as it should be. We are going to continue to work with states bilaterally and multilaterally using the full diplomatic influence of the United States to ensure that more states do more in those areas.
ACT: Can you identify which countries are resisting progress in these areas?
Kidd: I’m not in the “name-and-shame” game. You can just pull up the reports that countries have submitted, or not submitted, and get a pretty good idea of the states that are not complying with their commitments under the Program of Action.
While there are many states that have the desire to do more, they don’t necessarily have the ability. One of the things that we are most interested in is identifying those states and identifying ways that we can work with them.
Rather than “name-and-shame,” I would like to talk about the activities of the regional secretariat in Nairobi. There are twelve countries in East Africa that have committed to doing more. We have worked with them for a year now and we think there is an opportunity where we can help them do more. There are states of Eastern Europe that were previously proliferators that know that they have less-than-desirable controls in place. They have reached out to us and we have reciprocated with assistance. There are a lot of states that are doing good things. I would like to encourage that and take note of that as opposed to pointing a finger at those who are not.
ACT: When you say that some don’t have the ability, are you referring more to financial resources, bureaucratic resources, or control regimes themselves?
Kidd: I would say all of those to varying degrees in different countries. In some countries, it is simply a matter of [lacking] financial resources to implement existing commitments. In others, it’s everything from [lacking] appropriate legislation, government bureaucracies, and, indeed, a culture of good governance. The issue of small arms and light weapons and domestic violence is a good governance issue, including the enforcement of existing laws. There’s a whole range of countries that have great laws on the books or have recently passed legislation that would, at its surface, be very encouraging. Now the question is: are they enforcing them?
ACT: If the review conference had been able to produce a final agreement, what specific provisions would the United States have liked to have seen adopted?
Kidd: What we wish would have happened was that there would have been a consensus achieved on a very short, focused document, where all states reaffirmed their commitment to the Program of Action. That took place, but it was implied. It was in some of the opening paragraphs of the draft document, which was not agreed to.
There were things that did make it into the [draft] document that we worked very hard for. We changed all references to “end-user certificates” to references to “end-user certification process.” We also were able to insert references to enforcement. A lot of countries have committed to doing things, but they haven’t put in place an enforcement mechanism. We were pleased with those two developments, which we thought were positive improvements that would have strengthened implementation. That’s what we were there to do: strengthen implementation.
There was also cooperation and assistance. We would have liked to have seen more. We tried to get that and would have liked to have seen some focused activity there. We, in this office, have been frustrated that states that have made very strong verbal pronouncements about positions related to the small arms and light weapons Program of Action and have a clear need for assistance don’t articulate their need in a way that we can provide support. In other words, they just simply don’t ask. They don’t have a project proposal, they don’t have a program, and they don’t have a coherent structure in place to receive and manage assistance. We would have liked to have seen more on that.
ACT: Is there an assessment of how much overall assistance has been provided since the Program of Action was adopted?
Kidd: Not that I’m aware of. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research has done a study that we provided a little financial support for. We also are looking at working with the Small Arms Survey in Geneva.
The world needs a more comprehensive understanding, not just of small arms and light weapons, but of the entire issue of conventional weapons. In the 1980’s there were [around 200] Warsaw Pact divisions. Those divisions have gone away, but their ammunition hasn’t. Where is that ammunition? Where are those weapons? Collectively, the world needs a better understanding of that. We are trying to put a little bit of money into projects that will help us get to that understanding.
ACT: At the conference, there was disagreement on language in the draft text relating to transfers of small arms to nonstate actors. The United States took the position that there shouldn’t be a ban on transfers to nonstate actors because such a ban might hurt groups in the world trying to stand up against oppressive regimes. But there is also the problem of illicit small arms and light weapons getting into the hands of other nonstate actors, such as terrorist groups. What type of policy can address both of those problems?
Kidd: Implement the commitments made in the Program of Action. I have to say that this was one of the most dysfunctional debates of the entire process. The issue is responsible end-use. In order to ensure that weapons go to responsible end users, you need all the things that were called for in the Program of Action: arms export control laws, enforcement, brokering, and end-user certification. If all of those things are in place, the debate about nonstate actors is moot.
Conversely, if you had an internationally, legally-binding treaty that said there will be no transfers to nonstate actors, what practical mechanisms would be required to enforce that treaty? It would be arms export control regimes. It would be laws on brokering. It would be laws on end-user certification. There was a significant disconnect [at the conference] between policy posturing and practical, focused implementation.
There were a couple of states that spoke very strongly about nonstate actors: states with a record of corrupt government officials, states whose own officials were providing weapons to nonstate actors that were then using them against the state, and states that had rejected very generous offers for international assistance to secure their stockpiles. They were talking about nonstate actors and being praised by members of civil society. Humanitarian organizations were praising states who had failed miserably in the implementation of the Program of Action simply because they were making remarks on the floor of the United Nations.
If [governments] want to address the issue of nonstate actors then implement the Program of Action.
ACT: So the issue of nonstate actors would no longer be a concern if the program’s measures were implemented?
Kidd: Once those things are in place and states have a rigorous system for reviewing exports and taking ownership for their decisions, this problem will be significantly reduced.
What’s causing the problem is lack of effective implementation mechanisms, where a state will get a faxed end-user certificate from colonel so-and-so or from army so-and-so, and, without checking or doing a [proper] review, they just export the weapons. The colonel might not exist. The army might not exist. All that happens is that [the weapons] are immediately diverted. It’s not a matter of state policy; it’s a matter of state regulation and enforcement.
ACT: At the start of the conference, the United States announced its desire to produce concrete results and not just dates for more review conferences. But on the issue of transfer controls, something that many states placed high importance on, the U.S. delegation said that it wouldn’t accept any formal agreement or negations—just discussion of the issue. Why didn’t the United States want to get more formal moves on transfer controls at the conference?
Kidd: I’m not quite sure that’s the appropriate characterization of the U.S. position. We were supportive of the efforts on transfer controls throughout the process. We were very concerned about some of the deals being cut to keep transfer controls in [the draft document]. Many provisions that we would have liked were being weakened in order to get a deal with some of the countries that were holding out on transfer controls.
ACT: Could you list some of the provisions that were being cut that you would have liked to have seen stay in there?
Kidd: We were concerned about some of the terminology on MANPADS.
The United Nations has 6,500 or so different mandates. It simply can’t manage all of them. The secretary-general has said no new mandates that are not funded. We don’t think there’s a need for a process that leads to a legally binding treaty on transfer controls, and neither did the United Kingdom. They didn’t say it was a treaty. You’re not going to have formal negotiations on something like this.
ACT: As you know, thousands of Americans flooded the United Nations with letters before the conference saying that they were worried that the conference would take away their gun rights. Was there a valid worry that the Small Arms Review Conference was going to intrude on the Second Amendment?
Kidd: You are asking me to comment on the perceptions of thousands of Americans that wrote in, while there are equally thousands of Americans that didn’t write in. I can’t comment on those perceptions. I will just say that it was a U.S. policy position that we would not accept an outcome, or participate in a process, that would have curtailed U.S. Second Amendment rights. I think that it was well-understood by other participants. That position was protected during the negotiations.
ACT: One of the obvious hurdles that the conference faced was that, in order to get a final document, there had to be consensus from all member states. Many observers, including the conference’s president, Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, said that the consensus requirement led to a draft agreement that, even if it had been passed, would have been very watered-down. Was it better to have no agreement than a weak agreement?
Kidd: The most desirable and appropriate outcome would have been a short, focused agreement that reaffirmed what was agreed upon [in 2001]. Again, the explanation that you just provided is an explanation given by organizations and countries that wanted to focus on disagreement as opposed to agreement. I think a short, focused document would have been the best possible outcome. 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.
ACT: In light of the Review Conference’s demise, what are your expectations for the meeting of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly this fall? Will the United States seek any action on small arms at that forum?
Kidd: I’m not sure I would use the word “demise.” The conference ran its course, and it had its outcome. In the First Committee, there are traditionally a range of agenda items and resolutions, and the United States is an active participant in that negotiating process. Based on the content of those resolutions, we will either support them or not support them. I don’t want to prejudice the outcome of the First Committee. I’ll just say we’re an active participant and we’re ready to work with other countries. One of the things that we’re going to be doing in the First Committee is talking about MANPADS. MANPADS are an item of special concern to the United States, and the international community can and should do more to address the particular threat posed by MANPADS.
ACT: What types of measures would the United States like to bring to the table in the First Committee to address the problem of MANPADS?
Kidd: I don’t think there’s anything new. You can look at what we’ve been talking about in other multilateral forums. We would like a universalization of the Wassenaar Arrangement [guidelines on MANPADS], more work on cooperation assistance, and more focus on what countries really need. There are certain countries that are holding tens of thousands of first- or second-generation MANPADS that are not really effective against military aircraft but are extremely dangerous for civilian aircraft. We need to get countries to do the right thing and reduce their stockpiles of those.
ACT: Recently, the United Kingdom and six other countries proposed studying the feasibility of an arms trade treaty. Does the United States support looking in to such a proposal?
Kidd: Right now, we’ve been talking closely with the United Kingdom about what we think is the appropriate way to proceed or not proceed in this activity. We have a number of concerns that we have raised with them and continue to raise with them. In many ways, an arms trade treaty reflects current U.S. practice. But, similarly, we have some concerns about that provision and are not strongly supportive at this point. We’re working with the United Kingdom, but we have a fair degree of skepticism about where this is going to lead.
ACT: Do you think the United States got a bad rap, overall, for its work at the conference?
Kidd: I’m reluctant to comment on perceptions that others might or might not have. I would say that the key issue is implementation of the Program of Action, and there is no state that has a better record of implementation of the Program of Action than the United States of America. At the end of the day, what matters is implementation. The United States is very comfortable to subjecting our implementation to the critique or comparison of any other state or by any organization.
ACT: Are there any other thoughts on the Small Arms Review Conference or U.S. small arms policy that you would like to share with us that we didn’t touch upon?
Kidd: What happened in New York was exactly what we said was going to happen for a year leading up to the conference. We said there’s not enough time available and that we must focus on the original program of action. You can check my record of remarks at a range of venues leading up to the conference. Some states, NGOs, and others either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear [the U.S. message].
We originally had six working days and those were cut in half due to the length of the remarks, the additional events, the insertions, etc. The process simply could not bear that.
ACT: How close do you think the conference came to producing the short, focused outcome document the United States was looking for?
Kidd: I honestly don’t know. There were some states that had not revealed their final negotiating positions when the conference had ended.
ACT: What would be your grade for implementation of the Program of Action?
Kidd: I’m not in a position to give grades. I would say that the United States gets a grade of “A.” By our count, eight other states [would, too]. We’ve got 140 states that need room for improvement. Even states that have done a lot can continue to do what they’re doing, and do more.
ACT: Thank you.