Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 9, No 1

Editorial: Let's set the stage for real review

Allison Pytlak

19 March 2018

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States meeting this week at the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the Third UN Programme of Action Review Conference are doing to so to set the stage for the instrument’s review conference in June 2018.   It’s been almost two decades since the Programme of Action (PoA) was agreed in 2001; clearly many things have changed, even as others remain the same and unresolved. Striking the right balance between these elements will ensure the instrument’s future relevance and viability, and prevent it from being outdated.

The Sixth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS6) in 2016 was the last formal PoA meeting, and despite procedural hurdles left states in a relatively good place with guidance for Review Conference priorities. Its outcome document takes steps to respond to changes in weapons development and recognized the importance of controlling SALW through throughout their life cycle, from production right through to either destruction or disposal. There were efforts to formalise linkages to other instruments that succeeded in the case of referencing the Sustainable Development Goals, but failed in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) where there is only a very oblique reference to its mere existence, let alone any acknowledgement that the two instruments can complement one another. Ammunition suffered a similar fate—paragraph 9 does not say the word, but references that some states apply relevant provisions of the UNPoA to “material additional to that mentioned in the ITI definition of small arms andlight weapons, while recognizing that other States were of the view that such material was outside the scope of the PoA.”

Gender was such a controversial topic during the original negotiations of the PoA that the word itself does not appear at all, and there is only a passing reference to women in the context of the negative effects of armed violence on “women and elderly”. Research and determined advocacy have helped to change views over time; the 2016 outcome document, for example, referred to gender issues in the context of seeking gender equality and with respect to the need for disaggregated data on gender and the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. In addition, it recognized the different effects of illicit weapons transfers on women, men, girls, and boys, while also calling for increased funding for programs that take those differing effects into account.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go on this. A quick look around the room at any arms-related meeting, whether on conventional weapons or others, will reveal massive gender disparity on government delegations and then of course there is the matter of actually implementing gender-sensitive arms control. The Preparatory Committee overlaps with the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women which means there are a large number of gender experts in New York at the moment whose expertise could be constructively called upon through side events, interventions, or focused meetings with PrepCom delegates.

One constant throughout all PoA-related meetings are the polarising and progress-blocking dynamics induced by consensus-based decision making. As Reaching Critical Will has said in past, the state of affairs induced by consensus-based decision making negates a basic principle of the UN and especially its General Assembly—the sovereign equality of states—by allowing the interest of one or more states to trump the interests of all others.

The coming week is the opportunity to set the stage for what will be discussed in June, and in turn, put into play decisions and recommendations that can improve the PoA. We would urge priority be placed on negotiating through the impasse on “hard” issues like inclusion of ammunition—or some creativity in identifying other, possibly external ways of moving.  One of the first topics on the agenda this week is international cooperation and assistance. Building capacity for lesser-resourced or developing countries is clearly needed but let’s not forget that some donor countries simultaneously providing aid to and transferring weapons to the same countries they are assisting or to other countries in their regions. The PoA, not unlike other instruments, implies through its language a two-tiered structure of compliant, usually developed, nations versus those who are both victims of armed violence but also somewhat implied to be at fault through their inability to prevent diversion and reduce trafficking. This is not fair, and the practices of all should be scrutinised. Relatedly, the rapid rate of technological change in recent years means that the face of SALW problems looks quite different than it did in 2001—for some countries, not all. Accounting for diverse domestic armed violence challenges is very important.

 A final point is that while it’s all well and good to get the words on the paper right, the PrepCom and Review Conference should not be an exercise in word smithing. As Brian Wood on behalf of the International Action Network on Small Arms points out in the following article, there are gaps between commitment and action that require attention.