Small Arms Monitor Vol. 9, No. 2

Editorial: Running on a treadmill

Allison Pytlak

22 March 2018

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The first two days of the Preparatory Committee for the Third UN Review Conference on the Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) were a bit like running on a treadmill—there was a lot of motion, but nothing really moving. Confusion over the thematic clusters of the agenda meant that member states spoke on different subjects, at different times, making it difficult to determine if there is any emerging agreement or direction especially on the priority issues as identified by the conference chair, Ambassador Brunet.

Clearly many member states have come prepared to state their positions and offer views on what they see as important to be taken at the Review Conference in June, and ideas for how to get there. There was no lack of statements on the priority issues such as synergies with other instruments; gender; international cooperation and assistance; and ammunition. Austria, Belgium, and Germany submitted jointly a working paper on effective marking, record-keeping, and tracing of modular and polymer firearms. A growing number of member states are concerned that the PoA and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) are unable to adequately address these types of weapons. The working paper proposes a Group of Governmental Experts to be established in June to work toward an annex to the ITI. The Non-Aligned Movement has put forward a number of concrete suggestions via a working paper, including to establish a Fellowship Programme on Small Arms and Light Weapons for developing countries for training in areas related to the implementation of the PoA. 

Despite the clear appetite from many member states to keep the PoA active and relevant, the method by which that will happen is still unclear. For example, there is widespread acknowledgement of the synergies between the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the goals of the PoA. The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs described the impact of the development agenda on small arms control as a “paradigm shift” in which arms control assistance has become part of official development aid. Yet what will this recongnition translate into? Will it become a line in an outcome document? Will it result in a set of practical recommendations, or reporting requirements? Similarly, a lot of progress has been made in recent years toward gender sensitive implementation of the PoA. A majority of member states expressed support for continuing to improve in this area but how the Review Conference will concretely take it up, is not clear. 

The divergent views about the eventual outcome and purpose of the Review Conference will be a complicating factor. Ireland, for example, said it supports the goal of a political declaration as an outcome in June whereas the United States would like to focus on existing commitments rather than adding any new ones. As decisions must be taken by consensus, as some delegations reminded through their statements, doing anything truly progressive has never been possible and it’s unlikely that there will be sufficient support to actually open up the PoA and make amendments to it.

It’s possible that Wednesday’s informal session enabled the articulation of a path forward but at the time of writing this is unknown, because the session was closed to civil society—even though just prior to being asked to leave, we were “invited” to deliver our interventions. This rather ridiculous scheduling sends a negative message about the value of civil society expertise and involvement in PoA-related activities, despite the wealth of practical recommendations and real-life examples we provide in and out of the conference room. In its intervention, for example, Instituto Sou da Paz explained how the Brazilian experience of cartridge marking has been instrumental in opening up a criminal investigation into the murder of a prominent municipal councilor and human rights defender, and that the Institute’s research has helped reveal some of the misunderstandings that exist about the nature of ammunition diversion, so as to inform new research and improve policies.

These examples, taken from national experience, make the case in an informed and fact-based way that there are benefits to controlling ammunition, which is a perennially thorny and polarising issue at PoA meetings, including this one.  More states spoke in favour of finding a way in June to address ammunition control through the PoA than against doing so, but consensus decision-making may again stifle progress on an obvious loophole.