Small Arms Monitor Vol. 9, No. 3

Editorial: Trouble ahead?

Allison Pytlak

24 March 2018

Download full edition in PDF

Trouble may be ahead for the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (PoA) when states meet in June 2018 for the instrument’s third review conference (RevCon3). The week of preparatory meetings that concluded on Friday were on the whole very quiet, but indicative of fault lines that may crack further in June.

The subject of ammunition will—once again—be a major source of disagreement. A majority of states made it clear that it’s past time to find a way for the PoA to address ammunition while a minority of others made it clear that this is not up for discussion. Those familiar with the PoA will know that this is not the first time that the subject of ammunition has caused controversy but we are hoping it will be the last. The tone of states wanting to progress action on this seems more resolute and determined than in past PoA meetings. It has also been very constructive. MERCOSUR, for example, has suggested establishing a group of governmental experts to consider the issue, which was supported by some other states. This approach has merit because it would avoid any opening of the PoA text at the review conference but does establish a path forward for further discussion on approaches and methods.  In its final statement on Friday, the United States reminded the room that it continues to oppose any effort to include ammunition in either the PoA or the International Tracing Instrument. While the US has not recently articulated the rationale behind its position, historically its argument has been that it’s too complicated to regulate ammunition. If the US holds to its position on ammunition and blocks any proposal those states pressing for change do the same, then the review conference could heat up.

The conference chair, Ambassador Brunet of France, identified issues that he understands to be the most pressing for discussion in June: diversion, new technologies in illicit manufacturing, and effective coordination in international cooperation and assistance, all of which received ample attention from delegates throughout the week. During his final remarks on Friday, he said that this is not an exhaustive list and we certainly hope it isn't—particularly as it completely overlooks the dozens of references to continue improving gender sensitivity of the PoA. His list of instruments with which the PoA has synergy did include the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), references to which in the outcome document of the Sixth Biennial Meeting of States was highly controversial and challenging to manage. The chair's closing remarks about the importance he attaches to preserving consensus indicate that he may avoid addressing any of these more difficult issues. 

It will be necessary to focus the RevCon in order to make progress in any of the above thematics, but perhaps this is where some of the suggestions made about future working methods could be useful to propel debate forward between RevCon3 and the next meeting. Our News in Brief section has more details on some of these suggestions.

As this editorial goes to print, people across the United States and cities around the world are taking to the streets as part of the student and youth-led “March for our Lives”.  The dynamism and passion of these young people has been remarkable in rallying Americans and others around the cause of gun control following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida and so many other horrific and avoidable massacres before that. When I listen to any of the March leaders speak in interviews, I can’t help but compare their candour and straightforwardness to what we hear in UN conference rooms, and feel increasingly like our discussions there are too far removed from reality, even as they purport to save lives. Finding solutions to the problems caused by small arms and light weapons doesn’t need to be complicated, it just requires less apathy, and more courage and commitment.