Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 1

Editorial: Keeping the UNPoA relevant

Allison Pytlak

18 June 2018

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In his recently launched disarmament agenda, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres writes of the stagnation in conventional arms control at the global level and notes that the absence of disarmament and arms control at the regional, national and local levels “has been disastrous.” This observation is a good one for states to bear in mind as they convene for the Third Review Conference (RevCon) for the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) on small arms and light weapons.

The UNPoA, agreed upon nearly 20 years ago, has in recent years been criticised as ineffective, too narrowly focused, or out of date.  A review conference is, in theory, an opportunity to tackle such criticisms and ensure the continued relevance of any instrument. There are possibilities for doing so at this RevCon. While an update to the text of the instrument is likely out of the question, member states can use the conference’s outcome document as a space to agree on actions and decisions, or to identify new priorities. This should not be an excuse for overlooking poor implementation of existing commitments, but rather should be used as a way to guarantee that the instrument is also meeting current realities and challenges. The draft outcome document aims to do this in a few key priority areas, which reflect discussions had during a one-week preparatory committee meeting in March, informal consultations throughout the year, and feedback on an earlier draft outcome document.

Emerging technologies

One of these areas is growing concern over modular and polymer firearms, which each pose unique and new challenges for marking practices. A working paper prepared by Austria, Belgium, and Germany for the March meeting outlines the history of governmental concern about these types of weapons, beginning in 2011, pinpoints the specific marking challenges they present, and suggests actions for member states to consider.  The draft outcome document responds to these concerns by suggesting actions in Section II (Implementation Plan) under sub-sections B “marking” and F “implications for the ITI”. It also calls for the negotiation of an annex to the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), between now and the next review conference, to address implications of recent developments in SALW manufacturing, technology, and design, “in particular those relating to the use of polymer in small arms and light weapons manufacture and modular weapons design.” If maintained, this could be one very practical way to keep the UNPoA relevant to current realities.


A shortcoming of the UNPoA as an instrument is its gender-blindness. Over the years there have been steady efforts to correct this, through including more gender-sensitive language into UNPoA conference documentation, national-level programming and policies, focused panel discussions, studies, and efforts to connect small arms with the women, peace, and security agenda. Gender was one of the priority areas identified by the conference president-designate. It has been taken up by member states throughout the preparatory process in relation to many aspects of the issue: acknowledgements around the gendered impact of weapons, women’s participation in disarmament, at all levels; the necessity of sex-disaggregated data; and in support of funding for work in this area. More could be made of challenging the violent masculinities that contribute to small arms proliferation and use. Adopting an outcome document that is inclusive of these elements is a way to solidify support for gender-sensitive small arms control and improve on what is contained in the UNPoA. The current draft has many such references, and we are encouraging states to make use of the guidance provided in the civil society-led Call to Action, to which WILPF has contributed.

Sustainable development

It was not clear during the preparatory committee meeting how the RevCon would seek to solidify the link between the UNPoA and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably target 16.4 on reducing illicit arms flows, and Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment. The draft outcome document makes several suggestions that largely reinforce the synergistic nature of the SDGs and the UNPoA, stressing in particular how reporting and data collection under the latter can be useful to the former. As experts have noted, however, the practicalities around this are complicated. It’s not likely that the RevCon will move beyond outlining a general reinforcement of the relationship between the two and activities already suggested.


All UNPoA meetings inevitably fall into disagreement over the subject of addressing ammunition. The closing moments of the March conference provided a foreshadowing of what can be expected. A really very tiny grouping of less than five countries have for years blocked any linkage of ammunition management and the UNPoA, despite appeals from the majority of countries to the contrary. These appeals are based on national experiences with both conflict and crime. Ghana and Germany published a working paper that identifies three broad areas of work through which states can “establish effective synergies” between the UNPoA and a recent UN General Assembly resolution on ammunition management in ways that are “respectful” of each country’s position on the subject. None of the proposed activities are particularly radical because they seek to strike a balance between all views, but if accepted and incorporated into the outcome document would constitute the first real progress on this issue.

Process ahead

Of course, much can change in two weeks and the draft document will undergo further changes yet. A third version will likely be presented midway through the conference. During the March meeting, governments expressed divergent views about the goals of this RevCon, with some viewing it as an opportunity for change and others wishing to focus more on existing commitments. As well, the outcome document needs to be agreed by consensus, a rule that has caused UNPoA conferences to “fail” before (in 2006), as well as meetings in other disarmament and arms control fora. States that support the more progressive and forward looking elements of this document will need to defend them, and not be cowed by the dissenting views of a small minority.

It must further be remembered that the agreement of an outcome document is a diplomatic exercise and has to be met with—and informed by—action at national and regional levels. There is a danger in seeing such conferences as successful if only they can manage to agree a final document. A working paper from The Netherlands proposes more regular “day to day” actions to assess implementation, such as through reviewing national reports, as a mechanism to improve accountability. Similarly, the section of the draft outcome document that outlines follow-up to the review conference is a helpful response to concerns about the utility and format of UNPoA meetings. One notable suggestion is for the 2020 Biennial Meeting of States to focus on diversion.

In short, there are many ways to keep the UNPoA from stagnating further. But on the whole, much political support is necessary to keep it relevant. If this conference is unable to take up and agree on the solid suggestions that have been put forward, that will signal a failure not of the instrument but of political will of the states preventing progress.