Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 2

Editorial: What does it take to make the difference?

Allison Pytlak

20 June 2018

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In its statement to the general debate of the Third Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA), the delegation of South Africa noted that this meeting takes place during the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. The theme of the centenary is “Be the legacy” and in many places that are advertising this milestone his well-known words, “It is in your hands to make a difference” can be found.

Throughout the general debate we’ve heard numerous member states urging one another to have ambition, courage, or similar sentiments—all in the hope of making a difference. We’ve also heard startling and yet somehow all too familiar statistics about the impact of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their ammunition on lives and livelihoods. Jamaica, for instance, shared that it witnesses a 23 per cent increase annually in homicide rates, the majority of which are committed through the use of a firearm. Mexico noted that nearly 500 people die daily from homicides with firearms and thousands more suffer indirect effects, most of which occurs in non-conflict zones. India stated that the illicit trade in SALW plays a “pernicious role” in adversely impacting national security along with terrorism, transnational organized crime, drug trafficking, and piracy.

So what does it take to make good on these nice words about making differences? What is the difference that needs to happen?

Over last 17 years the UNPoA has facilitated a good deal of action and activity ranging from the establishment of policy, to destruction of surplus stockpiles, to developing marking and tracing programmes and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI).  None of that should be detracted from. States such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo, Sudan, Cambodia, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, among others, cited the positive impacts that the instrument has led to in a national context: helping to keep the issue on the radar of policymakers at a high level; enabling training, information exchange, or technology transfers; prompting destruction or collection programmes; securing stockpiles.

Yet it has its shortcomings, and the challenge for the review conference is to close the gaps in PoA implementation, and give this instrument viability in the present and the future.

One such shortcoming of the UNPoA is that it is politically and not legally binding. As such, it cannot exist in a vacuum. Other treaties and agreements have come about with the specific purpose of legally complementing the UNPoA at global and regional levels. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the most recent to do so, as New Zealand noted, yet hostility to the ATT on the part of those who do not endorse it has to date prevented those three words from appearing anywhere in a UNPoA document.  This is a hostility rooted in the political, although it’s not entirely impossible to see this from the perspective of Treaty opponents, given the hypocrisy of some ATT states parties. There are however some practical objectives to formalising the “synergy” between these two instruments; harmonising reporting practices and easing reporting burdens is often cited; and also the potential of the ATT to prevent diversion from legal to illicit markets—which is the purview of the UNPoA.

Mandatory reporting, or some review and interaction between states on their reports, could also rejuvenate the UNPoA and promote accountability and implementation. The Small Arms Survey has just published a comprehensive review of national reports submitted under the UNPoA and the ITI between 2012 and 2017.  It reports a general decline in reporting practices from UN member states; the majority of reports are submitted by developed nations and the possibility to match requests for assistance with resources has been underexplored. The call from developing states to improve methods of international cooperation and assistance throughout the general debate has been constant and represents a real area in which improvement could benefit overall UNPoA implementation.

What would also make a difference is for states to not pay lip service to the notion of women’s participation and gendered approaches in disarmament and arms control but to begin acting on these concepts. The Reaching Critical Will website tracks the sex of each person delivering a conference statement and even a quick look demonstrates the extreme gender inequality of this fora, which has worsened since the Preparatory Committee meeting in March. There is a growing number of states that support including language on gender in conference outcome document but only a small group of countries have so far shared examples from their national experience in acting on the language of their statements.

The benefits of correcting gender imbalance in decision-making bodies will influence the policy discourse on small arms. The recognition and participation of women as key stakeholders and experts in political processes related to small arms control, both at the international and national levels, would lead to the adoption of perspectives and policy outcomes that more accurately reflect the highly-gendered dynamics and effects of small arms.

As outlined in our earlier editorial, the draft outcome document is promising in its attempts to fill gaps and adapt to new challenges by establishing new mechanisms or outlining new commitments. Whether or not it stays that way remains to be seen, particularly as states now move into consultations on the draft outcome document and away from the generalities of the preceding days. Many have already shared views on some of the more traditionally controversial topics, such as ammunition, which give a glimpse into the scope and scale of support for and against maintaining such provisions.  If this was not a consensus-based process then undoubtedly proposals related to ammunition, as just one example, would hold. Some states have also expressed reservations about any kind of an “update” for the UNPoA and urge what might be described as a minimalist approach to this conference.

So for those who want to see this conference make a difference, it will require determination, boldness, and not accepting half-measures or watered down solutions. We look forward to seeing what the coming days bring.