Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 3

Editorial: What are we doing here? The reasons for a review conference

Allison Pytlak

25 June 2018

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There is one question that cuts through all issues raised during the first week of the Third Review Conference to the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA): what are we doing here? As the consultations on the second draft outcome document unfolded over the second half of last week, this salient question emerged along with others: what are states seeking to accomplish at the Review Conference (RevCon)? What do they have the responsibility to address?

The subject of the RevCon’s mandate has been raised in connection with many topics: the extent to which gender and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are included in the outcome document; efforts to address ammunition; and how to account for emerging technology, which changes the nature of production, marking, and tracing in both positive and negative ways.  

A large number of delegations from multiple regions view this conference as an opportunity to strengthen the UNPoA and its implementation and some, such as the Netherlands, Ghana, Ireland, and CARICOM were outspoken on that point during consultations on the draft outcome document. They have pointed to the language in the instrument and from the outcome document of the Sixth Biennial Meeting of States that allows for the RevCon to go beyond simply reviewing progress made and also consider additional steps that will reinforce and complement the language of the UNPoA, such as through other processes, as with ammunition, or through action points and commitments for states in the outcome document.

Fewer countries favour limiting the RevCon to an assessment of “progress made”, in the words of one country, on UNPoA implementation.  Among the states advocating this perspective are some unusual bedfellows, like the US and Iran. Given the visible animosity between the two countries, yet their similar aspirations for this conference, each may have an interest in allowing the other to push for a harder line and then face backlash from other member states.

The two approaches are perhaps most visible in discussion around topics such as gender and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is generally strong and widespread support for including and maintaining the current references to both of these subjects, however some questions were raised about the extent to which these references are relevant to the UNPoA. For example, one state acknowledged that it agrees with the goal of referencing the gendered impact of small arms and light weapons but feels that ssome of the references may not be appropriate or related to implementing the UNPoA. It also questioned the logic of ensuring equal participation of women, noting that it implies a “50-50 split” between men and women that it doesn’t see as necessary. Another reminded other states that the proposals on gender and the SDGs are valid and noble, but they change the balance and nature of the instrument and do not relate directly to the mandate of the RevCon. One delegation is concerned that some of the references in the draft outcome document that would lead to trainings or laws on gender-based violence (GBV), and that this is not the space to be addressing the issue of GBV beyond acknowledging the relationship it has with small arms and light weapons. The same state made a similar point about not duplicating commitments made elsewhere on the SDGs. Given the widespread support for maintaining references on both topics it is hoped that they will continue to appear in the third draft outcome document, released on Sunday, but it is troubling to see resistance to them. Including them helps to break down silos and connect agendas, and recognises that the challenges of development, gender equality, and gender-based armed violence require holistic solutions.  

Another, slightly less visible, division is around the treatment of various technologies such as 3D printing, and polymer and modular weapons. At present these are all named in the draft outcome document, but there has been some pushback from a few states about doing so explicitly and concern expressed primarily by developing states that the measures in the document will inhibit their access to technology, particularly with respect to 3D printing, as was noted explicitly by one country.  A proposal has been made to consider possible elements for a guidance document on implementation of the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), taking into account new technological developments, such as polymer and modular weapons, to consider adoption of it at the Seventh Biennial Meeting of States in 2020. While being overly specific in naming these technologies could result in leaving out other technologies that are of concern, to not take note of the changing technological landscape risks rendering the UNPoA out of date.

The second version of the draft outcome document proposes a schedule of future meetings, some of which will focus on specific issues or topics in order to make them relevant and productive. Yet this too received some resistance from those states that are taking a limited view of the RevCon; one of which warned against a “proliferation of meetings”. Certainly, the calendar of meetings on disarmament and arms control issues is a full one but the proposals would move away from meeting just for the sake of meeting and instead focus discussion on precise subjects that are of concern to very many member states, and utilise time effectively.

As states turn to a new draft of the outcome document this week, the two perspectives on the mandate and value of this RevCon will be tested further. Agreeing a progressive outcome document that furthers the impact of the UNPoA has proved difficult in the past, given that it must be adopted by consensus, even if there is a majority view in many areas.  Those who would like to see the instrument continue to be relevant and viable will need to be vocal and proactive; all will need to be constructive.

Why is it important to get this right? “The decisions that governments make here this week will affect my future, and all young people around the world,” said Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida said during her statement to the conference. “Please don’t let us down.”