Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 4

Editorial: The world deserves better than the lowest common denominator 

Allison Pytlak and Ray Acheson

27 June 2018

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It’s not often that applause breaks out at the United Nations, particularly during weapons conferences. But on Monday afternoon, an impassioned plea from a state with a tragic history of bloody civil conflict and violence provoked a visceral response from conference participants. The sincere and unscripted remarks of this country’s representative centred on the necessity of controlling ammunition and reflected the genuine importance that his country attaches to this issue.

It’s well known that the topic of ammunition has been a source of significant disagreement at meetings of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA) for years. This has usually centred on whether or not the word will be included in the negotiated outcome documents, rather than any proposed amendments to the scope of the instrument itself.

Not surprisingly, this is again the situation as the Third Review Conference (RevCon) approaches its final days. The first draft outcome document contained ten explicit references to ammunition; in the most recent version there are only four. Many of the original references pertained to practical activities meant to reduce the easy availability of bullets, lead to safer communities, and reduce violence. Who can argue with that?

Apparently there are some who can. Throughout the RevCon a small group of countries have been vocal about eliminating any reference to the word itself—even those that relate to a new, and separate, UN General Assembly process that will lead to a governmental experts group on surplus ammunition. Efforts to accommodate their concerns have led the proposal of vague euphemisms that, as of Tuesday afternoon, may be palatable to some delegations—but the reverse could also be true. Those that are tired of repeating the same arguments year after year and want to recognise the problem for what it is may find such watered down language unacceptable. Bullets are killing people across the globe. What is a gun without a bullet, asked one frustrated delegation, other than a useless ornament?

Ammunition isn’t the only contentious issue in the draft outcome document. Some states are also questioning the nature of the UNPoA’s relationship to other disarmament and arms control instruments. In this context, a few delegations raised concerns about the inclusion of the call in paragraph 11 of the draft declaration to “consolidate and strengthen effective implementation synergies between the Programme of Action, the International Tracing Instrument and other relevant instruments” to which a state is party. They objected to the phrase “synergies,”, arguing that “coordination” would be a more appropriate term. Others disagreed, and asked the President to retain the concept of synergies.

It seems like a strange and perhaps benign request to change synergies to coordination. However, the ask seems to indicate that certain states do not see these instruments as being interlinked, but instead, as separate agreements that stand on their own.

Synergy stems from the interaction of elements that, when combined, produce an effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements. The UNPoA, the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), as well as the Firearms Protocol, the Arms Trade Treaty, and other regional instruments on small arms, have elements that reinforce and support each other. The same is true with the way these agreements interact with other international treaties, UN resolutions, and our broader body of customary international law. Separately, these instruments offer a piecemeal approach to the challenges of weapons proliferation and use. Taken together, they have a greater chance of advancing human security.

Some of the implementation challenges states face when it comes to their obligations from these instruments could arguably be more efficiently overcome if they are implemented more holistically. Conceptualising these instruments together affords the opportunity to consider the wider context of concern that they are all addressing.

This also relates to the call for the equal participation of women in disarmament and small arms control processes, as well as recognition of gender-based violence as perpetuated by small arms and light weapons. As in the first round of comments on the draft outcome document, two states have argued that gender equality is a “promise we can’t really keep”. One said that it’s too difficult to maintain a 50/50 split and that the call to do so is just “micromanaging”. These two states suggested changing the call for the “full” participation of women, rather than the equal participation. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of states speaking to this issue argued that not only must the outcome document “recognise the need for the equal participation of women and men in disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control processes,” as it does in draft paragraph 13, but it should actually be improved to match the language from the UN General Assembly resolution on Women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, which calls for the “equal, full, and effective participation of both men and women”. Problematic reinforcing of binaries aside, this language is much more appropriate to reality and consistent with the development of internationally agreed language on the participation of women in disarmament, as seen in recent nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Chair’s summaries and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

States further called attention to the fact that gender-based violence is no longer referenced in the section of the draft outcome document addressing future actions (Section II), following statements from some countries that this is irrelevant. It is now being recognised only in the Section I Declaration, which is something akin to a preamble and less action-oriented. It needs to be remembered that gender-based violence is prevalent and must be addressed from multiple directions. Small arms and light weapons have been used to facilitate the spectrum of gender-based violence including sexual violence, femicide, harassment and intimidation, domestic violence, rape, trafficking, forced prostitution, violence against LGBTQIA-identified people, and also the targeting of men on the basis of their being automatically categorised as militants. One state pointed out that if GBV is referenced in the Declaration than the other reference ought to remain as well.

The informal discussions on Monday and Tuesday this week have been increasingly interactive. Unfortunately, the discussions have been informal, which is why in this report we have not been attributing positions to particular governments. However, it is very positive that delegations are posing questions of one another and proposing new language in real time, all of which is being supplemented by bilateral and other discussions taking place outside the conference room. The conference President has encouraged discussion in the room as much as possible however, so that all member states can be aware of each other’s positions. It is evident that there are real efforts among states to understand one another, reach agreement, and also to be frank in questioning the nature of opposition to some proposals; such as was seen in relation the proposal to merely consider a technical annex to the ITI over a six-year period.

Yet there have been concerning signals in the opposite direction too. In reference to ammunition, for example, one delegation made it clear that while inclusion of ammunition references may have the support of the floor, the UNPoA does not take decisions by simple majority—this is a process based on consensus.

It would be refreshing to see states shift away from entrenched red lines that they are sometimes unable to even fully explain. This is particularly true of the states that are experiencing loss of life, human suffering, and the destruction of critical infrastructure due to small arms and light weapons, in some cases at devastating levels. It would also be refreshing to see a move away from a concept of consensus in which unanimity is required. This always results in a lowest common denominator, and means that those with human security at the focus of their efforts end up compromising much more than those who seek to make profits off death and destruction. The UNPoA process should instead treat consensus as it is treated in the UN General Assembly—as an aspiration pursued to bring as many countries along as possible, but not as an effective veto over the betterment of humanity.