Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 5

Editorial: Moving into the final

Allison Pytlak 

29 June 2018

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We have reached the final day of the Third Review Conference (RevCon) for the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA). Much in the way that teams progress through the different stages of the World Cup, helpfully broadcast outside the conference room, certain proposals and priorities have accumulated sufficient “points” and are advancing into new iterations of draft outcome documents. Others have been ousted, and will not move on.

Many of the differences in positions that remain have been foreshadowed since day one.  States spent Wednesday discussing the thornier topics in closed informal meetings; the outputs of these discussions formed the basis of the fourth draft outcome document that was reviewed on Thursday in another informal session.

Disagreement remains over how extensively to reference the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Very many countries have requested to reference the 2030 Agenda in its entirety; a few prefer to only name Target 16.4 given its explicit mention of illicit arms flows. 

This would be shortsighted. In its preamble, the UNPoA takes note of the “wide range of humanitarian and socio-economic consequences” posed by illicit arms, and the threat to “peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability, and sustainable development”. The 2030 Agenda is the other side of that coin, seeking to establish peace, prosperity, and partnership for people and planet. Both are globally negotiated frameworks that give strong mandates for national level implementation. It is important to broaden acknowledgement of the 2030 Agenda in order to fully take advantage of the very many ways in which the two can help the other be fulfilled. There is relevance to Goal 5 on Gender Equality; Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Partnerships; and Goal 17 on Partnerships, to name a few points of connection and the Agenda itself is deliberately integrated and indivisible, in the words of one delegate.  Mainstreaming small arms issues across development agendas, and vice versa, is critical to confronting conflict and armed violence in a holistic and big picture way.

The original positions on ammunition references remain firm and it’s not clear how this divide will be bridged in the end. The fourth draft outcome document makes reference to the separate, General Assembly process on ammunition—which is acceptable to all—and has a second reference encouraging information exchange between member states that apply the provisions of the UNPoA to ammunition. A statement was delivered on behalf of 76 countries on Thursday that urged states to address ammunition management and the regulation of its trade in this outcome document. Immediately afterward, a state that has been a long time opponent of doing so reiterated that its position has not changed.

There have been some upsets during the last two weeks. The proposed technical annex to the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) has been removed, and the acceptance of such has been a big concession from the states that were advocating for it. The annex would have been a mechanism to update the ITI vis-à-vis technological change, but was challenged by those who essentially, do not want to commit to something so specific. The remaining suggestion of a guidance document to take into account new technologies is being challenged—not conceptually, but as something for adoption at the next Biennial Meeting of States in 2020.  Establishing a deadline is a way to ensure accountability in making it happen and guarantee at least some progress toward keeping the UNPoA and ITI current.

An issue somewhat newer to the UNPoA causing division is around the use of the term “illegal armed groups,” which two states want to see included—one indicated that this is a red line for them. Others oppose it; the term “illegal armed groups” is not a characterisation recognised by international law.  

One or two late in the game proposals have come up with the potential to chip away at measures that prevent diversion. One state has asked to delete the word “transport” from the outcome document, currently placed in Section II in reference to preventing diversion and reducing illicit trafficking, on the grounds that this word is not included in the UNPoA.  While the instrument does not explicitly mention the word “transport”, it does nevertheless address it through the concepts of "circulation," "transit," and "trafficking," which are terms used in international customs regulations that refer to transport across territorial jurisdiction. As well, a few states wish to delete references to “end use/end user certification” found twice in the draft outcome document. Language in the UNPoA demonstrates the commitment of states to the concepts of certification and authentication, and should not be undermined.

Given these remaining divisions, it could be a dramatic final match at the RevCon. Except that this is not a game or a sporting event. It is a conference about lives and livelihoods, and preventing human suffering.  Beyond whatever language is eventually agreed and adopted, what will really matter is what happens outside of the UN to put those words into action—in the cities, villages, countries, neighourhoods, and homes afflicted by armed violence.