Small Arms Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 6

Editorial: Inside the theatre of the absurd—the final day of RevCon3

Allison Pytlak 

3 July 2018

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In Waiting for Godot, the famous absurdist play, two characters converse across a range of topics while waiting for Godot to arrive. Spoiler alert: Godot never does.

Over the two weeks of the Third Review Conference to the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA), states conversed across a range of topics while waiting for consensus. It never arrived.  Absurdist theatre is characterised by a lack of harmony, being illogical, and for uncertainty—all of which was how the last day of the RevCon felt at many times. The final day’s sessions lasted for a marathon eighteen hours, finally closing business in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was suspended numerous times to allow for consultations; marked by unexpected surprises and developments; and dogged by procedural confusion all of which led many to question when, and how, will this conference end?

In the end, the document adopted is laudable. It includes groundbreaking references to gender-based violence, gender equality in participation, ammunition, and sustainable development. The process to get there, however, was tortuous, due to the intransigence of a handful of delegations who have for years tried to block progress in this and other disarmament forums.

Much of Friday was spent reviewing the fourth draft of the outcome document, an exercise that may have taken longer than planned because of confusion around the numbering of paragraphs due to discrepancy between the version available to delegates versus updates being tracked by the conference president, Ambassador Brunet. By the time the President, put forward the fifth and final version in the late afternoon, there were only three major outstanding issues with significant differences in opinion: ammunition, illegal armed groups, and referencing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Draft five had two paragraphs relating to ammunition: paragraph 16 of Section I, and paragraph 18 of Section II. The former welcomes the new process launched in the General Assembly to convene a group of governmental experts on surplus ammunition; the latter encourages information exchange among states that apply the UNPoA to ammunition. The United States was the only country to push for a deletion of paragraph 18 (it supports the UN General Assembly process on ammunition, and therefore accepts paragraph 16); while others like Iran had been opposed, it seemed to be more quiet on the issue in the final days of the conference. Including a reference to illegal armed groups was a point pushed mainly by Syria and opposed by a group of countries on the grounds that it is not a term in international law. However, its inclusion in the 2012 outcome document made it challenging to not include now.

Both subjects were discussed extensively in and outside of the conference room over the next few hours, until at last it was announced that the President had heard a compromise had been reached by those discussing ammunition. Ghana, a primary spokesperson for the large group of states in favour of including ammunition in the outcome, read out a lacklustre new paragraph that, if accepted, would replace paragraph 18. The proposal included a vague phrase, “comprehensive application,” meant to denote ammunition, given with the support of Germany.

The proposal fell flat. Mexico stated that it falls “well below” its threshold of acceptability and would prefer the paragraph as presented in draft five. Costa Rica did the same, as did Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, and Brazil. Peru noted that if this version did go through, it did not want to be associated with the paragraph. Other delegations such as Poland, Netherlands, Egypt, and the United Kingdom joined in to support the Ghana proposal, some citing the “late hour” as a reason to do so. Australia proposed adding language that would indicate this issue is not resolved and will be taken up at the next Biennial Meeting of States in 2020. Portugal and India suggested light amendments, while Rwanda and Nigeria voiced unhappiness at the compromise, but were vague about not supporting it. The United States reiterated that it cannot accept paragraph 18 as drafted but Ghana’s new suggestion would be acceptable. Meanwhile, throughout this discussion on the ammunition paragraphs, there was also discussion about the references to illegal armed groups as brought up by Syria. Draft five had introduced amendments on more than one paragraph that were intended as a package to satisfy Syria’s objections and it wanted to know what the status of those was the status of those amendments. Three states spoke in favour of keeping them as presented in draft five but Syria felt the language re-opened old arguments on this.

Faced with an impasse, the session was suspended again for further consultations. When it resumed in formal mode, so as to adopt the outcome document, the US delegation called for a paragraph vote on 16 and 18.

This is highly significant and game changing in the context of the UNPoA. For almost two decades, the desire to preserve unanimity as consensus has meant that states wishing to see ammunition specifically cited in UNPoA conference outcomes have been forced to give up because of the insistence of just one state. Even on Friday, it seemed a few times as if the conference President would overlook their concerns and press ahead, but their persistence and determination made it clear that just as the US would not accept a reference, they would not accept not having one. As Ecuador explained, there seems to be an expectation that “small” countries will always say yes, and go along with the preferences of larger or more powerful countries. But, small countries can also say no. Brazil stated that it has been like negotiating with “a wall” at which various suggestions had been thrown, but with no response and that the states supporting ammunition references have reached their limits of compromise.  For too long, a unanimity interpretation of consensus has propped up a tyranny of the minority that perpetuates inequality in the UN system. The states wanting to see an ammunition reference in the document, because it is an extension of their own practice and reflects the real challenges of small arms violence, would not be refused this year.

In keeping with the unpredictability of the day, the vote was not without its own drama and developments. After spending some time working out on what precisely states were voting (yes to retain? yes to delete?), and waiving relevant rules of procedure that would normally require a notice period, everything appeared to be ready for voting at around midnight.

States voted on paragraph 16, with a result of 63-2-28. It was retained. Then, just before commencing the vote on paragraph 18, Ghana asked if would be possible to suggest an oral amendment to it. It suggested that since the compromise they had proposed a few hours earlier was just that—a compromise with a view to getting consensus—it would prefer now to vote on the version of the paragraph as presented in draft five, the one with the explicit reference to ammunition.  There was confusion about what this meant for the vote—was it still necessary, given that the paragraph the US called for a vote on no longer existed? Should the President have allowed the amendment to go through, or should it have proceeded with the original vote? Was there a need to vote on something that had just been accepted? Amidst this ambiguity, it was decided that it was procedurally sound to vote on the paragraph as included in draft five. The results of the vote were 62-2-29. The US and Israel were the only two voting against; many of the abstentions were from Arab Group countries. The paragraph was retained, including its explicit reference to ammunition—a first for UNPoA conferences.

At Syria’s request, a third vote took place on paragraph 13 of Section I, which refers to the 2030 Agenda. Syria had expressed throughout the conference that there is no connection between the 2030 Agenda and the UNPoA beyond Target 16.4, which seeks to reduce illicit arms flows, and wanted the broader reference removed. The results of this vote were 65-0-25, meaning that the paragraph as drafted was retained.

At last, it seemed that the remainder of the outcome document was ready to be adopted. However, there were yet some final surprises in store for the conference. When the President asked if the conference was ready to adopt the document as a whole, Syria responded to say that, “We do not have consensus on this document.” This sparked a back-and-forth between the two, in which Syria repeated that the document could not be adopted by consensus but was also not calling a vote on it, but seemed to want a vote, while remarking that we are already working in an “illegal manner”.  After several exchanges, the President stated that the document is being adopted, and gaveled on it—signaling that it had been adopted. Syria reacted immediately to say that nothing had been adopted and that its concerns were being overlooked. Iran took the floor to state that it opposes nothing substantive in the document but does take issue with the procedure that had just occurred. The meeting was suspended again, this time for around an hour, during which heated conversations were observed between the President, Syria, and Iran. Other members of the President’s team were consulting with states in the room to identify one that would call for the vote. When the session resumed, the President asked again if Syria would like to call for a vote and it requested a short break to consult for legal advice. It did not call for a vote but expressed again that a vote would be necessary given objections to the document. Shocking many, Syria also said that it would ultimately vote in favour of the document’s adoption because it has no further issues with it. It did so after Madagascar called for a vote on behalf of Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Estonia, and New Zealand.  The document passed 98-0-0. The remainder of the conference was given over to explanations of vote and closing remarks as outlined in our News in Brief. The long, bizarre night formally concluded shortly before 4:00am.

It’s incredible that a country that is using small arms and light weapons, among other nefarious weaponry, to wage war on its citizens continues to have sufficient status and ability within the international system to delay a conference’s conclusion. Some have speculated that Syria’s procedural delaying tactics were done to frustrate the French chair in response to the boycott from France, UK, and US to the Syrian chairpersonship of the Conference on Disarmament recently.

Despite the protracted final days of the RevCon, the meeting yielded several positive developments.

- Concerns about armed gender-based violence, the gendered impacts of small arms, and women’s participation in disarmament are well reflected in the final version of the outcome document. The widespread “gender panic” alluded to by one critic has resulted in a document that builds on gains made in 2012 and 2016 to alleviate the overall gender blindness of the UNPoA. The language of the document will contribute to mainstreaming of gender within small arms control.

- There is a connection between the 2030 Agenda and the UNPoA writ large; and several more actionable references to Target 16.4 throughout the document. This is important because it gives a counterpart within the small arms community to decisions being taken within the development community around leveraging data for indicator monitoring and implementation of actions meant to reduce illicit trafficking of weapons.   

- The inclusion of a specific reference to ammunition is a first and will give precedent to future references. More importantly, it ensures that the document reflects the reality of how many states are applying the UNPoA as well as something that is at the centre of small arms violence. As so many states have said repeatedly over the years, without bullets the guns fall silent.

The outcome document backtracked in some areas; for instance efforts to focus future meetings on specific topics like diversion did not succeed and have been replaced by a call to identify a meeting’s focus in advance. There is no reference to 3D printing, and pushback on using the word “equal” in relation to women’s participation succeeded. The proposed technical annex to the ITI was left out and subsequent efforts to mandate a guidance document were also sidelined, although there is an opening to pursue this issue through a request for a report on the subject by the UN Secretary-General.  There is no reference to either the Arms Trade Treaty or the Firearms Protocol.

As this publication has pointed out before, what matters ultimately is that these commitments are acted upon. The UNPoA is not a legally binding document, and can be criticised for having been ineffective and trapped in time, or poorly implemented. States went to great lengths at this conference to defend and improve it on paper; their actions now, alongside regional organisations and supportive civil society will be what gives life to those words.

The vote sets a good precedent for future work within the UNPoA and beyond. Ghana’s request to vote on language that the vast majority wanted, rather than compromise language, is reminiscent of Guatemala’s similar demand at the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva in August 2016, which ultimately led to the negotiation and adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is incredibly significant that states that have been treated for so long as bystanders in international relations are claiming their rightly deserved space and are speaking truth to power. This is a positive trend that we hope continues across disarmament and arms control forums. 

Note: The adopted version of the outcome document will be published on our website as soon as it is available, along with any explanations of vote that are available electronically.