Tackling the Illicit Small Arms Trade: The Chairman Speaks

Article excerpt

When I was nominated in December 2007 as the chair-designate of the third biennial meeting of states (BMS3),1 my team and I immediately focused on the task of ensuring a successful outcome. This, of course, is the duty of any meeting chair; but in this case, the need for success was acute.

The first two biennial meetings held to consider the implementation of the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) in 2003 and 2005 had been criticized for their lack of tangible results, specifically the absence of an agreed outcome. The 2006 Review Conference for the program had ended, amidst some acrimony, with no substantive agreement of any kind.

Small arms and light weapons are the instruments of choice in crime and conflict, undermining security, human rights, and social and economic development worldwide.2 It is estimated that armed violence kills more than 740,000 people each year, both directly and indirectly, with approximately two-thirds of these deaths occurring outside war zones. The annual economic costs of armed violence in nonconflict settings (lost productivity due to violent deaths) approaches $100 billion, on a conservative estimate, but could be much higher. In addition to these statistics, one must take account of the costs inflicted on people, societies, and economies as a result of the (often permanent) injuries stemming from armed violence. Although the effects are not evenly distributed, with some regions suffering much more than others, every country is affected to some degree.3

The PoA provided the first global framework for tackling the small arms problem, committing all states to some essential initial steps designed, above all, to curb the supply of illicit small arms and light weapons. Along with certain regional initiatives, it also appears to have encouraged many states to become more transparent in reporting on their small arms exports. Following the 2006 Review Conference impasse, however, there was a risk that the PoA would cease to be taken seriously. The United Nations had established separate processes on illicit brokering, international arms transfers (the Arms Trade Treaty), and surplus ammunition, but a question mark hung over the broader framework. The third biennial meeting, scheduled for July 14-18 at UN headquarters in New York, was not supposed to be a make-or-break event; but in our assessment, another diplomatic stalemate or even an exceptionally weak agreed outcome would have undermined the PoA and slowed or halted global momentum on the small arms issue.

That view was shared by many others. From the beginning of our preparations, we sensed very strong backing from all stakeholders to get the UN small arms process "back on track" with a successful BMS3. Our sense was that unequivocal success required some form of agreed outcome that, along with the meeting discussions, would help to enhance and accelerate the PoA's implementation, not amend it. Another priority for many states was to restore consensus on the process. The PoA itself was adopted in 2001 by consensus, and that was also true of the UN resolutions and meetings devoted to small arms during the following period.

Consensus began to fray, however, in 2005 and 2006 as the UN General Assembly committee that considers arms control and disarmament matters (the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security) registered the first abstentions and negative votes on certain small arms resolutions and decisions. In 2006 and again in 2007, the United States-alone-voted against the UN General Assembly's omnibus resolution on small arms because of its opposition to the convening of a third biennial meeting. The question as to whether the United States would participate, in some form, in the BMS3 was the subject of much speculation during the months preceding the meeting. The possibility, even likelihood, that the United States would not participate was certainly a concern. …