Academic journal article Naval War College Review

U.S. Policy on Small Arms and Light Weapons

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

U.S. Policy on Small Arms and Light Weapons

Article excerpt

This article reviews the development of U.S. policy on controlling the proliferation of small arms before, during, and after the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. It chronicles the policy's evolution from the formulations of the William J. Clinton administration to those of its successor. It argues that despite this changing of the guard, the main tenets of the policy have remained largely unchanged, and that the United States has failed to take leadership on this issue, adopting instead a minimalist approach-and correspondingly small expenditures. This policy choice has disappointed allies and partners, as well as large sectors of the nongovernmental community, affecting their views and weakening their confidence that major weapons producers will invest what is necessary to control the spread and misuse of small arms in areas of conflict, where it matters most. In this regard, the article points out aspects of U.S. law and practice that could have offered rallying points and models but were instead obfuscated by U.S. pugnacious rhetoric. This discussion also assesses how the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks largely stalled, rather than stimulated, global progress and suggests that the connection between small arms proliferation and transnational threats, such as terrorism, has not been properly addressed. The article then turns to areas in which active U.S. involvement has, in contrast, proved fertile and yielded concrete results, including proposals aimed at fostering effective and enduring change-measures that, if properly developed and expanded, may offer a viable blueprint for a 2006 UN Review Conference on this issue. The article goes on to weigh the role and resonance of American domestic policies on gun control and to examine how the new national security doctrine is affecting, and will likely affect, the international debate on small arms. Finally, it looks at how the influence of American interest groups and policy circles has shaped and may continue to underpin U.S. perspective and interaction at the multilateral and bilateral levels.


At around midnight on 20 July 2001, the president of the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects "stopped the clock." This action allowed the mammoth, ten-day-long negotiations a chance to hammer out the many controversial issues that, on the very last day of the first global consultation on small arms, were still unresolved.

The UN Conference

At stake were measures to curb the spread and misuse of small arms and light weapons, identified by the United Nations as the weapons of choice in forty-seven out of forty-nine conflicts that had erupted during the preceding decade.2 The massive human toll in lives and livelihoods exacted by assault-rifletoting military forces, militia, and gangs needed a commensurate and global response. As the UN noted, "small arms are responsible for over half a million deaths per year, including three hundred thousand in armed conflict and two hundred thousand more from homicides and suicides."3 However, the document the conference finally delivered-Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects-was heavy on rhetoric and light on actual commitment.4

The primary merits of the conference's outcome resided in the fact that it put the dangers posed by the proliferation and abuse of small arms on governmental radar screens and created a consultative framework for the next five years. Indeed, its most important legacy is that for the first time it framed this issue, which had been long neglected as a minor disarmament topic, in terms beyond those of arsenal reduction and destruction. The conference had sidestepped human rights and international humanitarian law considerations, but the debate would now embrace a wide spectrum of concerns, from intrastate conflict to sexual violence and the devastation of communities. …

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