The 2006 Review Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons: A Study in Frustration

30 April 2007

Natalie Goldring

Opening statements to the General Assembly tend to be more than a little on the dry side, perhaps because the language may have gone through several levels of vetting and editing before receiving the go-ahead from the speaker's government. Watching from the visitor's gallery, high above the proceedings, it's easy to lose focus. Nonetheless, it is important for the governmental representatives to know that civil society is watching. At open sessions of important meetings, such as the First Review Conference of the 2001 Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all its Aspects, representatives of concerned non-governmental organisations take turns sitting in the galleries, to monitor proceedings and ensure that citizens are visibly represented.

The 2006 Review Conference took place in New York from June 26 to July 7, chaired by Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka. Thus it was that on one warm day last June, I was sitting in the General Assembly gallery, beginning to glaze over during the seemingly endless progression of speakers. My attention revived, however, when the Chair recognised the head of the Liberian delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister for International Cooperation and Economic Integration Conmany Wesseh.

Five years earlier, at the first - and ground-breaking - Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in July 2001, Conmany had represented the nongovernmental Centre for Democratic Empowerment. At the time, he was living in the Côte d'Ivoire, having fled Liberia after attempts on his life. In just five years, he had moved from being a nongovernmental representative in exile to his country's Deputy Foreign Minister.

In some ways, Conmany's individual progress can be seen as a metaphor for the international community's progress toward controlling small arms and light weapons (SALW). A coalition involving governments and NGOs has become markedly stronger over the last five years, with substantial gains at international, regional, sub-regional, and national levels. But, as illustrated by the frustrations and failures that attended the 2006 Review Conference, there is still a long way to go.

Despite an undermining strategy by the United States, the 2001 SALW Conference adopted a significant Programme of Action (PoA) that became the established baseline for international work on small arms and light weapons. By contrast, the 2006 Conference became mired in disputes that delayed adoption of an agenda and wrecked any chance of a final document being adopted.

Though the prevailing international political conditions ensured that optimism was not high, the SALW Review Conference had an important job to do. States and civil society had developed numerous proposals for dealing more effectively with the scourge of small arms and light weapons, which can be grouped into three general categories: increasing the transparency of the global weapons trade; improving oversight and tracking; and actually controlling and limiting the trade.

This report provides an overview of the key issues and developments before and during the 2006 Conference and considers how states and civil society can move forward to reduce the human toll that the manufacture and trade in these weapons inflicts worldwide.

Establishing the Baseline in 2001

At the 2001 SALW conference, governments committed themselves to a variety of measures, all framed within the objective to "prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects." The Programme of Action included proposals for national, regional, and global action.[1] Key areas of focus included helping states develop regulatory frameworks to better monitor the production, import, and export of the weapons under consideration; establishing points of contact for each government; setting national and regional standards for weapons transfers; criminalising the illicit manufacture and trade in SALW; establishing a group of experts on marking and tracing weapons; producing regular reports on weapons transfers; and disarming, demobilising, and reintegrating ex-combatants.

The Programme of Action also included a follow-up plan, with biennial meetings to review implementation and a review conference to be held no later than 2006. Other recommendations included funding a study of the feasibility of developing an international instrument on the identification and tracing of illicit small arms and light weapons. The group was unable to reach consensus on several other important issues, including having an international instrument on illicit brokering of small arms and light weapons, prohibiting arms transfers to non-state actors, and controlling civilian possession of small arms and light weapons.

The failure to construct a more substantial Programme of Action was primarily because of US opposition, which led to widespread criticism of the United States at the 2001 Conference. Ambassador John Bolton's bellicose speech at the beginning of that conference had outlined US "redlines" and set the stage for what followed.[2] He indicated that the US government would not accept controls on legal manufacturing or trade in small arms and light weapons, prohibitions on civilian possession of small arms, restrictions of small arms and light weapons transfers to governments, any legally binding instruments, and any mandatory review structure. He also opposed language in the draft Programme of Action that supported the role of nongovernmental organisations.

The US government held firm to virtually all of these positions, which allowed other countries to hide behind the US delegation as it undermined both the comprehensiveness and the content of the final document. This negative role was highlighted by Conference President Ambassador Camilo Reyes Rodriguez of Colombia in his closing statement: "...I must, as President, also express my disappointment over the Conference's inability to agree, due to the concerns of one State, on language recognising the need to establish and maintain controls over private ownership of these deadly weapons and the need for preventing sales of such arms to non-State groups."

Developments between 2001 and 2006

Despite disappointment that the 2001 PoA was not as comprehensive and far-reaching in dealing with SALW as many considered necessary, it did establish important objectives and guidelines for governments to strive towards. Between the adoption of the PoA in 2001 and the 2006 Review, many countries made worthwhile progress at national and regional levels. However, significantly less progress was achieved at the global level. In addition, many of the provisions lacked penalties for those who failed to honour these agreements, which reinforced the sense that such commitments were not legally binding, even if they were politically desirable.

The UN held two biennial Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings of states in the intervening period to evaluate progress on implementing the PoA. These meetings provided a useful opportunity for governments to discuss key issues related to PoA implementation. Moreover, knowing that they would need to report on their activities seemed to help some governments to move forward in practical ways. However, these meetings accomplished little in terms of preparing for the 2006 Review Conference as they were unable to reach consensus on key issues such as the agenda.

A UK-based project called Biting the Bullet[4] published a significant report early in 2006 (known as 'the Red Book'), which assessed implementation of the Programme of Action as "...mixed globally, regionally, nationally, and thematically". [5] According to the Red Book, by the time of its publication, most countries (150) had chosen a national point of contact for implementation of the PoA;[6] 135 states had developed or updated laws and procedures to govern the import of weapons, and 111 covered exports.[7] Fewer than 80 states had controls over the transit and transhipment of small arms and light weapons, with fewer than 40 having specific controls on either brokers or the process of brokering.[8]

The 2006 Review Conference

Prior to the Conference, Rebecca Peters of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) had identified four factors as key determinants of whether the Review Conference would be a success or failure:

  • The lack of progress in the Preparatory Committee meetings in advance of the Conference;
  • Issues related to the scope of the Review Conference;
  • The interpretation of consensus as meaning unanimity;
  • The role of civil society.[9]

Each of these factors played a role in the failure of the Review Conference. The inability of the PrepComs even to agree on an agenda for the Review Conference meant that negotiators were behind schedule before they could get started.

The public discussion of the scope of the Conference may have been on whether there was a mandate to go beyond the Programme of Action agreed in 2001, but the underlying issue was somewhat different. Because the PoA had been agreed by consensus, it was the least common denominator that each delegation would accept. While it had some positive features, as noted above, the agreed measures were not legally binding, and some critical issues such as private ownership of weapons and transfers to non-state actors or groups were not even addressed in the final document.

The impasse in 2006 was exacerbated by Conference President Prasad Kariyawasam's decision to act as if consensus required unanimity, even though the rules of procedure allowed for voting on issues when unanimity failed.[10] Though encouraged to consider taking votes on issues where there was a clear and overwhelming majority in favour, he chose to apply a rigid interpretation of consensus-as-unanimity. This permitted one or a small handful of states to exert a de facto veto over decisions favoured by the rest of the Conference.

Finally, there were ongoing controversies regarding the involvement of civil society. Although 30 NGO representatives were on national delegations,[11] most conference sessions were closed to the hundreds of other NGO representatives who attended the conference.

Disagreements over further substantive questions that have been at the core of discussions of small arms and light weapons for the last decade also contributed to the impasse in 2006. These include:

  • the extent to which there should be a continuing series of review conferences;
  • marking and tracing small arms and light weapons;
  • controlling brokering;
  • the relationship between the arms trade and international human rights and humanitarian law; and
  • dealing with obstructionist organisations and governments.

Dispute over continuing the review process

Though most governments supported a continuing review process, seeing it as providing mechanisms for monitoring progress and providing incentives and leverage for implementation of the PoA, the US government was strongly opposed. It placed particular emphasis on the financial details, pointing out that under current assessments, the United States would be expected to pay 22 cents of each dollar spent on such conferences.[12] (In 2001, the US government had also opposed a review process, but had ultimately conceded this point.)

Ambassador Kariyawasam had engaged in vigorous public and private diplomacy on this issue over several months, with states as well as with civil society, including both pro-control NGOs and gun advocacy groups. In the course of his intensive consultations around the world, he produced various drafts of a possible outcome document, for which he attempted to gain consensus.

Advocates of controlling the trade in SALW had hoped that the conference would produce a final report that would strengthen, elaborate, and extend the Programme of Action, while also agreeing on follow-on mechanisms. None of this happened. In the end, the conference was not even able to agree on a final statement.

Veterans of the 2001 Conference expected the clock to be stopped to provide additional time for a final agreement to be reached. However, exercising such flexibility has become more difficult due to a more stringent application of UN rules governing meetings, including the funding of overtime for translators. Having assessed that the Conference was unlikely to reach consensus if given a few more hours, Kariyawasam decided to follow standard procedures, which provided for the session to end at 6 p.m.

Despite widespread disappointment at this outcome, Kariyawasam was nonetheless praised for his tireless efforts by many observers, as well as UN staff. One UN staff member described him as "extraordinarily accessible, extremely good to work with...a tremendous gentleman."[13]

Marking and tracing

The 2001 Programme of Action included provision for a group of governmental experts to evaluate prospects for marking and tracing SALW.[14] After General Assembly approval of the plan, the resulting Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) held six weeks of meetings during 2004 and 2005. The resulting "Draft International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons" was adopted by the General Assembly in December 2005.

It is regarded as politically, rather than legally, binding, and does not cover ammunition. In addition, this agreement focusses primarily on new weapons production, rather than on the hundreds of millions of weapons already circulating in the world today.[15]

The chief advantage of marking and tracing is to establish weapons biographies - a means of tracking specific weapons from production to their ultimate disposal. If we can trace the sources of weapons, we can also hold responsible individuals, governments, and companies that supply weapons that are subsequently used in human rights abuses and other crimes.

To produce this sort of system, there will have to be agreed international standards, as well as a process for tracking weapons as they cross national borders. This will require that weapons transfers be registered in a way that is transparent to global observers. In turn, countries will have to agree to share the information they obtain.

While these challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable. The United Nations can be a valuable participant in this process. Even so, effective marking and tracing will require many countries to commit to significant changes in how they currently operate.

Though it may lack the legal force and compliance mechanisms (and penalties for non-compliance) associated with treaties, a politically binding agreement represents forward movement in the effort to control small arms and light weapons. And, arguably, progress accomplished with a political agreement can still be substantial. On many of these issues, getting from 'no consensus' to a political agreement may well be more difficult than progressing from political undertakings to legally binding agreements.

Obstructionism

As it had in 2001, the US-based National Rifle Association (NRA) played an inflammatory and obstructionist role in the 2006 Conference. It misrepresented various issues under discussion, helped mobilise supporters from other regions in the world, and claimed credit for various procedural and substantive successes when the Conference collapsed. For example, claiming that UN members would be meeting "to finalise a UN treaty that would strip all citizens of all nations of their rights to self-protection", the NRA website called on its members to "Fire a shot heard 'round the world on the 4th of July".[16] Though the UN was closed, as normal, on July 4, US Independence Day, the NRA bizarrely claimed credit on their website: "After substantial pressure from the NRA, the Conference will not meet tomorrow, July 4!"[17]

Among the issues opposed (and misrepresented) by the NRA were the proposed principles of a global arms trade treaty, which was supported by a cross- section of governments including Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Finland, Jamaica, Kenya and the United Kingdom. In reality, the proposed arms trade treaty would simply help set minimum standards for the global arms trade, and could increase attention on the international human rights and humanitarian implications of this trade. Given the NRA's hyperbole, it's especially ironic that virtually all of the proposed principles and measures that the NRA seems so worried about are already part of US law.

Demand-side restraint

Achieving effective control over the international trade in weapons will require progress on both the supply and demand sides of the equation. Most international activity to date has focussed on supply-side issues. While we need more effective supply-side controls, we also need to focus much more seriously on demand-side issues.

Demand-side restraint can be fostered through a wide range of measures, including ensuring that peoples' basic needs are met, working to resolve conflicts before they become deadly, and preventing easy access to weapons. Unfortunately, as illustrated at the 2006 Conference, the deck is stacked against those favouring controls because selling these weapons is a profitable venture. As with drug dealers, arms dealers are often "pushers", working hard to create markets for their goods and to prevent governments from exercising controls over their actions.

Within the analytic and policy advocacy communities, these demand-side issues are widely recognised as key. However, they have not been addressed well within international institutions to date.

Beyond the Review Conference

Though expressing considerable disappointment at the end of the 2006 Review Conference, diplomats and activists then turned their attention to the First Committee and General Assembly meetings held in October-December.

In fact, even before the end of the Conference, participants were discussing ways forward. For example, before the gavel came down on the Review Conference, Earl Turcotte of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was already handing out announcements of an "Informal, Intersessional Programme of Work", which included a plan for an intersessional meeting in Geneva later in 2007, designed to help move forward the implementation of the Programme of Action. Issues already identified to be addressed include transfer controls on small arms and light weapons, working on global principles to govern transfers, reducing demand for illicit small arms and creating a culture of peace.[18]

Many participants had also decided to prepare resolutions for consideration at the First Committee, in order to ensure continued implementation of the Programme of Action. For example, the SALW resolution in the First Committee was designed to ensure continuation of the review process, calling for the next biennial meeting to review the status of the Programme of Action to be held no later than 2008.[19]

An impressive and extensive partnership of governments and NGOs also succeeded in gaining overwhelming support for a resolution entitled "Toward an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms".[20] While the resolution does not explicitly call for such a treaty, it does propose establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts to consider its feasibility. Following intense negotiations, the resolution was resoundingly adopted by the First Committee. One month later, the General Assembly voted 153-1 in favour of the arms trade treaty resolution, with just 24 abstentions. The United States was the lone opposition vote in both the First Committee and the General Assembly. Major arms exporters, such as China, India and Russia abstained, together with many Arab League states, led by Libya. On the positive side, several Arab League states, including Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and Tunisia, voted in favour, while other major and emerging arms exporters, such as France, Germany and Serbia, also decided to join Britain in supporting the resolution.[21]

The importance of taking this issue forward despite the setbacks of the 2006 SALW Review Conference should not be underestimated. An arms trade treaty would have significant advantages over the current standards, which vary by country and by region. It would set a global standard for a global trade, and would bring international attention to the relationship between the weapons trade, international human rights standards and humanitarian law. Such a treaty would also be an important symbol. Too often, the global trade in weapons is seen as simply another market, valued in dollar or other currency amounts. But weapons are not simply another commodity, to be traded in the same fashion as cars or clothing. The major costs of this trade are measured in human lives, not only in dollars.

Conclusions and Questions for the Future

When Ambassador Kariyawasam addressed the UN First Committee in October 2006 on the outcome of the Review Conference,[22] he was understandably unwilling to label it a failure. However, he criticised the "approach that would limit the Conference to a straitjacket evaluation of the progress made in the implementation of the agreed Programme of Action."[23] It was also notable that in his assessment of the reasons for "disappointment", Kariyawasam's list echoed the challenges identified by Rebecca Peters prior to the Conference. He attributed the inability of the Conference to agree on a final document to several factors, including:

  • the lack of progress at the January 2006 Preparatory Committee meeting;
  • disagreement over the scope of the conference's work;
  • the current "malaise" affecting all multilateral disarmament work;
  • the unwillingness of some countries to compromise, and
  • the stringent definition of consensus as requiring unanimity.[24]

If his conclusions sound familiar, one has only to look to the 2005 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which failed for similar reasons in a similar political environment. And in a further parallel, many advocates of SALW control deemed it better to close the 2006 Conference without a final document than to adopt a document that weakened the 2001 Programme of Action, which some governments (including my own, the United States) would probably have argued should then supersede the agreements in the 2001 Programme of Action.

Rebecca Peters noted just prior to the Conference, "it will take political determination, courage and strategic action if the flood of guns is to be dammed effectively"[25] Unfortunately, while many participants demonstrated significant determination and courage, progress was blocked by a small number of countries with vested financial or political interests in supporting their arms manufacturers or appeasing their gun lobbies.

Are new models necessary?

For the future, many questions remain. One is whether there should be a new model for these meetings. Are such conferences worth the time and money they consume? More than 2000 participants attended the 2006 Review Conference,[26] including representatives of more than 200 nongovernmental organisations.[27] Some might argue that the time and treasure spent on the gathering in New York could have been better spent gathering up and destroying weapons. That said, it is clear that much of the progress on this issue has tended to take place as the international meetings were approaching. This seems to be true whether we are evaluating the role of governments or civil society. In addition, the conferences encourage public attention and presence on this issue, and they probably also result in significantly more press attention than would otherwise be the case.

If governments decide to continue regular meetings, as seems to be likely, one possibility would be to continue to have review meetings, but not to put the focus on getting a consensus outcome such as a final document. Instead, the main focus could be on trouble-shooting and facilitating practical measures and implementation. This would keep up the pressure for national and regional work, since countries would report on their progress in meeting their commitments under the Programme of Action and share information on their experiences and best practices in controlling small arms and light weapons.

Another option would be to continue seeking outcome documents, but to move away from unanimity as the basis for agreement. Based on public statements and conversations with conference participants, much stronger results would likely have been accomplished if the Review Conference had availed itself of the option to vote when it proved impossible to reach consensus.

As other multilateral fora have also experienced, it is extremely difficult - if not impossible - to make much progress within the structure provided for such review conferences as long as consensus is understood to mean unanimity. If unanimity is required, the process will continue to be held hostage by those countries that are least interested in making progress. In that case, one response will be to move more of the policy process to the First Committee and General Assembly, as happened within months of the review conference failure. The problem with that approach is that in the long run, unless the major arms suppliers are on board, such resolutions will have only limited effect.

Notes

[1] UN Document A/CONF.192/15, found at: http://disarmament.un.org/cab/poa.html

[2] John R. Bolton, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, "Plenary Address to the UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons," New York City, July 9, 2001, found at: http://www.state.gov/t/us/rm/janjuly/4038.htm

[3] "Report of the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects," p. 23, found at: http://disarmament.un.org/cab/smallarms/files/aconf192_15.pdf

[4] "Biting the Bullet" is a joint project of International Alert, Saferworld, and the University of Bradford.

[5] "Reviewing Action on Small Arms 2006: Assessing the First Five Years of the Programme of Action," Biting the Bullet, 2006, p. 4. This report is often referred to as the "Red Book."

[6] "Red Book," p. 31.

[7] "Red Book," p. 32.

[8] "Red Book," p. 6.

[9] Rebecca Peters, "Small Arms and Light Weapons: Making the UN Programme of Action Work", Disarmament Diplomacy 82, Spring 2006.

[10] For detailed information on the provision for voting, see: United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, "Rules of Procedure of the Conference," A/CONF.192/2006/RC/5, pp. 7-9, Rules 33-43, found at: http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/pdf/rc.5-e.pdf

[11] Philip Alpers, "Guns and the Pacific - A Wasteful Hiccup at the United Nations," Austral Policy Forum 06-33A, 19 October 2006, found at: http://www.nautilus.org/~rmit/forum-reports/0633a-alpers.html

[12] Conversations with US delegates to the conference, June/July 2006. For full details of each country's assessment for 2006, see "Assessments of Member States' advances to the Working Capital Fund for the biennium 2006-2007 and contributions to the United Nations regular budget for 2006," United Nations Secretariat ST/ADM/SER.B/668, found at: http://www.globalpolicy.org/finance/assessmt/dues2005.pdf

[13] Interview with UN staff member, who preferred not to be named, January 2007.

[14] "Report of the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects," p. 17, found at: http://disarmament.un.org/cab/smallarms/files/aconf192_15.pdf

[15] "Draft International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons," found at: http://disarmament2.un.org/cab/oewg/Report.pdf

[16] "Fire a shot heard 'round the world on the 4th of July," found at: http://www.stopungunban.org/

[17] Found at: http://www.nraila.org/CurrentLegislation/ Read.aspx?ID=2283

[18] "Informal, Intersessional Programme of Work: Announcement by Canada," distributed in final session of small arms review conference on 7 July 2006.

[19] "The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects," A/C.1/61/L.15/Rev.1 (A/RES/61/66), found at http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com06/res/L.15.Rev.1.pdf

[20] "Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms," A/C.1/61/L.55 (A/RES/61/89), found at: http://www.reachingcritical will.org/political/1com/1com06/res/L.55.pdf

[21] For further details and voting figures on the SALW and Arms Trade resolutions, see Jennifer Nordstrom's excellent review, "Cooperation and Cautious Optimism: Report on the 2006 UN First Committee", Disarmament Diplomacy 83, Winter 2006.

[22] Statement of Prasad Kariyawasam, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, October 12, 2006, found at: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com06/statements/ChairSALWoct12.pdf

[23] Kariyawasam statement, p. 1.

[24] Kariyawasam statement, pp. 1-3.

[25] http://www.acronym.org.uk/dd/dd82/82rp.htm

[26] "Major review at United Nations to assess progress made, actions needed to further stem illegal small arms trade," Background release, 20 June 2006, found at: http://www.un.org/News/ Press/docs/2006/dc3027.doc.htm

[27] "List of non-governmental organizations," A/CONF.192/2006/RC/INF/2, found at: http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/pdf/rc.inf.2.pdf

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies and an Adjunct Full Professor in the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She attended the 2006 Review Conference of the 2001 Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons on behalf of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.

© 2007 The Acronym Institute.