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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 49, August 2000

The UN and the Small Arms Crisis: Preparing to Meet the Challenge
By Mitsuro Donowaki


It was only from around 1992 that the disastrous effects of the excessive availability of small arms and light weapons came to draw the attention of international community. In that year the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that in Somalia, which had a population of seven million, one million people had already died in the internal war being fought mostly with small arms and light weapons. In 1993, the President of Mali requested the Secretary General of the United Nations to assist him in collecting weapons widely circulating in his country even one year after a cease-fire of a civil war. In Angola, after the elections held in September 1992, UNITA forces resumed their military struggle against the MPLA, and by 1994, when a ceasefire was agreed, another 500,000 Angolans were thought to have died through combat or war-induced starvation. Small arms and light weapons also contributed to the slaughter of an estimated 500,000 civilians in Rwanda in 1994. Such devastating effects were not limited to the African continent. Similar conflicts were taking place in the former Yugoslavia, Central America and in Afghanistan for example. Clearly, there was a need for the international community to seriously address these problems, and the UN Secretary-General made an appeal to this effect in his "Supplement to the Agenda for Peace" in 1995.

The UN Panel on Small Arms

It was under such circumstances that the UN Secretary-General was requested, by General Assembly resolution 50/70 B of December 12, 1995, introduced by Japan and others, to prepare a report with the assistance of a Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms to be appointed by him on three subjects, namely (i) on the types of weapons actually being used in conflicts dealt with by the United Nations, (ii) on the nature and causes of the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfers of such weapons, and (iii) on the ways and means to "prevent" and "reduce" such accumulation and transfers. Obviously, the problem of small arms and light weapons had to be taken up as a disarmament issue, and the First Committee of the General Assembly was the UN body to deal with such disarmament issues.

The Panel, consisting of sixteen governmental experts equitably representing all regions of the world, of which I served as the chair, worked from May 1996 to July 1997, holding three formal sessions in New York and three regional workshops in Pretoria, San Salvador, and Kathmandu. The Panel received briefings from over seventy representatives of academia and civil society as well as governmental officials dealing with the problems in various affected regions of the world. The Panel's report, submitted to the General Assembly by the Secretary-General (A/52/298), was endorsed (resolution 52/38 J) on December 9, 1997, and has become one of the founding documents on the question of small arms.

The report contained over a dozen paragraphs (Paragraphs 62 to 77) describing regional realities, as well as three appeals and calls, including as annexes, received at the regional workshops. As far as Asia was concerned, only South Asia figured as the particular sub-region requiring attention, and it was recognized that the highest priority there was to put an end to the civil war in Afghanistan.

The Panel's Recommendations

As was mandated to the Panel (UNGA resolution 50/70 B), the solution to the problem was to be sought through the two-pronged approach of "reducing" the already excessive accumulations and transfers of such weapons in the affected regions, and "preventing" such excessive accumulation and transfers from occurring, or recurring in the future.

Guidelines to Peace Negotiators and Peace Keepers

With respect to the "reduction" measures, an important recommendation was for the development of guidelines to assist peace negotiators and peacekeeping missions in planning and carrying out the disarmament of former combatants, the collection and destruction of weapons and so forth. This recommendation stemmed from the realization that the lack of clear guidelines in peace agreements and the mandates of peacekeeping missions often resulted in the aggravation of the situation in post-conflict regions (Paragraph 79 (d)).

Proportional and Integrated Approach to Security and Development

Another important reduction measure recommended by the Panel was the so-called "proportional and integrated approach to security and development" (Paragraphs 79 (a) and (b)). This was because, according to the findings of the Secretary-General's Advisory Missions sent to Mali and its neighboring nations in 1994 and 1995, people living in post-conflict regions would not give up their weapons unless the security of their lives and property were to be adequately guaranteed by local authorities. What is really needed in such a situation is a comprehensive approach on the part of donor nations to assist the affected nations to establish adequate police, customs and border control systems and good governance, and to overcome economic and developmental problems.

Prevention Measures

As to measures to "prevent" the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfers of such weapons, the Panel's report recommended all states to exercise restraint in the export of the surplus of such weapons and to consider the possibility of the destruction of such weapons (Paragraph 80(e)), for example. Also, the secure safeguarding of such weapons at storage facilities was recommended (Paragraph 80(f)).

An International Conference on Illicit Trafficking in All Its Aspects

However, since the eradication of the illicit trafficking of such weapons appeared to be what was needed the most, the report recommended that the UN "consider the possibility of convening of an international conference on the illicit arms trade in all its aspects, based on the issues identified in the present report" (Paragraph 80(k)). It was in response to this last recommendation that the General Assembly subsequently decided (see below) to convene the United Nations conference in 2001. The term "on the illicit arms trade" in the title of the conference was changed to "on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons", but the expression "in all its aspects" was retained. I will come back to this point later on, but, before doing so, let me quickly review what went on after the Panel's report was released.

The UN Group on Small Arms

When endorsing the report of the Panel, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to prepare another report, with the assistance of a new Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (i) on the progress being made in implementing the recommendations of the Panel, and (ii) on further actions recommended to be taken. The follow-up Group appointed by the Secretary-General, again chaired by myself, consisted of twenty-three governmental experts as compared to sixteen of the previous Panel, reflecting the growing interest of the international community. The Asian region was represented by governmental experts from China, Iran, Japan, Singapore and Sri Lanka, again chaired by myself. The Group worked from May 1998 until July 1999, met for official sessions twice in New York and once in Geneva, and held two workshops in Tokyo and one in Geneva. Meanwhile, in December 1998, the General Assembly decided (by resolution 53/77 E of December 4) to convene, no later than 2001, an "international conference on illicit arms trade in all its aspects", and requested the same follow-up Group to prepare its recommendations on the objective, scope and agenda of the conference.

The Group's report was completed in July 1999, was submitted to the General Assembly by the Secretary-General (A/54/258), and was endorsed by it (resolution 54/54/ V of December 15, 1999). The report contains three main sections, one reporting on progress made in implementing the recommendations of the previous Panel's report, one containing new recommendations for further actions, and one containing recommendations related to the conference.

Progress Made

The Group noted that in the last few years there has been a surge of initiatives related to small arms and light weapons at all levels - international, regional and national, as well as governmental and non-governmental. Some of the initiatives were stimulated by the Panel's recommendations, while others, like the efforts made by Organization of American States (OAS) in signing the firearms convention in November 1997, were parallel initiatives reinforcing the recommendations of the Panel. It should be admitted, however, that few initiatives have been taken in the Asian region so far except for the Jakarta seminar held in May this year, and the June 2000 workshop in Tokyo. Overall, the Group was satisfied that significant progress was being made in implementing most of the recommendations of the Panel's report.

Progress on Guidelines

For example, the recommendation to formulate guidelines for peace negotiators and peacekeeping missions in addressing the problems of disarmament, demobilization, and re-integration of former combatants (DDR) is now being carried out in many ways. The Lessons Learned Unit of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations of the United Nations has been addressing the subject. Malaysia raised the matter during its Security Council presidency, issuing a presidential statement on July 8, 1999 (S/PRST/1999/21). In February 2000, responding to the request contained in this statement, the Secretary-General prepared a report entitled "The Role of United Nations in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration" (S/2000/101).

Progress on a Proportional and Integrated Approach

The so-called "proportional and integrated approach to security and development" was an issue hotly debated in the Group's meetings. This contentiousness was partly due to the absence of its internationally agreed definition. Paragraphs 59 to 61 of the report represent a consensus view of the Group on this point. The report also noted that this approach was adopted by the UN with respect to Mali and neighboring countries, and that this approach was explicitly endorsed by the European Union and most major donor countries (Paragraphs 62 to 64).

The Group's New Recommendations

The report made twenty-seven new recommendations for further actions. A number of improvements and fine-tuning have been made to the Panel's recommendations. In contrast to the Panel's report, the new report does not make distinction between "reduction" measures and "prevention" measures, on the grounds that they are so closely inter-related.

The report recommends, for example, that the UN make greater efforts "to extend as appropriate the proportional and integrated approach to security and development" (Paragraph 97) and "to support all appropriate post-conflict programmes related to disarmament, demobilization and re-integration, such as those on the disposal and destruction of weapons" (Paragraph 98). States in a position to do so are recommended to assist other states in their efforts to collect and safeguard weapons, and to destroy some of those weapons (Paragraph 111).

Other recommendations provide evidence of a subtle but healthy evolution of thinking from the report of the Panel to that of the Group. The Panel urged all states to "exercise restraint with respect to the transfer" of the surplus of small arms and light weapons (Paragraph 80(e)). The Group urges that all states exercise "the utmost restraint in the transfers of small arms and light weapons and ammunitions to areas in which there are ongoing conflicts" (Paragraph 109). The Panel recommended that states should have adequate laws and regulations in place regarding the possession and transfer of small arms and light weapons (Paragraph 80(c)). The Group recommends that the production, export, import, transit, or re-transfer of such weapons be effectively controlled under such laws and regulations (Paragraph 113).

The Group's Recommendations and the UN Conference

What do all these recommendations of the Group's report amount to? Are they expected to be considered by the UN conference next year? Are all of them related to "illicit trade" in its strict sense?

First of all, it is important to stress candidly that these were the recommendations the Group of Governmental Experts representing what the P5 states and all the regions of the world could come up with by way of a consensus. They may, thus, constitute a set of lowest common denominators, but if you study them carefully, they can be seen to bring together a set of concrete and meaningful measures for the prevention and reduction of the excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfers of small arms and light weapons.

Secondly, I can confirm that it was the wish of the Group that all these recommendations, together with those contained in the previous Panel's report, would be taken into account at the UN conference (Paragraphs 133 and 134).

The answer to third question - are all the recommendations related to the "illicit trade" of small arms and light weapons - is that, in the strict sense of that term, they are not, and that it was precisely for this reason that the words "in all its aspects" were added to the title of next year's conference. For example, the reduction of weapons in the affected regions, or of the surplus of such weapons stockpiled elsewhere, may not be measures directly related to illicit trade, but unless they are effectively reduced, the room for illicit trafficking cannot be effectively curtailed.

Objective and Scope of the 2001 Conference

This brings us to the section of the report containing recommendations on the objective, scope, agenda, etc., of next year's conference. The Group was fully aware that it was up to the Preparatory Committee to make definitive recommendations on these matters. Its suggestions were intended only to serve as a good basis for consideration by the Committee.


According to the Group's report, the objective of the conference is "to develop and strengthen international efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons in all its aspects" (Paragraph 125). To this end, the conference is recommended:

  1. to strengthen or develop norms at the global, regional and national levels that would reinforce and further coordinate efforts to prevent and combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons;
  2. to develop agreed international measures to prevent and combat the illicit trade, and to reduce excessive and destabilizing accumulation and transfers of such weapons particularly in the most affected regions;
  3. to mobilize the political will of the international community in dealing with the issue, and;
  4. to promote responsibility by states with respect to the transfer of such weapons (Paragraph 126).
One further objective of the conference, according to the report, should be to adopt substantive documents, such as an international program of action (Paragraph 128). Whether the substantive documents would include legally binding documents or not was not specified in the Group's report.


On the issue of scope, the Group noted that "much of the trade in small arms and light weapons consists of legal transfers to meet the legitimate needs of states for self defence", and that "the principle of the legitimacy of such legal trade should be respected at the conference" (Paragraph 124). The report proceeds to recommend that not only all types of illicit transfers of such weapons, but also "the illicit manufacture, acquisition, possession, use and storage" of such weapons should be considered at the conference, "since these are closely linked to illicit transfers of such weapons" (Paragraph 131). Furthermore, the conference is recommended to consider "aspects of the issue of legal transfers ... in so far as they are directly related to illicit trafficking and manufacture" of such weapons, and also to consider "all relevant factors leading to the excessive and destabilizing accumulation" of such weapons (Paragraph 132).

Thus, according to the report - adopted unanimously and after extensive deliberation - the objectives and scope of the conference should not be limited to "illicit trade in small arms and light weapons" in its strict sense, but cover a slightly wider range of issues as a result of the addition of the words "in all aspects", used in the title of the conference.

Relationship with Firearms Protocol Negotiations

The title of a conference may not always reflect the reality of its deliberations, but we should be aware that, if we were to stick to the narrow interpretation of the words "illicit trade", we would run the risk of creating possible overlaps between the work of the UN conference next year and the ongoing negotiations on a firearms protocol in Vienna.

Looking back, we may recall that the illicit arms trade has long been a matter of high priority for some nations, particularly for those in Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, when the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms was established in 1991, some of the states in this region were not satisfied with the transparency measures covering only legal transfers of conventional weapons. Colombia, in particular, should be highly commended for taking the initiative as early as 1991 to introduce resolution 46/36 H of the General Assembly on "illicit arms transfers." The resolution pointed out this shortcoming of the Register (Preamble Paragraph 7), and urged the Secretary-General to facilitate the holding of "meetings and seminars at the national, regional and international levels" to promote efforts "to eradicate the illicit traffic in arms" (Operative Paragraph 8(d)).

In a sense, the signing of the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials in November 1997 was a move to meet such wishes of the nations in the hemisphere. Furthermore, the decision of ECOSOC in 1998 to conclude by 2000 a universal Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and with it a supplementary Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition and Other Related Materials, now being negotiated in Austria, can only be taken as a highly encouraging sign of progress.

The question posed to the Panel and Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms was how to avoid unnecessary duplication of works with the Vienna process. As we know, the process leading up to the next year's UN conference was initiated in the First Committee as a disarmament process for the purpose of reducing and preventing the disastrous effects of the excessive accumulation and transfers of the small arms and light weapons. On the other hand, the negotiations in Vienna for a firearms protocol was started by ECOSOC as a law-enforcement process for the purpose of combating transnational organized crimes. The purpose of the UN conference is primarily the mobilization of the political will of nations in agreeing and taking urgent action to tackle the problems of small arms and light weapons. The Vienna negotiations aim at the longer-term objective of formulating a legally binding instrument in order to eradicate illicit manufacture and trade in firearms. In other words, the illicit trade needs to be prohibited by the legal instrument to be concluded in Vienna, but at the same time needs to be acted upon immediately with some measures and steps to be agreed upon at next year's conference. Besides, not only the illicit trade, but also all the other aspects related to it had better to be taken up at the conference. Therefore, the two processes in Vienna and New York are no doubt mutually complimentary and reinforcing to each other. For all these reasons, it is quite appropriate that the next year's UN conference is not just a conference "on illicit trade" but "on illicit trade in all its aspects".

Conclusion: Implications for the Asian Region

The conference is being convened in response to the wish of the international community to deal with this terrible and extensive problem. Most of the affected nations of the world look to the conference as a major starting point in solving the main aspects of the crisis. Most developed nations may be aware that they should be more forthcoming in working together with the affected nations, and also in working out some norms or standards for the restraint of the supply of small arms and light weapons.

For these reasons, it is possible that the conference may attempt to work out some meaningful measures to assist the affected nations in their efforts to cope with the problems of the excessive accumulation and transfers of small arms and light weapons. A number of afflicted nations in the Asian region should indeed benefit from such measures. Other, more fortunate and prosperous nations, like Japan, should be encouraged to extend their full support to such measures.

It is also possible that all the participating states at the conference will be asked to cooperate in developing standards or guidelines for the effective control and restraint of the manufacture and trade of small arms and light weapons. For example, restraint on the transfers of such weapons to the regions of ongoing conflicts, as recommended in the Group's report (Paragraph 109), may be a relatively easy measure to agree upon and include in some of the substantive documents to be adopted by the conference. However, developing a wide range of effective standards and guidelines will require effort and will. As is well known, European Union and OAS have respectively been working on stricter common standards in this field, and they certainly deserve to be highly commended and emulated by other regions. On the other hand, many of the nations in Asia appear somewhat sceptical about such common standards out of concern that their legitimate right for self defense and the maintenance of internal security might be compromised. Also, it is an obvious but pertinent point that Asia is a truly vast region, consisting of several distinct sub-regions with different characteristics and concerns. Under such circumstances, dedicated efforts of all the nations will be called upon in order to identify appropriate, generally applicable standards and guidelines that would contribute to the eradication of illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Let us hope that, collectively, we are bold and clear-minded enough to meet the challenge and bring a success to next year's conference.

Ambassador Mitsuro Donowaki of Japan is the former Chair of the UN Panel and Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms. This paper is adapted from a presentation delivered at the Asian Regional Workshop on Small Arms in Tokyo on June 8, 2000.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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