Small Arms and Light Weapons: Making the UN Programme of Action work

1 May 2006

Rebecca Peters

A thief shot Miriam Morales shortly after she started work at a kiosk in a San Salvador city park on January 9. A single parent struggling to feed her three children, Morales was left a quadriplegic with no prospect of looking after her family or herself. On January 15, Kapila Arora was shot in the neck during a road rage incident in New Delhi, India. A week later in Barranquilla, Colombia, Rafael Vargas accidentally shot dead his nephew David Galvan while trying to cure his hiccups by scaring him with a revolver. Immediately afterwards, the grief-stricken Vargas turned the gun on himself. On January 23, eight Guatemalan UN peacekeepers were killed and five others injured during an exchange of shots with an armed group in Garamba National Park, in the Ituri district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

These are only a small sample of the estimated fifty- to eighty thousand gun deaths and injuries that occurred just in one month - January - this year. Spinal cords severed, brains blown out, families destroyed, hearts broken. At least 300,000 lives are lost every year to gun violence, one million people injured and countless more traumatised.

January 9, the day Miriam Morales was shot, marked the opening of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) on Small Arms, when UN Member States met at the United Nations in New York to advance their collective efforts to reduce the proliferation and misuse of guns. Or rather, while most Member States hoped to advance that effort, a few sought to restrain it. No prizes for guessing which side prevailed. The tyranny of 'consensus' in the UN small arms process means that even the mildest proposals are blocked by a handful of recalcitrant governments. Thus the two-week PrepCom did not produce the desired outcome of a draft negotiating text or even an agenda for the next meeting.

Governments do recognise gun violence as a serious and global problem. In 2001 they unanimously agreed on the Programme of Action (PoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons, a broad set of recommendations to reduce trafficking, proliferation and misuse of guns (and mortars, grenade launchers, portable anti-tank missiles etc).

In June-July 2006 the PoA will have its first five-year review, so governments and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) will converge on New York once again. Despite the inauspicious start made at the PrepCom, the UN Review Conference on Small Arms will present the best opportunity ever to reduce the annual toll of lives lost to small arms. But it will take political determination, courage and strategic action if the flood of guns is to be dammed effectively.

This article briefly describes the progress made since 2001, before considering the results of the PrepCom and the prospects for the June Review Conference.

Profile of the Problem

The small arms problem comes in many forms. The examples given above illustrate gun violence in conflict zones (DRC), accidents and suicides (Colombia), in street crime (El Salvador) and in disputes where previously law-abiding citizens lose their tempers when they unfortunately happen to be armed (India). Then there are gun assaults and homicides, either instrumental (as in bank robberies) or interpersonal (domestic violence). Millions more people each year suffer from small arms misuse without being shot themselves, as they are intimidated, terrorised, kidnapped or driven from their homes at gunpoint. The easy availability of guns has fuelled the phenomenon of child soldiers and reversed the balance of authority in traditional communities: young men with their guns now wield the greatest power, rather than the elders with their wisdom.

Armed violence is the main factor creating flows of refugees and internally displaced persons, and last year the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation announced that conflict had become the major cause of food emergencies. More human rights violations are perpetrated with guns than with any other kind of weapon; this misuse of guns is committed by ordinary civilians, by individual criminals or organised gangs, and by state security forces, including armies and police.

Apart from the physical and psychological damage to individuals and communities, the proliferation and misuse of small arms can have severe economic impact: by disrupting employment and commercial activity; discouraging and destroying investments; and draining resources from health and criminal justice budgets. The cost can be enormous even in a highly developed country like the United States, where gun violence costs the economy $100 billion every year. In a developing country, the cost is debilitating: in El Salvador, for instance, the cost of gun violence equates to 12.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

There is a crucial difference between small arms and other conventional weapons: unlike tanks and fighter jets, guns are cheap and portable. Their purchase per se is unlikely to place a heavy human or economic burden on a country. The true cost of small arms misuse comes not from the trade itself, but from the productivity lost through the ongoing death and injury these weapons cause, and the costs associated with insecurity.

One of the lessons learned since 2001 is that although guns kill more people than any other weapons of war, most gun deaths occur in countries or contexts unrelated to war. Some 200,000 people are shot dead every year in homicides, while a further 50,000 are victims of gun suicides. The latest conservative estimate of gun deaths in conflict is some 60-90,000 a year, though of course the use of small arms in conflict is indirectly responsible for many more deaths from hunger and disease, as fighting prevents access to livelihoods and healthcare facilities.

The flood of guns is thus a public health, human rights, social and development problem - an issue of human security rather than national or military security. Further, 60 percent of guns are in the hands of civilians. This means there are hundreds of millions of owners, rather than the two hundred or so defence forces that own weapons like bombs or fighter jets.

All these factors make the topic of small arms sit uneasily in the disarmament paradigm of the General Assembly's First Committee. Traditionally disarmament diplomats are accustomed to negotiating about large weapons that are rarely used (though if they were used, the consequences could be catastrophic). Large weapons tend to be gathered together in stockpiles in a limited number of countries, in locations that are known to the governments of those countries. The stockpiles are generally under the control of government forces, so a decision about the weapons made by the government can be implemented by orders down the chain of command.

By comparison, the small arms discussion is sprawling and amorphous, touching on questions of poverty, gender, human rights, humanitarian aid, democratic governance, cultures of violence - and everything in between, like border controls, police training, manufacturing standards… Unsurprisingly, some disarmament negotiators yearn for simpler times when talks about weapons were conducted between big powers and stockpilers, and the conversation could focus on hardware rather than social and bodily harm.

What was agreed in 2001?

The UN Programme of Action on Small Arms commits each Member State to:

  • Establish a national agency (also known as a National Commission) to coordinate the efforts of all relevant departments and organisations working to reduce gun violence in-country;
  • Establish a single Point of Contact through whom information can be shared internationally;
  • Engage with civil society organisations as partners in stopping gun violence;
  • Harmonise policies at regional level and strengthen regional and subregional agreements on control of small arms;
  • Destroy surplus, confiscated or collected weapons;
  • Put in place adequate laws and regulations to prevent illegal manufacture and trafficking in small arms, or their diversion to unauthorised recipients;
  • Assess small arms export applications according to strict national regulations and procedures consistent with the existing responsibilities of States under relevant international law;
  • Ensure that manufacturers mark all weapons adequately for identification and tracing;
  • Ensure that comprehensive and accurate records are kept for as long as possible on the manufacture, holding and transfer of small arms;
  • Identify and prosecute illegal gun producers and traffickers; and
  • Meet regularly to report on progress.

The PoA does not:

  • Mention human rights;
  • Mention the need to regulate small arms in the civilian population;
  • Recognise that the legal market is the original source of the illegal trade;
  • Mention the problem of arms transfers to non-state actors;
  • Mention the misuse of guns by state officials;
  • Define 'adequate laws and regulations' or 'existing responsibilities under relevant international law';
  • Recognise the gendered nature of gun misuse and gun injury;
  • Recognise the need for legally binding instruments on small arms;

Some of these shortcomings reflect the entrenched economic or political interests of certain States - the United States, for example, was particularly visible and intransigent in its refusal to accept any mention of the regulation of guns among civilians or transfers to non-state actors. Others reflect the military mindset often found in conventional disarmament fora. This is in part because the small arms issue was taken up under the UN's disarmament remit rather than the humanitarian, and we have to make the best of it. Encouragingly, some governments have broadened their approach over the past five years, recognising for example that experts in development are just as important to the debate as experts in weaponry.

Progress since 2001

To date, states have made the most progress in implementing the more specific and concrete provisions in the PoA, particularly institutional requirements. For example, by the end of 2005, three-quarters of Member States - 133 - had informed the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs of a designated official Point of Contact on small arms. While many of these have not yet begun functioning, designating them is a positive first step. Half the states have established National Commissions on small arms or other national coordination mechanisms. Two-thirds of the UN membership have submitted at least one national report on their implementation of the PoA; most have reported twice. In principle they are supposed to report every year, but only 5 states (Australia, Belarus, Hungary, Mexico and the US) have managed that.

Around one-third of states (65) have conducted some form of domestic disarmament, collecting and destroying guns from their civilian populations, from government stockpiles or from ex-combatants. These programmes have ranged from the huge (450,000 guns recovered and destroyed in Brazil) to token gestures (200 guns destroyed in Ghana to accompany the Vice President's announcement of improved police procedures.)

Around one-quarter of states (54) say they have reviewed or revised at least some of their laws or procedures on international transfers of small arms, and a similar proportion say they have done the same for their laws on domestic regulation of guns. About 10 percent of states have taken the PoA seriously enough to develop a national action plan on small arms. Such progress is a useful start, but at this rate, it could take fifty years for the PoA to be fully implemented!

We have seen more enthusiastic engagement at the regional level. Unhindered by the consensus requirement that stifles the formal international process, a number of regional and sub-regional agreements on small arms have managed to go further than the PoA. For example, the Nairobi Protocol on small arms is a legally binding instrument that commits 11 states in Central and Eastern Africa to do everything in the PoA, plus strictly regulate civilian possession and register and regulate arms brokers. The Protocol also has Implementation Guidelines listing the criteria for determining when an international transfer of small arms can be allowed and when it must be refused.

Apart from the Nairobi Protocol, regional agreements on small arms now exist in Central America, the Andean Community, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to adopt a legally binding Convention before the Review Conference. In addition, the European Union and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the Wassenaar Arrangement and Organization of American States, have further developed their pre-2001 agreements. The African Union, League of Arab States, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) are working on improving coordination to crack down on small arms trafficking in their regions. Eventually we will see the emergence of global norms from this collection of regional and sub-regional agreements.

Of course, the same question arises as with the global Programme of Action: making an agreement is one step, but how good is the implementation? While it is likely that Member states will implement their regional agreements more energetically than they have the PoA - they could hardly move more slowly! - even so, as with the PoA, the bulk of the implementation work still lies ahead.

If progress has been slow in fulfilling commitments made in 2001, we have seen some success in re-framing the small arms issue to highlight human security rather than simply weapons management. In particular, 2005 produced several advances in the effort to drag the small arms issue into the mainstream. In May 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development incorporated small arms control into its Development Assistance Committee guidelines, classifying small arms projects as counting toward a donor country's targets for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

This is significant not only because of the financial resources it will unlock for disarmament work, but also because it formally confirms the link between gun proliferation and poverty that has been obvious to so many affected communities, but which aid donors have been slow to recognise. Controlling guns as a means of preventing violence, or reducing the severity of violence, is a well-established concept in the public health community; now it appears to be gaining acceptance in the development community as well.

In July 2005, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released its Securing Development report, explaining how armed violence (whether conflict or crime) is impeding the achievement of the MDGs. In September the World Summit noted the connections between security and development, and a month later the General Assembly passed Resolution 60/68 addressing the humanitarian and development impacts of small arms. This resolution represented a major breakthrough, calling on governments to integrate small arms control into poverty reduction strategies, and to make sure that post-conflict peace building includes the regulation of small arms.

Resolution 60/68, which carried the unwieldy title "Addressing the Negative Humanitarian and Development Impact of the Illicit Manufacture, Transfer and Circulation of Small Arms and Light Weapons and their excessive accumulation", attracted some initial controversy in the First Committee, principally because its broad reach encompasses more than the narrow concerns of traditional disarmament. However, following energetic lobbying by its sponsors (notably the Netherlands), the resolution was eventually approved by 177 votes in favour and one against. The United States cast the sole vote in opposition, arguing that humanitarian and development considerations were inappropriate for discussion in the First Committee.[1]

Interestingly, we have also seen progress on an aspect of the small arms problem not actually mentioned in the PoA, namely the regulation of gun sales to civilians. This topic was removed from the PoA in 2001 at the insistence of the United States (and its National Rifle Association), despite the vehement objections of most Latin American and African nations. These latter countries understood that the illicit traffic can only be stopped by a comprehensive approach to regulation encompassing all sources of guns and all categories of buyers and sellers. Exempting one category from regulation creates a loophole that invites exploitation. If civilian buyers and owners are exempt from regulation, then 60 percent of the world's guns will fall through the loophole, making this a very large and dangerous loophole indeed. Thus, even though the PoA contains no specific reference to regulation of civilian small arms, such regulation is implied because it is necessary for the effective implementation of the agreement.

Most States understand this connection, as evidenced in their reports on implementation of the PoA over the past five years: around 70 percent of these have reported on the regulation of civilian firearms possession. This is a higher rate of mentions than for any of the other 'controversial' topics left out of the PoA in 2001 (such as the transfer of arms to non-state actors), and higher even than the rate of mention for some issues that are explicitly included in the PoA.

This widespread interest in civilian firearm regulation among Member States is reflected in the record of national legislative initiatives over the past five years. Stronger gun control laws have been proposed or passed in many countries including Afghanistan, Belgium, Cambodia, El Salvador, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Lebanon, Liberia, Montenegro, Nicaragua, Panama, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Thailand and Yemen.

Brazil, which suffers from the highest number of gun deaths in the world, has made some of the most significant progress since 2001. Brazil's Disarmament Statute of 2003 toughened the licence requirements and introduced a register of legally-owned firearms, among other measures. It was followed by one of the largest disarmament campaigns in history, recovering and destroying some 450,000 weapons. As a result of these measures, gun deaths dropped 8 percent within a year of the Statute becoming law - the first drop in gun deaths in Brazil for twelve years. (That 8 percent reduction equalled 3,234 fewer gun deaths.) Gun sales also fell dramatically from 800,000 in 2003 to just 56,000 in 2004 (and only 7,000 of these to private citizens). In October 2005, Brazil held a referendum on whether commercial sales of guns to civilians should be banned. The referendum failed, apparently due to voter backlash against a government corruption scandal; but the Disarmament Statute is largely achieving its desired effect of dramatically reducing gun proliferation and gun violence.

Disappointments since 2001

Compared with other UN disarmament processes, small arms control maintains some momentum; however, overall progress has been less than impressive. Out of more than 60 operative paragraphs in the PoA, very few can be said to have been implemented - or rather, are known to have been implemented - by more than a handful of states. Since the small arms process provides no monitoring mechanism, the only way of measuring progress is via States' own voluntary annual reports. As noted above, in the four years 2002-2005, most states have only submitted two such reports; these have been of variable quality and often very brief. Thus it is possible that progress has been better than it appears, but we have no way of knowing.

Marking and Tracing

One definite disappointment has been the attempt to produce, as part of the process, a global legal instrument on marking, recordkeeping and tracing. In contrast with motor vehicles that have unique Vehicle Identification Numbers, there is no universal system of serial numbers for guns. Some countries require serial numbers and some do not, and even within countries the numbers are frequently duplicated or re-used. The idea behind the new instrument was to require unique identifying information to be marked on every gun, which would allow investigators to trace illicit small arms to their source and take preventative measures against further diversion.

To achieve this purpose, the instrument needed to be comprehensive and legally binding. Unfortunately, due to pressure from a small group of states, the instrument agreed in 2005 is not legally binding but only voluntary. This means there are loopholes which can be exploited by unscrupulous individuals, manufacturers and states. For example, traffickers who wish to avoid detection will specialise in guns from countries that do not require marking; while those countries will see a boom in demand for their products from criminals. This is one of the more senseless outcomes of the UN small arms process, which means that the battle against global gun trafficking must be waged by officials equipped with only a voluntary agreement that is easily circumvented by those with criminal intent.

Small Arms Brokers

Another disappointment has been the continuing and unnecessary delays in deciding how to regulate arms brokers. Brokers are intermediaries who arrange or facilitate the transfer of weapons but who do not necessarily take possession of the weapons themselves. Illicit brokers are often not able to be prosecuted under national arms export or import laws, because the weapons never enter the country where the broker is operating. As a result, brokers have operated with impunity to violate the arms embargoes in regions like Central and West Africa, exacerbating conflict and human rights abuses.[2]

In 2001 a UN Group of Government Experts (GGE) reported on the problem of brokers evading regulation, and in the intervening five years most states have come to understand the need for licensing and other measures to control brokers. The UN small arms process should have taken the next step and established a working group to develop an international legal instrument on brokering, or at least to consider the feasibility of such an instrument. Instead we have a decision simply to establish another Group of Governmental Experts in late 2006 or 2007, to 'consider further steps to enhance international cooperation'. This second GGE will report back around 2008, and is likely to recommend the establishment of the aforementioned working group, which we obviously need now. In effect, this has postponed concrete action by several years, during which many more lives will be lost due to the irresponsible actions of illicit brokers.

The January 2006 PrepCom

The PrepCom was intended to agree on an outline for the Review Conference, both in terms of process and substance. Unfortunately, by the end of two weeks it managed to do neither. Stark divisions emerged between the 'progressive' states and those less prepared to move forward. On a number of substantial and procedural questions, a majority of governments supported holistic positions fairly similar to those of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) network and its members. A smaller group, including the United States, Cuba, Russia, Egypt, Pakistan and China, tended to oppose these positions and insist instead on a narrow view of the issue and a minimalist conception of the PoA. Since the process makes decisions by 'consensus', this division meant no decisions could be made - or rather, the restrictive view of the minority prevailed.

The inability to shift the entrenched positions created frustration - even a sense of futility - for many other participants. There was also criticism of the PrepCom Chair, Ambassador Sylvester Rowe of Sierra Leone, whose obvious deep commitment to preventing armed violence was not matched by a clear plan for making progress. Political will ebbed away so severely that at the end of the fortnight, the Chair's summary of the meeting was rejected as the conference report. A few hard-liners said his summary was too long and unfocussed to qualify as an official document of the PrepCom at all, so he should simply send it as a personal letter to the designated Chair of the Review Conference, Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka. Most, however, had been prepared to accept it despite its flaws (it was 17 pages long and contained virtually all the recommendations made during the PrepCom, including contradictory pairs such as 'a legally binding instrument on illicit brokering' followed by 'a politically binding instrument on illicit brokering'). In the end the summary was downgraded to an ordinary Conference Room Paper (CRP) provided in Rowe's personal capacity, so that at least it still qualifies as a document of the conference.

On the plus side, Ambassador Rowe's paper contained references to a range of issues that IANSA and its members have been advocating, including detailed language on transfer controls, civilian possession, victim assistance, and follow-up mechanisms, among other issues.[3]

Issues to watch as the Review Conference Approaches

On a positive note, there no longer appears to be any serious suggestion that the UN small arms process should end at the Review Conference. But significant challenges lie ahead, both substantive and procedural:

1. Failure of the PrepCom to make specific recommendations

In the absence of a clear list of priorities from the PrepCom, a huge amount of work now falls on the shoulders of the Chair-Designate, of the Review Conference. In early March, Ambassador Kariyawasam began a schedule of consultations and meetings as part of a process to draw up a paper that will develop into a negotiating text for June, but there is little time to achieve this.

2. Questions over scope

A few states want to prevent the Conference creating a broader mandate for the UN small arms process. They argue that it should merely report on the achievements of the PoA, and not attempt to strengthen or improve the original concept. Regrettably, the African Union appears to be promoting a very weak position that endorses this limited view, relegating the Conference's role to merely reviewing progress since 2001. This is a marked contrast to the Bamako Declaration of 2000, which fiercely expressed the need for strong urgent action by the international community to stop the flood of guns fuelling crime and war in Africa, and undermining development.

African nations have been surprisingly quiet during the UN small arms process, especially given that many of them have supported measures in regional agreements that are significantly stronger than those contained in the current PoA. These governments should now speak up to promote the positions adopted in the Bamako Declaration and their own regional agreements, particularly the SADC and Nairobi Protocols. African governments can do this one by one, but they should also take the opportunity to ensure that the Africa Group as a whole adopts a progressive stance towards the Review Conference.

At the same time, many states (including most Africans) agree that the Conference has the mandate to broaden and elaborate on the provisions of the PoA in order to improve small arms control efforts. For example, the agreement to regulate transfers 'in accordance with states' existing responsibilities under international law' is difficult to implement unless those responsibilities are listed or clarified. The NGOs and some governments have developed a set of principles or minimum standards for regulating international arms transfers, formulated with specific reference to states' existing responsibilities under international law. Incorporating these principles into the Conference's final document would transform a laudable sentiment into a concrete commitment.

Likewise, the PoA requires "adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures... in order to prevent illegal manufacture of and illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, or their diversion to unauthorized recipients". But what constitutes "adequate laws and regulations" in this context? In reality, these would have to include robust national laws on the acquisition and possession of small arms by civilians. Many states (most notably Mexico) are calling for the Conference's outcome document to recognise the critical importance of national gun laws and suggest guidelines or standards for such laws.

3. Consensus = tyranny of the minority

One of the main obstacles in the small arms process is the prevailing requirement of consensus - or rather, the distorted interpretation of consensus that is being promulgated. Consensus should mean general agreement to a decision, with objections being heard and accommodated where possible. However, in the small arms process, as in several other disarmament arenas like the Conference on Disarmament, consensus is simply another name for allowing a reluctant state to impose its veto. The United States is the most prominent wielder of this veto, with other countries like Russia and Egypt sometimes sheltering behind it.

The small arms process suffers from a consensus requirement and interpretation inherited from cold-war era arms control, primarily concerning the strategic arsenals and armaments of a small number of major (and rival) powers. By contrast, small arms are present in every country and manufactured by most of them, and there is no rational basis for allowing the objections of one or two countries to block progress on measures to make the citizens of 190-plus other countries safer.

When the PoA was negotiated in 2001, the regulation of civilian possession and transfers to non-state actors was forced off the agenda under pressure from the United States, using the consensus requirement, despite the fact that almost all the other governments - particularly those of gun-affected countries - wanted them to be included. The Chair of that meeting, Ambassador Camilo Reyes of Colombia, went so far as to make explicit in his statement at the end of the report of the 2001 conference that "the States of the region most afflicted by this global crisis, Africa, had agreed only with the greatest of reluctance to the deletion of proposed language addressing these vital issues… they did so strictly in the interests of reaching a compromise that would permit the world community as a whole to proceed together with some first steps at the global level to alleviate this common threat."[4]

Despite the paralysis created by the consensus system, few States so far have shown any appetite for demanding a vote. The notable exception has been Mexico, which created a frisson of anxiety and excitement at the PrepCom by advocating a vote on NGO participation.

4. Civil society participation

Before the 2005 UN Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms, the Chair, Ambassador Pasi Patokallio of Finland, wrote that "NGOs are our full partners in the field and they should be our full partners in the conference room". This year's PrepCom chair, Ambassador Rowe, was equally committed to civil society participation. This is in line with the PoA, which explicitly recognises the important role of civil society in implementing its provisions and recommendations, as well as a growing body of UN decisions and statements supporting NGO participation in small arms and, indeed, other disarmament meetings, where participation still lags behind other UN areas.

The need for civil society participation has been further affirmed every year in the General Assembly resolution on "assistance to States for curbing the illicit traffic in small arms and collecting them" (Resolution 60/71). The most recent of these resolutions contains four separate statements supporting the full engagement of civil society as partners in the effort to combat the small arms problem.

There are good reasons for civil society participation in the UN small arms process. Some UN missions have high staff rotation, or simply lack enough diplomats to permit specialisation on the topic of small arms. NGOs, because of their specific field and research experience, have significant expertise that they can offer to governments and diplomats involved in the UN small arms process.

At the formal small arms meetings a discrete three-hour block is allocated for presentations by NGOs, including the pro-gun groups. It would obviously be far more useful both for speakers and listeners if NGOs could make occasional relevant interventions on specific themes during the meeting, rather than delivering three hours of continuous speeches on one afternoon. Ambassador Rowe attempted to expand NGO participation at the PrepCom by suggesting that a representative NGO be given the floor for a few minutes on one topic - communications - during the plenary session at the PrepCom. This modest proposal sank for lack of consensus support.

Fifteen governments showed their support for civil society at the PrepCom by inviting IANSA members to form part of their national delegations. The Netherlands, Mexico and Norway even invited their IANSA delegates to speak on behalf of the national delegation during thematic discussions. These are positive developments but they cannot substitute for fully inclusive NGO participation in the debates. Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba felt so strongly about this point that he lodged a reservation for the Review Conference in relation to acceptance of the rules of procedure.[5]

Coincidentally in the conference room next door, text was being negotiated for the Draft Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities - a legally binding international treaty. Here, government and NGO delegates sat close together working in a productive and collaborative atmosphere, with comments and suggestions coming equally from both sectors. In sharp contrast, in the small arms PrepCom, a complaint from the United States' delegation led to NGOs being banned from approaching seated government delegates to speak to them. Although the PoA is non-binding, unlike the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities, for most of the second week NGOs were shut out of the PrepCom room altogether, while governments discussed the PoA and, as it turned out, eventually failed to agree on even a summary of their meeting.


A gunshot takes a fraction of a second, but its effects can be felt for a very long time. Conversely, negotiations may take a very long time, yet once a decision is taken, the effect can be immediate. In the case of small arms, decisions taken today can be put into effect tomorrow. For Miriam Morales, the international community was too slow. While the conference rooms of the United Nations may appear far from the kiosk where Miriam was shot in El Salvador, or in Colombia where guns turned a case of the hiccups into a double funeral, decisions to control the supply of and trafficking in the guns that destroyed these lives can and should be taken by governments in those UN rooms.

The international community has taken forward some important objectives, debates and reporting processes since the first UN Conference on small arms held in 2001, but actually halting the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods caused by guns will require much more determined efforts on the part of governments when they meet in New York in June.


[1] See Rebecca Johnson, 'Enhanced Participation and Politicking: Report on the 2005 UN First Committee', Disarmament Diplomacy 81 (Winter 2005), especially p 10 and p 29.

[2] For an entertaining and informative lesson on illicit brokering, see the 2005 film 'Lord of War', starring Nicholas Cage.

[3] 'Conference room paper submitted by the Chairman', available at

[4] Camilo Reyes, president's statement to the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. Available as an annex to the Report of the 2001 Conference (A/CONF.192/15) at See also Peter Batchelor, 'The UN Conference on Small Arms: A First Step?", Disarmament Diplomacy 60 (September 2001) pp 4-8.

[5] 'Reserva de la Delegación de México respecto al documento A/CONF.192/2006/PC/L.7', available at

Rebecca Peters is Director of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a network of more than 700 NGOs working in 100 countries against armed violence. IANSA is the official coordinator of NGO involvement in the UN small arms process. Thanks to Alun Howard, Anthea Lawson and Felicity Hill for assistance with this article.