21 July 2008, Final Edition

Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will and Michael Spies, Arms Control Reporter

From 14–18 July 2008, the Third Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) on Small Arms met in New York to review the implementation of the 2001 Programme of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons In All Its Aspects. The BMS also reviewed implementation of the 2005 International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons. Neither the PoA nor the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) are legally-binding, however, both were negotiated and approved within the UN framework and all UN member states have committed themselves meeting their requirements. The BMS gives states a chance to report on national implementation of the PoA and ITI and more importantly, to highlight their needs for assistance and to suggest or recommend future steps for further implementation.

Conference organization
Seven months before the BMS met in New York, chair-designate Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania began organizing the conference in coordination with a group of facilitators, whom he charged with developing working papers and leading discussions on select themes. The conference’s programme of work provided for interactive discussions on these themes, which included:

  • International cooperation, assistance, and national capacity-building;
  • Stockpile management and surplus disposal;
  • Illicit brokering; and
  • Review of the International Tracing Instrument (ITI).

While most delegations expressed support for a focused conference, some—most notably Mexico—disagreed with which themes were selected and expressed surprise that certain themes, such as monitoring and humanitarian issues, were left out, despite the known priorities of several delegations. Despite these lingering disagreements, these delegations still participated actively in discussion on the above topics.

Substantive discussions
In discussions on international cooperation and assistance, which constituted a background theme in the consideration of all other issues, delegations emphasized the need for assistance to result in increased national capacity rather than one-time help. Donor countries generally insisted on the necessity of national reporting in assessing the needs of states, while many developing countries resisted this linkage. On stockpile management and surplus disposal, delegations highlighted challenges the issue poses toward implementation of the PoA and made numerous suggestions for how to strengthen relevant legislation, procedures, and operations. During the discussion on illicit brokering, a number of states, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, urged the negotiation of a legally-binding instrument, while others cautioned against what they see as a difficult undertaking. Other states emphasized the development of regional mechanisms or national legislation. During the review of the implementation of the ITI, delegations focused on the need for technical assistance and information exchange, and many delegations argued the ITI should be legally-binding and/or that it should include the marking and tracing of ammunition.

Drafting the final report
The chair began drafting the final report of the meeting well in advance, and distributed it at the start of the conference as WP.5. The facilitator for discussions on marking and tracing also circulated a draft outcome paper on the implementation of the ITI at the start of the conference, as WP.6. The evening after the discussion on each of these agenda items, the chair provided additional draft language for the final report, upon which delegations were allowed to comment to the facilitators and the chair for consideration. The Iranian delegation complained about this process on Tuesday, 15 July, arguing the outcome document must be negotiated line by line because the draft outcome text language that had been circulated the night before contained substantive points. The following day, the chair explained that all draft language for the outcome document would be open to ongoing negotiations and consultations but that the short time-frame of the BMS does not allow for a complete negotiation of the text. He encouraged states to cooperate actively with the facilitators to ensure their interests were addressed in the draft language.

The final report and the way forward
Chapter IV of the final report provides a summary of concerns, highlights, appeals, suggestions, and recommendations made by delegations during the course of the BMS on the first three thematic issues, including recommendations on stockpile management and for legislation on arms brokering. It also lists some of the other issues raised by delegations during the course of discussions. The factual elements of the text had been largely drafted in advance of the meeting. The fairly weak recommendations contained in the report, compiled in sections titled “the way forward,” were developed by appointed facilitators, all of whom engaged in wide consultations prior to the BMS. The majority of states, while acknowledging their doubts and displeasure over the strength of the final draft text, accepted this method of developing the final document. However, the Iranian delegation demanded a comprehensive negotiation of the text, arguing that presenting a document to states to accept without formal negotiations on its contents undermines multilateralism and the UN process. Despite appeals by a number of delegations during the final day of the conference, the Iranian delegation requested a recorded vote on the document, to which it abstained, along with Zimbabwe. 134 delegations voted in favour and no one opposed the report.

Overall assessment
While the substance of the final report was weaker than most NGOs and delegations most affected by gun violence would have liked, most agreed with Rebecca Peters, director of the International Action Network on Small Arms, that the agreement “is a significant step forward for the international effort to tackle the illicit gun trade.” After the Review Conference of the PoA ended without the adoption of a final document in 2006, participants were relieved to end with a document that provided tools to move forward with implementing the PoA and the ITI.

Conference Highlights
Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will and Michael Spies, Arms Control Reporter

International cooperation, assistance, and national capacity-building
Arguing that implementation of the PoA requires a holistic approach, most delegations agreed that this topic applies to all aspects of the PoA and should be considered at each stage of discussion. One of the foremost concerns cited by delegations was the problem of matching donors with specific needs of states. Many donor countries offered suggestions on how to accomplish this, such as by including a one-page survey on assistance needs in annual reports (Japan); developing country-specific assistance programmes (China); creating regional working groups that could meet on specific issues and report back to the BMS (United Kingdom); and developing national strategies (Canada). Colombia called for harmonizing legislation, building national capacity through trainings of officials and strengthening border controls, and strengthening international cooperation and exchange of information. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs presented its Programme of Action Implementation Support System, www.poa-iss.org, as a tool for helping connect states in need of assistance with donor states. This website brings together basic documentation, information on best practices, an advisory network for national contact points, and project proposals. Many delegations, particularly those from Latin America and including MERCOSUR, Guyana, South Africa, Mexico, and the Central American Integration System (SICA), opposed any preconditions, such as requiring national reporting, for the provision of assistance.

Stockpile management and surplus disposal
Switzerland’s WP.3 on this subject, which initiated Tuesday’s discussion, highlighted challenges and outlined steps states can take to address stockpile problems, especially those related to legislation, procedures, and operations. Some delegations, including the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) indicated the most important aspect of stockpile management is international cooperation and assistance. Other delegations, including Australia, China, and Germany, recommended specific measures, including information exchange, reviewing procedures and operations, developing relevant guidelines within the UN, and improving legislative and regulatory frameworks that govern the safety of stockpiles. 

Italy recommended the development of a new international instrument for stockpile management and destruction and argued that awareness raising on stockpile management procedures is key along with increasing international cooperation and assistance. Italy also suggested states strengthen their export controls, such as through a “no re-transfer clause” and consider allowing exporting countries to make regular visits to relevant deposits to ensure the agreed arms transfer standards are met.

Many delegations, particularly those from the west and including the European Union, argued ammunition should be included in the PoA’s consideration of stockpiles. While agreeing ammunition should be included, Russia suggested the BMS focus on illicit trade problems of ammunition stockpiles and surplus rather than explosions, arguing that the risk of explosion comes from ammunition for heavy weapons and mines, not from SALW ammunition.

Illicit brokering
Citing illicit brokering as one of the fundamental impediments to implementation of the PoA, Latin American delegations, including MERCOSUR, SICA and Mexico, Colombia, and CARICOM, called on all states to work toward a process toward establishing a legally-binding instrument on brokering. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said addressing the issue of brokering requires a uniform, global, legally-binding framework—an international treaty. Pending conclusion of an international instrument, the ICRC urged states to establish and adhere to regional mechanism. The ICRC expressed the view that in authorizing brokering transactions, states must take into account the impact on international humanitarian law. South Africa’s delegation said that while the principle of an international instrument on illicit brokering is good, it is a very grey and vague area and would therefore be very difficult to develop.

After Brian Wood presented the major findings of the 2007 Group of Governmental Experts on illicit brokering, which were welcomed and supported by many delegations, many states made recommendations. 

Norway said it would like the BMS to call for full implementation of brokering agreements and Mexico expressed the hope that the outcome document would establish a road map for dealing with the issue of brokering and said it would submit a proposal to the facilitator based on the MERCOSUR working paper, WP.7. The Netherlands advocated for a regional approach to cooperation in dealing with illicit brokering. Australia suggested ten elements for national legislation on curbing illicit brokering and Benin put forward possible specific solutions on brokering, including establish creating model legislation for presentation to member states, assistance developing accreditation systems, and establishing regional monitoring mechanisms. 

China and Japan both offered several specific suggestions for combating illicit brokering. Japan further stated that enactment of national legislation insufficient and that international cooperation was needed. Italy and Turkey called for language in the outcome document to reflect the contribution of the Firearms Protocol toward curbing illicit brokering.

International Tracing Instrument (ITI)
Many Latin American and African delegations, including CARICOM and RECSA, argued the ITI should have been made legally-binding and should have included ammunition. The Philippines called on arms producing states to comply with the ITI. Many delegations urged improvements in information exchange and cooperation between national contact points, regional, international, and non-governmental organizations. Many states highlighted the need for technical assistance in marking weapons effectively and some recommended that it be made mandatory for weapons to be marked at the time of manufacture and import. The International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) urged all states to actively trace weapons recovered during or after an armed conflict. The ICRC also recommended that government experts directly involved in implementing the ITI meet on a regular basis to share their experience and consider implementation of the instrument.

Other issues
Development and human security: A cross-regional selections of delegations, including Ghana, Jamaica, Nigeria, the Netherlands, and Yemen highlighted the connections between the illicit trade of SALW and development and human security. South Africa agreed that illicit trade in SALW is a development issues but that states should be required to include initiatives to combat this trade as part of their overall development programmes in order to receive financial or technical assistance from the international community. Several delegations argued the PoA should be approached from both supply and demand aspects and that root causes of demand, including poverty, must be addressed.

Civil society: A cross-regional selection of delegations that are generally accommodating of NGO participation, including those of Canada, Ghana, Iceland, Jamaica, New Zealand, and Norway emphasized the importance of civil society participation in implementing the PoA and ITI and expressed support for the broader inclusion of civil society in the small arms process. Pakistan’s delegation said that while it does not object to civil society participation, there needs to be a distinction between member states and civil society organizations.

Gender: Iceland’s delegation emphasized the need for member states to include gender considerations in their work on implementing the PoA. Following an NGO presentation on SALW and gender-based violence, the Australian delegation agreed that gender considerations and the measures included in UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1820 must be included in SALW considerations.

International Humanitarian Law: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) articulated the need for states to respect International Humanitarian Law (IHL) when considering arms transfers. The ICRC has developed a practical guide to IHL criteria in arms transfers for use by government officials. The ICRC also argued that increased respect for law will reduce the vulnerability of people and reduce the demand for SALW.

Other processes: Australia gave briefing on the “Geneva Process on Small Arms,” which is working group that involves governments, international organizations, and NGOs in regular informal consultations to promote and monitor implementation of the PoA. The working group prepared a food-for-thought paper on how to strengthen the PoA beyond 2008 and refine the process for implementation of the PoA. The United Kingdom pointed to the Best Practice Guidelines for Exports of SALW adopted by the Wassenaar Arrangement in 2003, explaining that it uses elements from these guidelines as a standard for exporting arms even to states not participating in the Wassenaar Arrangement. Panama suggested ways to limit gun ownership, including programmes that exchange food coupons for weapons and that educate the public on the dangers of owning a firearm. Canada gave a brief report of a meeting in Geneva in August 2007 on controls of international transfers of SALW, which Canada believes offered a valuable opportunity for sustained and in-depth focus on one aspect of the PoA and helped raise awareness about best practices and challenges.

Presentations by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations
A number of regional organizations reported on the nature of SALW-related problems in their respective regions and on the progress of programmes undertaken to combat illicit trade in SALW, including the League of Arab States; the African Union; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the Organization of American States; Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe; the Regional Centre on SALW in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa, and Bordering States; the East African Community; the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region; and the Central American Integration System. Interpol reported on its development of information tools and database, information collection sharing, and expertise sharing, related to combating illicit brokering in small arms. The World Health Organization urged governments to move beyond consideration of the supply dimensions of SALW and to focus on prevention of armed conflict through available conventional policy tools.

Representatives from a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) argued that the legal possession and use of guns by citizens should be respected by any international action combating their illicit trade, including the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities; the National Firearms Association (Canada); the British Shooting Sports Council; the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action; the Firearms Importers Roundtable; the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia; and the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturing Institute. Other NGOs, including the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and its partner organizations, provided recommendations on a variety of issues related to the small arms process, including stockpile management and surplus disposal; regulations on licensing for gun ownership; consideration of gender-based violence and the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1840; illegal brokering; and health concerns. In addition, a former child soldier from Sudan, Emmanuel Jal, rapped a song explaining his story and the plight of child soldiers.

Consideration of the Final Report and Outcome Documents

ITI outcome
On Thursday, 17 July, the Egyptian delegation, which drafted the outcome paper on the implementation of the ITI, accepted a few changes to the paper while chairing the discussion on ITI. The conference agreed to include an eighth paragraph noting that some states emphasized the importance of a legally-binding instrument (request by Colombia) and that other states considered the nature of the document to have been settled through negotiation (requested by the United States in response to Colombia’s request). The Iranian delegation announced it needed to await instructions from its capital, on the pretext that the changes were substantive in nature, and requested a decision on adopting the document be delayed until the following day. The Egyptian chair was compelled to accept the outcome document ad referendum, over Iran’s objections. This allowed delegations to submit views on the text prior to consideration of the BMS final report on Friday, however Iran did not raise any substantive objections to the ITI during this time.

BMS outcome and final report
On Monday, 14 July, the chair explained that he would provide draft outcome document language for each thematic topic on the evening immediately following the discussion of that item. On Tuesday, 15 July, Iran’s delegation stated the outcome document must be negotiated, noting the draft outcome text language that had been circulated contained substantive points. On Wednesday, 16 July, the chair explained that all draft language for the outcome document was open to ongoing negotiations and consultations but that the short time-frame of the BMS did not allow for a complete negotiation of the text. On Friday, 18 July, the chair urged states to adopt the final report as it stood, emphasizing its non-binding nature and characterizing it as a very modest step. The chair noted that no delegation had approached the conference facilitators with substantive comments on the draft text.

At least 13 delegations expressed support for adopting the final report as it stands, including Norway, the African Group, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, MERCOSUR, CARICOM, the European Union, Italy, Japan, Kenya, and Jamaica. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) said the majority of its members were prepared to support the text as it stood. NAM noted that, during the consultative process leading to the outcome document, NAM’s positions had been heard and considered and that the draft report was in line with its positions. NAM expressed the understanding, however, that the facilitation process was not as transparent or inclusive as a line by line negotiation. Syria's delegation noted there were procedural gaps in the facilitation process, pointing to the lack of active interchange, but said it would support the consensus.

However, the Iranian delegation blocked the adoption of the final report by consensus, repeating its procedural concerns and its demand for either a line by line negotiation on the outcome text or for that portion of the report to be submitted by the chair as a summary annexed to the final report. At least six delegations made direct appeals to Iran to reconsider its positions, including the Netherlands, Liberia, Nigeria, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and Kenya. The Dutch delegation, using strongly charged language, gave numerous examples of where a facilitation approach lead to a successful outcome, stating that heeding Iran’s words—requiring line by line negotiations for all consensus documents—would condemn the UN system to impotence. Nigeria reminded the delegates that they represent millions of people who are dying daily because of this issue and argued that complaints about process and procedure should not “clog the wheels” from reaching success. Liberia made an evocative appeal to Iran, emphasizing its own history of conflict and stating that the issues facing delegations was not a theoretical but rather a matter of life and death. Several delegations also made suggestions to overcome the impasse. Egypt suggested the chair open up a substantive process to hear Iran’s concerns, thereby allowing the document to be adopted. Sierra Leone suggested that Iran’s concerns should be annexed to final report. Nigeria suggested a footnote be annexed to the final report indicating that the procedures used in this BMS would not set a precedent for future meetings, in order to assuage one of Iran's reported concerns. The chair was compelled to suspend the meeting numerous times in order to allow for consultations on a possible outcome.

The chair eventually reported that his efforts to achieve consensus had not yielded results—a procedural requisite for proceeding to a vote—and that the bureau had decided by consensus to call a vote on the final report. In light of this decision, the Iranian delegation withdrew its amendment for the outcome text to be removed from the final report, but called for a recorded vote on the draft final report. Japan formally submitted the draft final report for a vote, seconded by Switzerland and Colombia. Delegations voted to adopt the final report as orally amended, with 134 states in favor, none opposed, and with Iran and Zimbabwe abstaining. After the vote, many states, including China and Pakistan, emphasized that this vote should not be used as a precedent in other multilateral venues or fora.

Side Events

  • Small Arms Survey
    Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will
  • A SIPRI study on submission of information on SALW to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms
    Michael Spies, Arms Control Reporter
  • Conflict of Interest: Children and Guns in Zones of Instability
    Valerie Haentjens, Reaching Critical Will
  • International Small Arms Control Standards
    Ginny Schneider, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

Feature Reports

  • Risk and Resilience: Understanding the Factors that Influence Small Arms Violence
    Ginny Schneider, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
  • The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development
    Gabriel Morden-Snipper, Quaker United Nations Office—New York

Feature Statements and Papers

    • The impact of small arms on women in Central Africa
      Marie-Claire Faray-Kele, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the IANSA Women’s Network
    • Preventing gun violence against women in the home
      IANSA Women’s Network position paper
    • Statement of the IANSA Women’s Network to the Third Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms, 18 July 2008