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27 August 2012: Vol. 5, No. 1

Reviewing, strengthening, and energizing the UNPoA
Katherine Prizeman | Global Action to Prevent War


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As member states gather for the second Review Conference for the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPoA), a potentially contentious policy gap remains between those who emphasize only the implementation of the UNPoA and those who seek to strengthen the instrument itself. Given the importance of implementing the existing agreement, participating UN member states should focus on developing strengthened provisions in this regard, rather than seeking to change the status or authority of the programme itself.

The first Review Conference (RevCon) in 2006 failed to reach agreement as divisions surfaced between those states wanting to expand the UNPoA’s scope to include provisions on ammunition, civilian possession, and a prohibition on transfers to non-state actors and those that wished only to focus on implementation of existing measures adopted in 2001. Concern that the UNPoA process would be permanently damaged was fortunately unfounded, and the process did receive a welcome infusion of robustness following the successful (and first of its kind) 2011 Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE) under the leadership of Ambassador McLay of New Zealand. The meeting was marked with practical and technical discussions primarily regarding the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), a complementary document to the UNPoA.

However, some of the attention devoted to the UNPoA has subsequently been diverted to the arms trade treaty (ATT) process, and there is now legitimate concern that the UNPoA will not receive the attention it deserves during this RevCon.

As previously expressed, member states have extensively debated whether the RevCon mandate, in addition to a “review,” should include “strengthening” (through expansion, legal status, or amendment) of the UNPoA. This disagreement is not semantic in nature. It is a critical distinction that will affect both member states’ approaches to the RevCon and the future of the UNPoA framework. Methods of strengthening national implementation measures must be identified and pursued at this RevCon. Therefore, it would be wise to avoid highly divisive debates regarding expansion of the scope and nature of the UNPoA (i.e. discussion over its non-legally-binding status) and focus instead on highly important and practical implementation issues such as stockpile management, proper disposal and storage of surplus arms, the role of peacekeepers and DDR programmes in SALW management, the responsibilities of national contact points, and the possibility of institutionalizing technical meetings such as MGEs. In this case, functionality should trump legality, at least for the moment.

Despite the arguable “overshadowing” of the UNPoA process by the ATT, preparations for this RevCon have been moderately successful. The March 2012 Preparatory Committee for the RevCon yielded a factual and procedural report, although a more substantive Chair’s summary under the authorship of Ambassador Ogwu of Nigeria was also produced. The summary laid forth views expressed by member states during the week according to the structure of the UNPoA itself—measures to combat illicit trade at the national, regional, and international levels; international cooperation and assistance; follow-up mechanisms to the Review Conference; and review of the ITI. The summary was not a consensus document, but did its best to summarize member states’ views and recommendations on which elements would serve as a basis for the discussion during this RevCon.

As the two-week RevCon gets underway, the UNPoA’s importance must not be underestimated. While the lion’s share of attention this year has been paid to the ATT process, the UNPoA is an instrument with tremendous potential to directly and practically address the dire consequences related to the illicit trade in SALWs and, perhaps most notably, to dry up existing stockpiles of weapons already in circulation. This was an issue all too clear in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution when weapons went unaccounted for and stockpiles were pillaged by rebel groups after the fall of Qadaffi. Member states must take advantage of the RevCon both to honestly assess existing efforts to curb illicit small arms and to robustly and comprehensively tackle the proliferation of looted arms and lack of adequate stockpile management.

The real challenge of the UNPoA is to fully implement the benchmarks laid forth in the instrument in all national contexts. The division of provisions among the national, regional, and global level is a helpful format and allows states to thoroughly address the responsibilities at all levels for implementation of the UNPoA and ITI. Moreover, the proposal to address the schedule of future meetings is an important contribution to the long-term success of the framework. For example, modification of biennial meetings of states into biennial meetings of governmental experts who are directly responsible for national implementation of the UNPoA would be significantly beneficial to fulfilling a host of UNPoA-related responsibilities.

It is clear that full implementation of the UNPoA requires continuous review with an eye towards strengthening national implementation of its measures. Many, if not all, of the challenges associated with full implementation—border control mechanisms, technical information exchange, marking and tracing expertise—require international efforts and cooperation. Therefore, this Rev Con, as well as future meetings of states, must provide for a transparent and honest exchange of information regarding implementation and how to best combat the deadly consequences of illicit trade in SALWs. There is little argument that the UNPoA’s provisions, if adopted according to national needs and flexible with regard to new challenges, can and will prevent illicit flows of SALWs and thus eliminate the dire consequences of these flows for international peace and security.

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