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5 September 2012, Vol. 5, No. 7

Connecting the dots
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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During Tuesday’s discussion on the draft declaration for the UNPoA Review Conference, government delegations debated the necessity, nature, and content of such a document. A declaration would be a useful aspect of the conference’s outcome if it advances the implementation process by highlighting not just the successes but also the failures of implementation and vigorously renews commitments to meeting the challenges ahead. It should set the tone for the six-year implementation plans for both the UNPoA and the International Tracing Instrument (ITI) by firmly outlining the core objectives of the UNPoA: ending the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) and thereby reducing armed violence and associated human suffering.

However, not all delegations seemed to agree that the declaration should exist as such—the Arab Group, Cuba, and Pakistan argued it should merely be a preamble to the outcome document instead. However, the EU, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, and others argued that a declaration voicing states’ political will to implement the UNPoA would be a much more powerful document than a preamble.

Turning to the content of the declaration, a few delegations contested the notion that the outcome of this conference should do anything other than reiterate the UNPoA itself word for word. The Algerian, DPRK, and Iranian delegations insisted that if some language from the UNPoA is reflected in the declaration, all of it must be. Failing to do so, Algeria warned, would make negotiation of the declaration a “perilous exercise” that could jeopardize adoption of the outcome document. (Notably, however, many of these same delegations were equally emphatic that only selected provisions of the UN Charter must be reflected in the declaration.)

On the other hand, Austria, Brazil, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States argued against reiterating the UNPoA verbatim. The US delegation pointed out that the UNPoA was adopted in 2001 and cannot be merely cut and paste into this document in 2012. The New Zealand delegate argued that no review conference in the UN’s history has set such strict restrictions on what it can and cannot include in an outcome document, noting that such an approach “does not resemble what we would interpret as a credible review conference.”

The draft also faced difficulties over its specific provisions, especially those related to the impacts and consequences of illicit SALW. When conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph review of the draft declaration, some delegations sought to weaken such provisions. The Indian delegation called for deletion of the reference in paragraph 1 that implementation of the UNPoA and ITI is undertaken “with a view to ending the human suffering caused by the illicit trade in and uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons.” India argued that paragraph 1 sets the tone for the declaration and should not highlight specific “priorities” of certain delegations. The Indian delegation also called for the deletion of the examples of the “devastating humanitarian and socioeconomic consequences” of the illicit trade in SALW, arguing that there a number of contributing factors to such issues and the links between them and SALW are not necessarily clear.

However, for most countries and civil society actors, the humanitarian consequences of the illicit trade in SALW constitute the main motivating factors for the UNPoA’s existence and continued relevance. Thus in response to the Indian delegation’s suggestions, CARICOM, ECOWAS, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago emphasized that deleting or weakening the language related to the humanitarian and socioeconomic consequences of illicit SALW is unacceptable. The European Union, Belgium, Mexico, Norway, and Switzerland sought to strengthen relevant language, suggesting the addition of references to international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law, and/or the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development. The Iranian delegation objected to such additions, arguing there is no reference in the UNPoA to human rights, while the Geneva Declaration is not an agreed document. Likewise, India’s delegation argued that armed violence and development are agenda items in other UN processes and therefore should not be “duplicated” here. A few delegations even called for the deletion of the phrase “armed violence” altogether in later paragraphs of the declaration.

It is just this type of separation or “silo-ing” of issues within the UN system that presents the fundamental challenge to achieving sustainable progress on any of these issues. The links between the proliferation of SALW and poverty, crime, and insecurity, as well as violations of IHL and human rights, have been acknowledged and substantiated on many levels inside and outside of the UN. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are based on the interlinkage of issues and the Geneva Declaration, which has been signed by more than 100 governments, recognizes that armed violence constitutes a major obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs. Suggestions that a political declaration aimed at reaffirming governmental commitment to ending the illicit trade in SALW should not refer to either armed violence or development, either alone or together, were shocking to some delegations and to most civil society actors.

Also surprising were requests by a few delegations, such as Algeria and Iran, to remove language suggesting follow-up to the meetings held over the last six years related to the UNPoA and ITI, such as the Biennial Meetings of States in 2008 and 2010 or the Meeting of Government Experts in 2011. They argued that the declaration should simply note that these meetings took place. But as other delegations questioned, what was the point of the past review cycle if the next one is not able to build upon its predecessor by implementing its outcomes?

At the beginning of Tuesday morning’s meeting, the facilitator of the draft declaration noted that this text should set the tone and motivation for the implementation period ahead. She explained that its purpose is to articulate the political, security, humanitarian, and development impacts and consequences of illicit trade in SALW and governmental commitment to combat such trade. The draft declaration could be stronger, and many delegations contributed constructive feedback to that end. But the key elements must be retained and strengthened, not deleted. What is the point of a document that throws out everything that has been agreed or discussed since 2001 and goes back to the point of origin? The last eleven years must not have been in vain.

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