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Final Edition, Vol. 6, No. 6

What has BMS5 done for us?
Nicholas Marsh | Peace Research Institute Oslo


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The Fifth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS5) to Consider Implementation of the 2001 Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects finished on 20 June 2014. I quote the full title to remind us what the BMS5 was supposed to do—it’s a regular meeting to discuss the implementation of a thirteen year old politically binding agreement on combating illicit arms trafficking. Moreover, it’s a process based upon consensus. Progress is made at the often frustrating speed of the slowest and most reluctant UN member state.

The tone of the meeting was business as usual. Even a last minute hick-up caused by Egypt left a certain sense of déjà vu. One friend who has been to many PoA meetings confessed that he had difficulty remembering what year it was. Some of the contentious issues in 2014 are the same as they were a decade ago, for example the almost complete exclusion from the text of the outcome document of ammunition, and of the provision of support for victims of gun violence.

There has been some change over the years. In a welcome development, articles 10 and 51 of the BMS5 outcome document refer to UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and highlight the need to ensure the participation of women in the implementation of the PoA.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the PoA and the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is contentious. While in practice much of the PoA and ATT will be implemented by the same personnel, any explicit attempt to link the two was opposed by some states (those that were also opposed to the ATT). Some issues appear to have gone away. There were heated debates a decade ago regarding a ban on transfers of arms to non-state actors (without the authorization of the government in which they operate). This is still a vitally important issue in war zones around the world. Perhaps no one now believes that there is any chance of the inclusion of this issue in a PoA outcome document.

If BMS5 seems to be somewhat mundane—focusing upon technical issues related to a small part of the enormous global violence problem—then that’s just as it should be. At a side event, my fellow panelists and I agreed that many times the most important ways to reduce violence are the least exciting. For example, a crucial means to reduce violence in poor areas is through improvements to the built environment—particularly street lighting. A key challenge is maintaining attention by governments and civil society on worthy and mundane seeming technical issues.

Illicit arms trafficking is a problem, it does account for part of the supply of weapons used in gun violence. Improvements in the main themes discussed this week—stockpile management and tracing—should reduce that violence. Long discussions on technical issues, be they street lighting or stockpile management, are the nitty-gritty of making progress. If implemented, many of the 84 paragraphs contained in the BMS5 outcome document will make it harder to pilfer weapons from arsenals, or make it easier to trace seized illicit small arms.  

In a paper published by Reaching Critical Will, Daniel Mack of Instituto Sou da Paz expressed the frustration with the PoA felt by many people (including myself) and described why he and his organization would not attend BMS5. I think it was worth being here. Even if the PoA only aims to address a small part of the problem, as mentioned above, the work here is still valuable. But much more importantly, the key successes of the PoA can’t be found in the 2001 agreement or the seven subsequent documents produced by the review conferences or biennial meetings of states. The most important contribution of the PoA to the prevention of violence has been to foster a series of other agreements. The same organizations and individuals that worked to get the PoA in 2001, and remained active in subsequent years, started additional outside processes—two of the most prominent being the Arms Trade Treaty and the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence.

In my experience, BMS5 remained somewhere where people can meet and create new ideas to be developed elsewhere. This is very much in line with Daniel Mack’s suggestion that “governments and civil society join forces to supplement the PoA.” Those of us who care about preventing armed violence should focus upon creating new initiatives which will flourish outside the PoA; but that’s what we have been doing since the PoA was agreed in 2001.

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