The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2008 Volume 29 Issue 3
The Third Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) on the 2001 United Nations small arms Programme of Action (PoA) proved to be focused, productive, and even dramatic—words not often associated with global meetings under the PoA process. The drama arose on the last day (July 18) of the five-day meeting in New York when, because of the concerted opposition of one state, a final agreement became far from certain. It was finally settled successfully in the closing minutes after an unprecedented vote. Project Ploughshares staff Maribel Gonzales and Kenneth Epps attended the meeting.1
Even before it was held, the third BMS differed from previous UN meetings on the small arms PoA. Whereas earlier sessions were scheduled by the 2001 Conference that approved the PoA, the 2008 BMS had to be set by a 2006 UN General Assembly vote because some states (most vociferously the US) claimed that the PoA did not authorize additional global small arms meetings. Also, the pressure for a successful meeting outcome was higher than for any previous BMS. Following the 2006 PoA Review Conference (RevCon), which was a universally acknowledged failure (see Griffiths-Fulton 2006), most attending states and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) looked to a positive BMS outcome as the last hope for an ongoing global PoA process. The failure of a second consecutive major UN small arms meeting could have ended prospects for future global meetings to advance small arms action.
A few states, UN agencies, and NGOs working through “The Geneva Forum” group made an early proposal regarding BMS procedures and content in an effort to increase the chances of success. In the end, the Forum’s major recommendations—the early appointment of the meeting’s chair, the exclusion of opening statements by national delegations (which absorbed more than half the available time at the 2006 RevCon), and a selective agenda—were all approved by the 2008 BMS assembly. With more lead time, the Lithuanian chair, Dalius Čekuolis, was able to host advance consultations on the meeting agenda and approach. The agreement that states forgo time-consuming opening statements allowed more opportunity to discuss the agenda and encouraged interventions focused on the meeting topics. Finally, the preselection of four topics thought to enjoy the greatest common ground among states was instrumental in focusing discussion and achieving approval for the meeting’s outcome agreement.
Five days of useful discussion
The least contentious of the four agenda topics was the first discussed. A full day was allotted to debating international cooperation and assistance and the practicalities of “matching needs with resources.” The discussion primarily covered the technical aspects of support for developing states in implementing PoA commitments. The interventions during the opening BMS session were (relatively) short, practical, and focused, allowing the session discussion to be completed in the time available.
The meeting progressed in a collegial and businesslike approach. The following two days were devoted to discussion of small arms stockpile management and disposal of surplus weapons, illicit brokering (with reference to the recommendations of the 2007 report by a UN Group of Governmental Experts) and “other issues” that states identified as priority topics for PoA “implementation challenges and opportunities.” In keeping with earlier PoA sessions, time was set aside at the end of the third day for statements by international, regional, and civil society organizations. During the civil society component, presentations by NGO members of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) contrasted with those of gun owner and user groups.
The fourth day of the meeting was devoted to consideration of the international marking and tracing instrument on small arms and light weapons approved by a 2005 General Assembly resolution. This was the only session attended by the United States.
On the fifth day the outcome document, drafted and circulated by the Chairperson in advance, was considered. The Chair suspended the formal meeting early in the day to allow states time to consult and to request clarifications or provide corrections. Minor changes were made to the draft text. The Iranian delegate surprised the meeting by a late call for “line by line” negotiation, without which he could not support an outcome document. It was apparent that Iran’s position was fixed and would block agreement by consensus. The Chair invoked procedures to allow a vote to approve the outcome document in another room in the UN building where a recorded vote could occur. With just minutes before UN interpreters left for the day an overwhelming majority of 134 states voted to support the document. Iran and Zimbabwe abstained and no state voted no. In effect, the Chair achieved consensus by vote.
Measure of success achieved
With its widely supported final document, the 2008 BMS can be viewed as a partial success. Important aspects of the selected themes were omitted from the meeting agreement and it may be difficult in future meetings to return to them. For example, the discussion of stockpile management does not mention ammunition despite several references in state interventions to fatal explosions caused by poorly managed ammunition stockpiles; and there was no call for the existing international tracing instrument to be made legally binding (IANSA 2008). In its current form, the instrument calls for states to assist with international tracking of weapons by marking them on import, but states are not obligated to comply.
Even so, the meeting was successful in providing an important, public showcase for tangible progress on implementation of the UN Programme of Action on small arms. Many interventions reported global, regional, and national activities that have advanced the PoA, providing examples to follow and creating a strong sense of global momentum for small arms control. For example, a new Web-based “one-stop shop” has been set up by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs to assist the practical cooperation of donor and partner states. And the Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons (RECSA) announced a new common system for marking and computerized tracking of firearms imported into the East Africa region governed by the Nairobi Protocol.
Perhaps most significantly, the meeting demonstrated widespread political support for cooperation in tackling the global problem of proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. States, international and regional agencies, and civil society groups called for action on behalf of the countless people around the world who are affected by armed violence. In the final stages of the meeting, many states noted that, in the interests of cooperation and consensus on such a pressing issue, they would support an outcome document that omitted issues that they considered important. At one point during the week-long session, the Chair suspended formal discussions so that Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier and now a rap artist, could perform a song based on his past life, reminding delegates of the reason that they were assembled in New York.
More information on the BMS is available from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.
- Maribel represented Project Ploughshares and the Small Arms Working Group of Peacebuild Canada; Kenneth was an NGO advisor on the Canadian delegation.
Griffiths-Fulton, Lynne. 2006. The Small Arms Review Conference ends with no agreement. Ploughshares Monitor, Autumn.
IANSA. 2008. Press release, July 18.