Canada Hosts International Meeting on Small Arms Transfer Principles

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2007 Volume 28 Issue 4

Despite a difficult gestation, a Canadian-sponsored international meeting on global principles for small arms transfers, held in Geneva in August, proved to be a successful exchange among states, multilateral agencies, and civil society groups, advancing the agenda of the UN Programme of Action (PoA) on small arms. Kenneth Epps, Senior Program Associate with Project Ploughshares, was one of the civil society representatives and opened the session on authorization processes—the processes states undertake to authorize transfers of small arms and light weapons.

This meeting was virtually the sole outcome of the disappointing Review Conference on the UN Programme of Action on small arms held in New York in July 2006. Following two weeks of sterile national statements and plenary debate held hostage by a few intransigent states, the Review Conference ended with no agreement on formal follow-up mechanisms for a process to control small arms, although all states acknowledged the importance of the process. Canada’s announcement in the closing moments of the conference that it would host in 2007 an “informal, intersessional” meeting on transfer controls and other key issues provided the only evidence at that time that the UN process had any future. The Canadian meeting was proposed as a “test” intersessional meeting even though no further UN sessions related to the PoA had been agreed.

Canada’s announcement proved timely. A few weeks after the July 2006 Review Conference a UN General Assembly resolution on small arms included agreement on a PoA Biennial Meeting of States (BMS) to be held in 2008. The Canadian-hosted meeting was subsequently termed an informal working session of UN member states to inform and advance the BMS. As an informal meeting it would have advantages. It would not have to adhere to the structure, and often wasted time, of the formal UN process. Neither would it need to derive an outcome based on consensus. Hence, the session would provide an opportunity to make progress in advance of the BMS.

The main topic chosen for the informal meeting—global principles for the transfers of small arms and light weapons—was also opportune. A UN General Assembly resolution late in 2006 called for a UN process to examine the feasibility and nature of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an international treaty to govern the conventional weapons trade, including the trade in small arms. The Canadian meeting would prove to be an opportunity to exchange detailed information and views on arms transfer principles and practice.

It was not long, however, before the plans of the organizers met with controversy. The rapid and impressive success of the ATT resolution led to concerns among some resolution sponsors, notably the UK, that the Canadian-sponsored meeting would muddy ATT waters and divert political energy and attention away from ATT promotion and negotiation. Civil society groups, including prominent members of the Control Arms campaign advocating an ATT, likewise opposed an early suggestion that the Geneva meeting could begin a distinct small arms transfers treaty process. There was concern that this would create unwanted competition with the ATT. Canadian officials were made aware of these and other concerns during a March 2007 meeting that they organized on small arms transfers with selected state and civil society participants.1

A potentially more damaging controversy arose in early June when the Canadian government determined that invitations to the Geneva meeting would not be extended to five states with which Canada did not have bilateral relations—Belarus, Burma, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. The government decision created immediate political and logistical difficulties that many observers worried would undermine, and even prevent, the meeting. With the deliberate exclusion of five UN member states, the meeting could no longer claim—as originally proposed—to be an “intersessional” test case of a UN process. Indeed, all reference to this idea was removed while the “informal” nature of the meeting was emphasized. Because of these controversies, expectations for the meeting were not high.

The “Informal Meeting on Transfer Control Principles for Small Arms and Light Weapons” was held in Geneva over five days at the end of August 2007. Hosted by Canada with site support from Switzerland, the meeting saw greater participation than predicted; 111 states, 24 civil society organizations, and several UN agencies and regional organizations were represented. The agenda was well-structured and, in spite of some difficulties, provided adequate time for presentations and, perhaps more importantly, subsequent questions and comments, resulting in useful exchanges of information, experiences, and views. In contrast to UN PoA meetings, where civil society input has generally been marginalized and limited to one session, the Geneva meeting allowed for NGO interventions in all the sessions.

Indeed, there were several occasions when civil society comments clearly assisted with the flow of plenary discussion. In the final session, the Chairman of the meeting, Earl Turcotte, gave the “flavour” of the chair’s report, the full version of which will be the outcome document from the meeting that will be tabled by Canada at the BMS in New York in 2008.

There are several reasons for judging the Geneva meeting a success. First, the informal nature of the meeting led to real progress on the UN PoA agenda. The meeting provided a sustained focus on small arms transfer controls, and even identified practical steps to reduce the risk of diversion from the legal to the illicit trade. Although its informality meant it could not make binding decisions, the meeting did serve to demonstrate that PoA commitments can be opened for discussion and debate, and states can constructively engage in exploring implementation of these commitments. Considerable time was spent in reviewing requirements for national arms export (and import) control and “the existing responsibilities of States under relevant international law” as stipulated by the PoA. The meeting devoted two full days to a discussion of export authorization processes and related state obligations. It spent another one-and-a-half days on implementation and assistance issues. It was apparent that many participants welcomed and benefited from these exchanges. Although it remains to be seen if and how the meeting’s outcome will influence the BMS, the success of the informal meeting model on this occasion suggests that it could be used to advance progress in other areas of the PoA.

Second, there was a better balance in the exchanges between states in the geographic North and South than has typically occurred in UN PoA meetings. Delegates from southern states were more actively engaged in the Geneva meeting, and many were forthright in linking the need for stricter arms transfer standards to the negative impact on their populations of irresponsible small arms shipments. African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern representatives also reported on several recent regional and subregional instruments on small arms and small arms transfers.2

Third, by drawing on the expertise and experience of civil society, the meeting underlined the important contribution this sector makes in assisting states to develop and implement controls on international weapons transfers. Many of the presentations were given by civil society experts and, in interventions from the floor, NGOs demonstrated detailed knowledge and experience of small arms transfer controls, and reported on their assistance to states regarding related legislation. Equally important, the exchange among civil society and states was positive and professional and encouraged livelier discussions as the meeting progressed.

Finally, the informal meeting provided an important opportunity to detail and discuss the relevant international law, including human rights and international humanitarian law, which define state responsibilities for effective national laws and regulations on small arms transfers. Representatives of the NGO committee promoting an Arms Trade Treaty had ample opportunity to present the global principles for arms transfers that must be at the core of an ATT. Experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross also detailed state obligations with respect to international humanitarian law. It was apparent that most state participants—with the notable exceptions of Russia and China—valued the opportunity to review the body of international law that has a bearing on small arms transfer controls.

In the end, the logistical and political difficulties that beset the Geneva meeting were overcome, and doubts about the meeting’s utility gave way to constructive technical discussion and debate that advanced the agenda for stricter global arms transfer standards. State and civil society participants alike came away from the meeting with a sense of accomplishment and a common perception that such “informal” meetings could be usefully applied to other commitments under the small arms Programme of Action.



  1. The “Roundtable on Small Arms and Light Weapons” was held in Montebello, Quebec 25-27 March 2007. With support from Finland through its “Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democracy,” the Canadian government assembled representatives of 11 states and four civil society organizations (including Project Ploughshares) to exchange information on small arms transfer controls.
  2. These included the “ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials,” the “Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and Bordering States,” the “Inter-American Convention against the illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and other Related Material” (CIFTA), and the “Arab Model Law on Weapons, Ammunition, Explosives and Hazardous Material.”
Spread the Word