Civil Society Efforts Make Impact: The 2005 UN Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and Light Weapons

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2005 Volume 26 Issue 3

It has been four years since the United Nations member states first met to discuss small arms and light weapons. That meeting in 2001, the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, resulted in the Programme of Action on small arms (PoA), which outlined measures that states were to take at the national, regional, and international levels to control the proliferation and misuse of these weapons around the world. Since then, states have met to review implementation on a biennial basis. The Second Biennial Meeting of States (BMS2) in July 2005 saw some progress on the small arms agenda.

Overview of the meeting

The July 2001 Conference succeeded in putting the issue of small arms, which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called ‘weapons of mass destruction’, on the international agenda. The main purpose of the follow-up BMS meetings is for states to report on implementation of the PoA, not to negotiate changes. Monitoring implementation of the PoA is essential to ensure that states continue to move towards full implementation and maintain momentum on small arms issues.

These meetings also serve as forums for civil society organizations to lobby governments on specific issues and, more generally, allow for dialogue and networking opportunities among civil society organizations, and between government and civil society.

The formal proceedings, chaired by Ambassador Pasi Patokallio of Finland, were conducted over five days. During the first two days, 77 Member States made statements and 101 submitted full reports to the Coordinating Action on Small Arms mechanism (CASA), the body that oversees the Programme of Action reporting process (UN 2005). Given that data and information are provided by states voluntarily – in 2003 only 39 states submitted reports – this increased participation is in itself a positive development that the UN has worked hard to achieve by building the capacity of states to report.

Civil society organizations were well represented. There were approximately 190 IANSA-affiliated organizations from 59 countries (IANSA 2005). Civil society was given a three-hour slot to address the conference. This session gave representatives the opportunity to provide an overview of the small arms issues that civil society is working on. Representatives from the pro-gun lobby, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA), also spoke briefly.

Canadian civil society was represented by members of the Small Arms Working Group of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee: Project Ploughshares, The Group of 78, and The Coalition for Gun Control. As well, a representative of the Quaker United Nations Office based in Canada was part of the official Canadian delegation. Along with Canada, 21 other governments had civil society representatives as part of their official delegation. In fact, Ambassador Patokallio specifically asked states to have civil society representatives on their delegations. Civil society will encourage governments to include civil society representatives on their delegations at forthcoming meetings.

The last two days of the meeting were devoted to thematic discussions guided by a set of questions provided by Ambassador Patokallio on the following topics:

  • Weapons collection and destruction
  • Stockpile management
  • Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants
  • Capacity-building
  • Resource mobilization
  • Institution-building
  • Marking and tracing
  • Linkages (terrorism, organized crime, trafficking in drugs and precious minerals)
  • Import/export control – illicit brokering in SALW
  • Human development
  • Public awareness and the culture of peace
  • Children, women, and the elderly.

Along with the official proceedings, there were more than 25 side events and six publication launches. Project Ploughshares co-sponsored a meeting with the Arias Foundation and the Friends Committee on National Legislation that was hosted by the governments of Costa Rica, Kenya, Norway, Slovenia, and Timor-Leste. The discussion centred on building support for the global small arms export principles enshrined in the Arms Trade Treaty that has been drafted by civil society organizations.

Project Ploughshares was also part of the Ecumenical Network on Small Arms (ENSA) delegation, which included representatives from the World Council of Churches, the Mozambique Christian Council, Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa, Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, Norwegian Church Aid, the Uganda Joint Christian Council, and the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes & Horn of Africa. ENSA arranged meetings with government delegations in an effort to strengthen the network and bring a faith-based perspective to issues being discussed in the formal sessions.

Results of the proceedings

Although the mandate of the meeting was supposed to be reporting on achievements to date, a number of government statements and reports did more.

  • Some states expressed support for an international Arms Trade Treaty or interest in developing a legally binding instrument to control small arms transfers. Others did not go so far but still came out in support of common standards that would regulate the international small arms trade.
  • The Canadian government’s statement, in keeping with many others, called for “the development of common criteria and procedures for arms exports with the goal of incorporating such guidelines into a revised UN PoA in the Review Conference in 2006.”
  • Three states announced that they would start the process to ratify/accede to the UN Firearms Protocol, currently the only legally binding international treaty on small arms. So far 42 countries have ratified this agreement. Canada has signed but not ratified the Protocol.
  • Approximately 58 states, including Canada, expressed regret that the creation of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (OEWG) did not result in an agreement on a legally binding international instrument.
  • Forty-seven states welcomed the upcoming meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts to examine brokering controls. Canada’s statement did not strongly recommend an international instrument but encouraged countries to work in their national jurisdictions “towards measures for curbing illicit brokering.”
  • The PoA does not refer explicitly either to the regulation of civilian possession of small arms or to prohibiting small arms transfers to non-state actors, but many states, including Canada, mentioned one or both of these issues in their official statements.
  • Many civil society organizations have been pressing governments to support more fully programs that aim to lessen the demand for small arms. More states and UN agencies made specific reference to demand issues than did in previous meetings in 2001 and 2003. Canada referred specifically to the need to deal with both supply and demand directly.

In his closing statement, Ambassador Patokallio (2005) spoke specifically of the need for enhanced controls on transfers and increased regulation on brokers and brokering activities. He expressed regret that the international instrument to identify and trace illicit small arms was not legally binding, but declared that states were not therefore released from their obligation to implement it “fully and in good faith.” He saw the need for stronger demand-side measures that focus on all community stakeholders and for security sector reform initiatives that enhance perceptions of security.

Towards the 2006 UN Review Conference

In January 2006, states will meet at the Preparatory Committee to discuss and set the agenda for the Review Conference to be held in July 2006. Civil society organizations need to ensure that this agenda is as comprehensive as possible.

Canadian civil society organizations will monitor developments at the international level and dialogue with government to seek further strengthening of its own policy on small arms issues. Through the Small Arms Working Group, Project Ploughshares will convene a meeting before the end of 2005 to discuss the results of the BMS2 and present policy briefings produced by Canadian participants at the BMS2 on export controls, brokering, marking and tracing, and civilian possession and demand.

As well, Project Ploughshares has just launched an education and awareness-raising campaign on small arms to raise the profile of this issue among the general population.



IANSA 2005, “IANSA at the Biennial Meeting of States, 2005.”

Patokallio, P. 2005, “Concluding statement by the Chairman of the Biennual [sic] Meeting of States, Ambassador Pasi Patokallio.”

UN 2005, “Small arms and light weapons,” Department for Disarmament Affairs.

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