Focus on Small Arms and Light Weapons at the UN

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2004 Volume 25 Issue 4

At this year’s deliberations at the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security the growing number of references to small arms and light weapons (SALW) by Member States highlighted the prominence of this issue on the international community’s agenda and indicated the political will to find ways to control these weapons more effectively.

Beginning on October 4 and continuing for the next five weeks, the First Committee deliberated on disarmament and security. States referred often to small arms. Most supported ongoing implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA), and lauded progress that has been made to control SALW at the regional, national, and international levels. As the representative of Nepal noted, “we see a glimmer of hope in the domain of small arms due to the almost unanimous commitment of the global community to implement the Program of Action.”

However, just as many expressed their concern that SALW were continuing to wreak havoc around the world. Papua New Guinea remarked that for many nations, “this category of weapons are our weapons of mass destruction.”

A number of draft resolutions on conventional weapons were tabled; they covered issues ranging from funding to curb the trafficking and encourage the collection of illicit small arms in affected countries to outlining ways in which peace can be consolidated through practical disarmament efforts. All but one were adopted without vote. These draft resolutions will now be submitted to the General Assembly for further discussion.

The main draft resolution on small arms, “The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects” (A/C.1/59/L.43.Rev.1), was sponsored by Colombia, Japan, and South Africa, along with 27 other states, and was adopted without vote. It expresses states’ appreciation of, and highlights the continuing need for, the open-ended working group (OEWG) to negotiate an international instrument on marking and tracing illicit small arms. When the OEWG held its first consultation last spring, it viewed the instrument from a variety of perspectives, including scope and definitions; recordkeeping, cooperation in tracing; and implementation. During the First Committee discussions, Nigeria made the bold statement that the “international instrument envisaged [by the OEWG] should be legally binding for effective implementation.” Brazil (on behalf of the MERCOSUR nations), France, Senegal, Nigeria, and the European Union were among those who echoed this sentiment. However, other states, including the United States , oppose both the adoption of a legally binding instrument and the inclusion of small arms ammunition in the scope of the instrument. Thus the draft resolution simply maintains the importance of a ‘positive outcome’ by the OEWG.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on states to “mandate an Expert Group to develop proposals for an international system of control on arms brokers,” along the lines of what is being undertaken on marking and tracing. The EU and Canada supported this proposal, and argued for a working group on brokering to be established in 2005. The EU declared that they are “convinced that the establishment of a national legislation and regionally accepted rules and practices on brokering activities is essential and urgent.” However, the final text of the resolution fell short of these recommendations and requests only that the Secretary-General hold “broad-based consultations on international cooperation to prevent, combat and eradicate illicit brokering in small arms.” While the resolution was adopted without a vote, brokering was still a contentious issue for Iran , who clarified their affirmative vote. Iran believes that the consultations on brokering remain “subject to the conclusion of the open-ended working group to negotiate an international instrument to enable states to identify and trace, in a timely and reliable manner, illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.”

Of particular importance to those following the UN process, the Resolution also sets out the schedule for follow-up meetings. The Review Conference will be held in New York between 26 June and 7 July 2006 and will review the progress of states in implementing the PoA; the Preparatory Committee for the Conference will be in New York from 9 to 20 January 2006; and the second Biennial Meeting of States will be held from 11 to 15 July 2005, also in New York.

Another draft resolution sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), “Assistance to States for curbing the illicit traffic in small arms and collecting them” (A/C.1/59/L.21/Rev.1), calls for increased assistance to states in their efforts to curb the illicit traffic in, and collection of, small arms. More specifically, it calls for support for the ECOWAS moratorium on small arms, and “encourages the involvement of organizations and associations of civil society in the efforts of the national commissions to combat the illicit traffic in small arms.” Nigeria once again stepped forward as a champion of this issue, stating that “consideration is currently being given to achieving the ultimate objective of transforming the ECOWAS moratorium on import/export of small arms from its current status of a political instrument to that of a legally binding Convention,” and asking for international support to achieve this goal.

Ninety-eight states co-sponsored a draft resolution (A/C.1/59/L.38) on the consolidation of peace through practical disarmament measures. This resolution encourages efforts to better integrate programs combating the illicit trade in small arms with those aimed at the prevention of armed conflict as well as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration ( DDR ) programs for former combatants.

During the deliberations, Turkey and India noted that the excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread of small arms poses a significant threat to peace, security, and political stability as well as to the social and economic development of many communities and countries. And others, including Angola, Israel, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and Serbia-Montenegro, highlighted the link that they see between economic and social instability and the proliferation of small arms.

Recently, problems associated with man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) have emerged as a key issue in the discussions on small arms. In 2003, a Group of Governmental Experts drafted a report on further development of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, which recommended that MANPADs be included in the Register, making them the first ‘light weapons’ to be included on the Register. During the First Committee deliberations, Australia , Argentina , Kenya , Thailand , and Turkey sponsored the first draft resolution (A/C.1/59/L.49) on MANPADS. Adopted without a vote, it recognizes the right of governments to possess MANPADS, but notes that “effective control” over these weapons is crucial “in the context of the intensified international fight against global terrorism,” and urges states to support current efforts to combat the illicit trade of MANPADS and to strengthen or enact legislation to better control access to MANPADS and ban their transfer to non-state actors. The resolution further encourages initiatives that will strengthen national controls and stockpile management, and “prevent unauthorized access to, use and transfer of MANPADS and to destroy excess or obsolete stockpiles of such weapons.”

Two other draft resolutions, “Problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus” (A/C.1/59/L.48), co-sponsored by Bulgaria , France , and Netherlands ; and “Information on confidence-building measures in the field of conventional arms” (A/C.1/59/L.52), were also tabled by consensus.

The one resolution on conventional weapons that did not enjoy consensus covered “Conventional arms control at the regional and subregional levels.” It received 165 yes votes, with India voting no and Bhutan abstaining. India viewed the “narrowly defined” text as unnecessary, and noted that the Disarmament Commission had already adopted norms on the topic. India also rejected the call for the Conference on Disarmament to discuss a framework for regional initiatives. Nevertheless, the resolution was passed and the issue will still be discussed in the General Assembly. However, it is important to note that during the discussions on regional initiatives, many states voiced their continued support for existing regional small arms control mechanisms. For example, Peru highlighted the Decision 552 by the Andean community, which establishes a plan for implementation of the PoA. And Kenya referenced the Nairobi Declaration and consequent legally binding Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms, signed in April 2004, as significant developments in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions.

Also of significance was the adoption, on the last day of the final week, of the Strategic Framework for 2006-2007. Subprogramme 3 of the framework has as a main objective “to promote greater mutual confidence between Member States in the field of conventional arms and to address the destabilizing and excessive accumulation of and illicit trafficking in and manufacture of small arms and light weapons.” This program will be implemented by the UN’s Conventional Arms Branch to support the PoA and ensure “comprehensive, coordinated and coherent efforts” of those bodies within the UN system that address the challenges posed by small arms.

And finally, all NGOs that are pursuing further controls on international transfers of small arms were heartened to hear the representative from New Zealand announce that her country will be giving full support to an Arms Trade Treaty. The international NGO community will be pushing for more developments of this kind in the lead-up to the 2006 Review Conference.

Overall, this year’s deliberations strengthened the commitment of states to deal with the problems of SALW and showed greater mutual confidence between states in taking steps to address the destabilizing and excessive accumulation of these weapons.

Discussions and voting records of the First Committee can be found here.

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