The Ploughshares Monitor March 2001 Volume 22 Issue 1
The global problem of the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons will benefit from focused international attention at the July 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. The preparatory process has included the formal work of the Preparatory Committee, a broad range of regional and sub-regional governmental meetings, as well as a large number of workshops, seminars, and conferences organized by non-governmental organizations (in March Project Ploughshares hosted an international gathering of NGOs, experts, and officials to address demand-side elements of the small arms problem). The Fall 2000 session of the UN General Assembly also passed several resolutions on small arms and light weapons.
UN concern and attention regarding the proliferation, misuse, and excessive accumulation of small arms and light weapons have heightened over the last decade, in part as the result of the organization’s regularly having to face the consequences of conflicts fought mainly with small arms. UN action has been shaped by two Panels of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, one reporting in 1997 [A/52/298], and the second in 1999 [A/54/258].
With the preparations for the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects underway, the UN General Assembly passed four “small arms” resolutions (all adopted without votes) in its October/November session: one primarily to set the time and place for the Conference, two resolutions on assistance to States for small arms action, and a fourth on lessons learned.
The first of this year’s small arms resolutions [A/C.1/55/L.28/Rev.1] confirms New York as the new site for the 2001Conference (9-20 July 2001) and sets the third Preparatory Committee session (PrepCom) for 19-30 March 2001, also in New York. Earlier Kenya had removed its offer to host the third PrepCom and Switzerland had withdrawn its offer to host the Conference.
The second resolution [A/C.1/L.11/Rev.1] is on “Assistance to States for Curbing the Illicit Traffic in Small Arms and Collecting Them.” Supported by Mali, the resolution sets out to encourage support to West African countries who are part of the 1998 Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons in West Africa and to encourage states in the region to create commissions against the proliferation of small arms (Hill 2000, p. 4). In the resolution, the General Assembly
“Encourages the setting up in the countries in the saharo-Sahelian subregion of national commissions against the proliferation of small arms, and invites the international community to support as far as possible the smooth functioning of the national commissions where they have been set up … and urges the international community to give its support to the implementation of the moratorium” (emphasis added).
The third resolution, on “Consolidation of Peace Through Practical Disarmament Measures” [A/C.1/L.15] “promotes the guidelines established on practical disarmament by the Disarmament Commission and encourages the study of the lessons learned by interested states and the promotion of other projects within affected states” (Hill 2000, p. 4). In the resolution, the General Assembly
“…encourages Member States, as well as regional arrangements and agencies, to lend their support to the implementation of recommendations …” in the Secretary-General’s report on the consolidation of peace through practical disarmament measures;
“Encourages Member States, including the group of interested States, to lend their support to the Secretary-General in responding to requests by Member States to collect and destroy small arms and light weapons in post-conflict situations” (emphasis added).
The fourth resolution, led by South Africa, is on “Illicit Traffic in Small Arms and Light Weapons” [A/C.1/L.38]. It encourages measures aimed at reducing the illicit trade and the provision of assistance by states to other states for reducing this trade. This resolution also requires the UN Secretariat “to monitor the issue and provide assistance in response to requests from states” (Hill 2000, p. 4). The General Assembly
“Encourages states to promote regional and sub-regional initiatives and requests the Secretary-General, within available financial resources, and also States in a position to do so, to assist States taking such initiatives to address the illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons in affected regions.…
“Invites States in a position to do so to continue to provide assistance, bilaterally, regionally and through multilateral channels, such as the United Nations, in support of measures associated with combating illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, including assistance in response to requests by States to collect and destroy surplus, confiscated or collected small arms and light weapons;
“Invites the Secretary-General to provide advisory and financial assistance, within available financial resources and with any other assistance provided by states in a position to do so, in response to requests by States, in support of measures associated with combating illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, including assistance to collect and destroy surplus, confiscated or collected small arms and light weapons” (emphasis added).
These resolutions indicate a recognition of the need for resources, capacity, and assistance to facilitate implementation on the ground. Moreover, they point out the importance of developing, implementing, and supporting national and regional initiatives, signaling the need for the international community to take responsibility and show its willingness to take concrete steps to tackle the problem at hand. These resolutions are also politically important, since the underlying message is the critical need for political will and a commitment from states to work collectively to address the small arms problem and take the needed measures and/or assist other states in working toward a common goal.
Consistent with General Assembly action, the resolutions encourage and invite compliance on a voluntary basis. These general formulations, of course, reflect the complexities around the small arms issue, including considerations such as the economic implications, issues of self-defence, and arguments around the legitimate need for light weapons. They also indicate that while there is broad general support for action on small arms, a great deal of work still needs to be done to reach agreement on the specifics. The Preparatory Committee leading to the 2001 UN Conference aims to produce a draft concrete Plan of Action, with as much specific and regional input as possible, for presentation and acceptance by the Conference (see related story on the January PrepCom session). Thus, the General Assembly resolutions are a welcome indication of the willingness of states to provide assistance to states affected by small arms and the importance of cooperation among states in addressing the small arms problem. They should be taken as a step toward the much more comprehensive Plan of Action expected from the Conference.
This year’s UN action also builds on the growing awareness of the crucial need for agreed international norms and standards dealing directly with small arms and light weapons and the arms trade. The General Assembly reinforced the recent growing attention to the devastating impact of small arms and light weapons and confirmed that the accumulations and illicit transfers of small arms and light weapons have become legitimate concerns of the international community.
A number of initiatives in recent years have contributed to this positive international momentum around small arms. The OAS Convention (Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms) was signed in November 1997; a moratorium on small arms was put in place in December of 1998 by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Small Arms and Light Weapons); and negotiations were undertaken and are still underway on the ‘Firearms Protocol’ (since April 1998, the Vienna-based UN Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has been negotiating the Revised Draft Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition).
And now, the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects is becoming the “primary focus for international action on small arms proliferation and misuse, attracting widespread attention from policy-makers and NGOs” (O’Callaghan 2000, p. 1). In fact, it is becoming a “central part of a global effort to combat the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons,” providing states “with an opportunity to pursue a more integrated approach to small arms” and to develop and implement legally or politically binding standards (O’Callaghan 2000, pp. 13-14).