The programme of inaction (or When New York becomes Geneva)

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons

Daniel Mack

Daniel Mack is Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Arms Control, Instituto Sou da Paz, São Paulo, Brazil. This article first appeared on the website The Small Arms Monitor: The Blog on September 10.

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 4

The Second Review Conference (RevCon) of the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA) was held in New York from August 27 to September 7. The conference was an important opportunity for UN member states to review global progress on implementation of the PoA and the affiliated International Tracing Instrument that was agreed in 2005. With two weeks for deliberations the conference could have advanced national and multilateral efforts to reverse the widespread proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Yet, constrained by the self-imposed limitations of a consensus process, with much time lost to states seeking to stall or drop PoA commitments, the conference outcome was a weakened consolidation of the documents with which the conference began.

Upon adoption of an outcome document by consensus, the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lauded the PoA RevCon conclusion as “successful.” But what constitutes success in such a Conference? The RevCon’s mandate was to review the implementation of the PoA, and very little of that was actually done. Rather, it was more of a “Document Review Conference” for drafts that had been available for weeks.

Adopting a document does not alone establish a positive outcome. The substance in the final outcome document would have to be quite strong to call the exercise a real success. The important question is whether that document provides a practical way forward to stopping the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and its dire human consequences.

Under this lens, it becomes difficult to celebrate the past two weeks. All in all, the outcome document mostly restates and “reaffirms” decade-old commitments. Establishing a schedule of meetings is not exactly ground-breaking. A decade is a long time to remain stagnant when the world around us and our knowledge of it are expanding at a rapid pace.

Is this outcome not the second option that Ambassador McLay of New Zealand warned about when he wrote that “another acrimonious failure would be as damaging to the credibility of the Programme of Action process as would one that simply and blandly restates existing commitments”?

For this RevCon, the items at the top of our wish list went unfulfilled. As I had written at the outset of the Conference, “the PoA’s lack of an independent mechanism to assess its actual implementation on a national level poses the largest threat to its relevance. This lethal gap must be effectively overcome during the next two weeks, with the creation of a credible blueprint for the coming into existence of an implementation assessment mechanism as soon as possible.”

No such luck. Even worse, though celebrated by some, it is unclear whether these outcome documents have much practical value or are taken seriously by states. We recall that the document for the Fourth Biennial Meeting of States (2010), adopted by consensus, included the following prescription: “States also recognized the need for a comprehensive assessment of progress in the implementation of the PoA, 10 years following its adoption, as an input for RevCon2” (emphasis added).

Not only was this ignored, it wasn’t delivered as an output for the RevCon either, which is a huge disappointment. Did governments just fight for two weeks over a document that may be innocuous in its practical implications?

How can this situation be avoided in the future? Some in civil society have repeatedly warned that blind faith in, and strict interpretation of, the consensus rule have badly damaged the UN’s entire disarmament machinery. The words of German Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva on August 21 illustrate this point:

For multilateralism to be effective, achieving consensus must not be misunderstood as a licence to force vast majorities to settle for outcomes at the very lowest common and at times banal denominator. We should not harbour any illusions: If achieving consensus is misunderstood as a free ticket to veto whatever one does not like, even if entirely isolated on an issue which is not involving one’s fundamental interests, multilateralism cannot achieve any substantive results at all. If and when this happens multilateralism starts to exist for its own sake as a more or less empty process.

While he was speaking about the CD, arguably the most unproductive body of the extended UN system over the last decade-plus, Hoffman’s words shine in their truth about other processes, such as the recently unfruitful Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) negotiations and this PoA RevCon.

However, though arguably impossible to avoid in the July ATT discussions and the CD at large, in this RevCon the consensus rule was entirely self-imposed. Operating under General Assembly rules, it would have been perfectly legitimate—we would argue essential for a substantial outcome—for the Conference to have gone to a vote.

Some governments supportive of the PoA argue that voting would undermine the process going forward, but it has happened before (such as at the Biennial Meeting of States in 2008) and the PoA has survived. They may also argue that in a vote, those states voting against can wash their hands of ongoing implementation, saying they did not agree to its terms. News flash: the PoA’s politically binding nature has allowed some of them to do precisely that over many years. So what is there to lose?

The blame for failure to achieve consensus in these meetings is usually placed on the so-called “spoilers” or “blockers.” However, the spoilers are usually those that benefit from the status quo in some way and/or are suspicious of the international community’s setting norms and rules that could affect the way they conduct business. Many of those countries have domestic political dynamics that make it difficult to agree internally on new rules or that lack the appropriate political and civil infrastructure to do so.

Therefore, the responsibility for changing the patterns in the United Nation’s disarmament machinery rests on the shoulders of those who have done most for the issue. The so-called progressive states must act as trail blazers, saying ‘enough is enough’ and recalling that under General Assembly rules, unanimous agreement is essential to strive for, but ultimately not necessary for progress.

This could have been done at this RevCon, but the political will was clearly missing. Nonetheless, a handful of countries should no longer be allowed to hold back the rest of the international community in tackling some of the most dramatic problems of our age. Diplomatic comfort and watered-down outcome documents must immediately be replaced by alternatives that can proudly be deemed “successful” in achieving a better impact on the ground. Neither governments nor civil society should continue to settle for less.

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