Archive | 4:43 pm

Reflections on First Committee’s Debate on SALW

12 Nov

After a month of meetings, side-events, resolutions, discussions and arguments, by state delegations and NGO representatives, it seems like peace and quiet has returned to the United Nations (UN). The General Assembly (GA) First Committee on Disarmament and International Security has ended.

Looking back on the past month, I must say that I have mixed feelings. During First Committee, countries had time to share their concerns and standpoints on different disarmament issues. In my belief it is a good thing to discuss disarmament and security on a broad scale: every country can elaborate on their views and needs during the general and the thematic debates. I also believe that it is a good thing to have these meetings on a regular basis: decisions can be made, resolutions can be adopted and actions can be followed up on. These are the reasons why I think First Committee debates are needed and important but they are also the reasons I believe, that the way we organize these discussions limits the potential benefit of the work of First Committee. Due to the fact that the meetings are organized on a wide scale and for only a few days a year, country delegations try to squeeze in all of their concerns into a general and a few thematic statements, all of which are supposed to last no longer than 5 to 10 minutes (though this time limit was rarely honored). This results in countries being forced to choose to focus on a few subjects to address in First Committee and thus other security-related subjects may be pushed to the background with less than the attention they deserve.

This year, as part of my responsibilities for the First Committee Monitor organized by Reaching Critical Will, I focused my attention on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), a subject that is, in my view, very important to address. Everyone knows what SALW are and what they can do. It is the kind of weapon children learn to ‘use’ while playing with toy guns and later while playing videogames, laser games or paintball. People use SALW to protect themselves, to commit petty crimes but also to commit murders. SALW are easy to get your hands on and easy to use and are, therefore, the most functionally dangerous weapons in the world. In the United States more than 30 people are shot and killed every day. In South Africa the number is as high as 40 casualties a day.

During First Committee several delegations mentioned the specific problem with the use of SALW. They called SALW ‘the real weapons of mass destruction (WMD) of our time’ and stressed the need to work together to stop the illicit trafficking of SALW. The representative of Croatia emphasized that ‘small arms and light weapons are neither small nor light in their impact’ and called for a strong and united response to this challenge. Even though most delegations addressed SALW in some fashion, and even at times mentioned the UN’s Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA), the topic was generally mentioned briefly and was overshadowed by several other disarmament issues, such as continued possession of nuclear weapons. On the one hand this makes sense given that these weapons, if ever used, would have an immense impact on the world’s population. Entire cities and populations can be wiped out by the use of one single nuclear weapon. So it is important to make sure that these weapons will not be further developed, tested and used. But, as I pointed out earlier, I also believe that SALW problems are important to address. I understand that it is much harder to attain the political will needed to control the trafficking and use of SALW than is the case with nuclear weapons, since the impact from the use of SALW is not immediately experienced by the entire world community. Nevertheless, even though entire cities or populations cannot be destroyed by a single use of SALW, such weapons are already used to wipe out segments of populations all over the world.

Looking at actions on draft resolutions, it was interesting to see that the first-ever Security Council (SC) resolution (2117) exclusively dedicated to the issue of SALW, which was hailed as a success by several delegations, got deleted from the GA resolution entitled, Assistance to States for curbing the illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons and collecting them, before this resolution was adopted without a vote. The reason for this can be found in the fact that resolution 2117 was adopted by a vote of 14 in favor to none against, but with one important abstention of the Russian Federation. During First Committee it was decided that SALW resolutions should be decided by consensus; thus the progress made in the SC on the issue of SALW was not officially acknowledged by the GA resolution.

Contemplating the future, much needs to be done to tackle the problem of the illicit use and trafficking of SALW. Countries need not only talk about the dangers and effects of SALW but actually see them as another form of WMD. Only when the international community sees its real dangers and SALW are no longer seen as weapons with ‘minor’ effects, can the use of SALW be halted. SALW deserves, in my opinion, the same amount of attention as other WMD and more in-depth talks on efforts to curb illicit SALW are needed. In addition to this, countries such as the United States where everyone has the ‘right’ to own a gun, need to consider strong control legislation. The issue of SALW needs to be addressed internationally and then the same laws and obligations need to be applied in every country if real progress is to be made in the process to stop the illicit use and trafficking of SALW.


Marianne Rijke, Disarmament Fellow