Tag Archives: small arms

Those Hazy, Crazy Days of UN Summer:  Coaching our Common Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jun

This is perhaps my favorite time of year at the UN.  The days are long which make it possible to work hard and still find time for summer recreation. The pace of policy is furious, from the protection of civilians in conflict and the rights of persons with disabilities to eliminating illicit arms flows and securing adequate housing for the world’s homeless.  Moreover, during this season ours and other offices are filled with the eager and sometimes bewildered faces of younger people seeking a place at an overflowing (if sometimes undercooked) UN banquet.

Some of these young people have come to us before, but come they do year round with great talents, high hopes, and strong and direct links to cultures and communities far from New York – Cameroon and El Salvador, Afghanistan and France, Korea and Nigeria. They make their way here through word of mouth, to renew previous positive experiences, or through affiliations such as the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.

They also represent diverse professional backgrounds, from journalism to engineering.   Some come to refresh their passion, others to find it.   But all understand the perils of the times and all seek to find ways to be more than spectators to the grand and sometimes horrific events that will shape their lives beyond personal technology, wedding vows and alma maters.

They are remarkable, each in their own way, and each in ways at least somewhat different than they have been defined by families and schools.   They share what they know with each other. They embrace values of attentiveness and hospitality. They are kind to security guards and café staff.  They accept the profound and almost unimaginable intellectual challenge of wrapping their heads around a system as complex and bewildering as the UN tends to be.

They are collectively more than we have the capacity to handle, and less than we have the responsibility to nurture and befriend.   We can’t do enough for them, but we try to do enough with them.

To be with this diverse group of people is to stare an uncertain future squarely in the eye.   How, they ask, can we care for ourselves and the world?   How do we fulfill the expectations of families and teachers and at the same time respond to urgent needs and circumstances that they have come to know in so many UN conference rooms?

The UN as many of you know does much with youth, a term which it loosely defines and which tends to prioritize packing large and enthusiastic rooms rather than inspiring deep personal connection.  Though we admire settings where large numbers of youth gather to communicate a common conviction, Global Action doesn’t have what it takes to pack a room.  But we can and will do more to keep personal connections alive, to help establish both the passion and the capacity to sustain the long journey towards a sustainable peace and planetary healing.

I often say to our colleagues that “it’s your turn now.”   I’ve had my turn.  My generation has had its turn.  We’re still in the game, but hopefully more as coaches than as competitors.   Whether we like it or not, our time on the pitch is running out.  Essentially, we’re now on “stoppage time.” It’s a younger persons’ game, summer or not.

And so this week a group of talented and eager people will fan out across the system – to treaty bodies and Security Council briefings, to elections in the General Assembly and discussions on sustainable development priorities in the Economic and Social Council; even to negotiations on transitioning non-self-governing territories (yes, they still exist).

And they will move through the building with kind and attentive looks on their faces, deeply concerned about the contents of their future — the impacts of migration, deadly droughts, and mass shootings — but also grateful for the opportunity to, in whatever way they are able, push the world in a more hopeful direction.

Last Friday, one of our younger colleagues from Georgia Tech University penned a blogpost in which she (as a soon-to-be engineer) shared her UN experiences and made a case for why people from careers far beyond the domain of international affairs should spend time in UN conference rooms.   Cathy (Xin) confessed to “haziness” and frustration in those “crazy” policy rooms, to be sure, but also lauded the means to stretch minds and extend worldviews, to see a bigger picture together with the many constituent parts that must function in sync if we are to survive this current, treacherous moment.

Of course, we at Global Action wish for far less global heartbreak, and we will do whatever we can while we’re here to clarify and then ease any complex policy transitions.   But in this challenging race, the current leadership has run about as far and fast as we can.  At least from our perspective, it’s probably time to pass the baton and then spend whatever energy we have left coaching the runners from the infield.

Guns and Roses: The UN Delivers Uneven Messaging on Disarmament and Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 May

The week just ended did not always bode well for the United Nations in its efforts to find meaningful consensus on core issues affecting the health and sustainability of our planet.

On Thursday, the co-chairs of Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda – Ambassadors Kamau and Donoghue — were subject to some serious blow-back on their efforts to prepare a document on Sustainable Development Goals that would be fit for inspection by Heads of State when they come to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September.  The co-chairs attempt was to lightly edit the outcome document, eliminating un-clarities and even blank spaces where data should have been inserted, such that heads of state could concentrate on endorsing obligations rather than searching for missing text.

Nevertheless, one by one, the G-77 and China, the African Group, CARICOM, the Arab Group and others urged the co-chairs to accept and pass along to the President of the General Assembly the negotiated consensus document intact, even with its obvious flaws.   For this majority of states, reopening agreed text means also reopening opportunities for the large powers to manipulate outcomes and meanings.  The related discussion within Conference Room 4 on the use of “vulnerable groups” was valid at one level – it is important in our deliberations and the actions they set in motion to avoid the stigmas of group labeling  – but this concern was interpreted by many in the room as also an issue of trust more than content.

This (largely rhetorical) lack of trust, even in a process overseen by such highly respected diplomats, was evident in other areas of UN activity.  For instance, in the UN Security Council, the current president (Lithuania) struggled to gain support for a far-reaching resolution on small arms that incorporated some important dimensions (including robust gender perspectives) to help address the scourge of illicit weapons. Lithuania made the strongest possible case for why the UN system needs to place more emphasis on addressing illicit arms flows and the massive community-level violence that follows from any collective failures in this area.

The resolution that Lithuania championed certainly made progress in sharpening our understanding of the deep dysfunction caused by so many weapons in the ‘wrong hands,’ and in its suggestions for how to strengthen arms embargoes and work more effectively with other UN agencies. But this process was also bogged down in controversy – related to the unwillingness of the US and others to allow the resolution to explicitly reference “non-state actors” in its prohibitions – that caused an extraordinary number of Council members to abstain during the vote.  There was also, at least from our viewpoint, confusion among some Council members as to whether our remedial strategies are up to the global challenges posed by illicit small arms. This confusion was evidenced in part by excessive referencing to the Arms Trade Treaty, a limited process that is not yet ready for prime time and that, at its best, will restrict the intended destinations of manufactured arms without impacting either their quantity or their lethal potential.  Other referenced response options, including marking, tracing and stockpile management commonly associated with the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, are equally valuable and equally works in progress.

The US, which in the minds of some shed its ‘shadow’ oversight of UN weapons-related architecture this week — preferring instead to point aggressive fingers at states that it felt tried to ‘sabotage’ progress – made clear that the small arms resolution is a significant, if tentative step forward. What the US did not mention, and caused others to wonder about, is that the P-3 role in the resolution controversy might be an effort to assert a “right” to arm non-state groups serving national interests based on distinctions between terrorists and “legitimate” opposition forces.  Trust issues perhaps emanating from such an alleged “right” motivated some Council members to question (unfairly) the legitimacy of the resolution itself, but certainly motivated a critique of Council working methods that left, once again, some members shaking their heads while the P-3 questioned the flexibility and good faith of all but themselves.

Finally it was not until late in the evening of May 22 when delegates completed the task of tossing flowers on the grave of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Amidst various accusations from Canada, the UK and other states about which delegations ‘wrecked’ the conference, it had been clear for some days that the ‘wreck’ had already occurred.   The tentative hope for a Middle East WMD Free Zone, the avalanche of energy around the allegedly ‘new’ humanitarian initiative, the unprecedented Marshall Islands lawsuit, none of this had power to overcome legacies of bad faith that have long since blocked meaningful progress towards fulfillment of the NPT’s disarmament pillar.    Even if Egypt and the US had been able to suspend their spitting fight long enough to agree to some sort of deal that both shed light on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and preserved the US’s pride of place as facilitator of the Zone process, the lack of progress on disarmament would have placated few of the diplomats and even fewer NGO participants.  The absence of both urgency and flexibility by at least a few key states cast a dark shadow over the UN system that no amount of finger-pointing by Nuclear Weapons States or their NAM counterparts could hope to lift.

The ‘step by step’ approach advocated by the P-3 could be useful inasmuch as it creates the prospect of feedback loops to help assess progress, to ensure that we don’t stubbornly adhere to a policy that has been found to undermine the very goals it seeks to achieve. But in a UN context, step-by-step is more often a formula for institutional and diplomatic inertia, a systemic failure to match urgency with initiative.   We should avoid as much as we are able recklessness in our movements, but global events compel us to move.  Global citizens beg us to move. Apparently, Paper Smart misplaced that memo.

When we as a collective body cannot figure out how to push forward on urgent matters threatening the planet, the odds are that mixed motives are in play.   They were in play as the post-2015 negotiating sessions moved forward on a final text.  They were in play as Lithuania tried to ‘herd cats’ towards an agreement on small arms that generated some suspicion but avoided direct opposition.  They were certainly in play in the NPT as states – especially the P-5 — once again asserted the primacy of their own security interests over the increasingly clear and compelling disarmament interests of the global public.

The lessons for the week are as mixed as the outcomes.   Despite the fussing, the GA president will get a set of development goals and objectives to present to heads of state.  Moreover, the process will come attached to metrics and mechanisms for assessment and funding that can help us honor commitments made to end poverty, heal the planet, unleash the talents of women and indigenous people, and much more.

On small arms, Lithuania’s resolution adds good value, specifically in its gender referencing, more effective sanctions,and unusually warm and supportive regard for the parts of the UN system already tasked with many important activities related to small arms flows.   What role the heavily-referenced Arms Trade Treaty will play remains to be seen, though delegations are urged to revisit some of its intrinsic limitations – some significant– that will require a great deal of complementary work from other disarmament stakeholders if we are indeed serious about controlling arms flows.

On nuclear weapons, despite the contention of some states and NGOs of a “humanitarian tidal wave” that will overcome the objections of stiff-necked nuclear weapons powers, we are still in need of combined and multiple strategies that not only link legal, political, moral and humanitarian advocates but that create venues for discourse that are broad and kind, and that help widen circles of concern far beyond what the nuclear disarmament field has achieved to date.  We have our doubts about these possibilities, but also trust many of the diplomats and NGOs seeking to ensure security based on the least possible levels of armament.

What is probably not in doubt, however, is that a week of sometimes head-scratching objections, half-measures and outright disrespect has not raised levels of public endearment regarding the UN system.  We wasted vast quantities of time, energy and money of diplomats and NGOs; we insulted the honor and dignity of our political friends and opponents; we failed to match the urgency of our analysis with commensurate remedial measures.

We all need a bit of rest and then return to the UN ‘armed’ with more roses and fewer weapons, ready to do better than “mixed messaging” to persons facing security threats and development deficits who need more from us than we have so far been able to provide.

New ‘Developments’ in the Council’s Sphere of Concern Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Jan

On Monday January 19, Chile (president of the Security Council for January) will lead Council members and other state representatives in a debate on Inclusive development for the maintenance of international peace and security.  It is anticipated that the Secretary-General will brief the Council as will Peacebuilding Commission President, Amb. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota (Brazil), and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee.

In preparation for the debate, Chile prepared and distributed a fine Concept Note that provided a rationale for Council deliberations on this important linkage at this critical time.  Indeed, consistent with Chile’s competent and comprehensive grasp of security issues, the Note squarely hit a number of high points, including a focus on women’s participation in all aspects of peacebuilding, a reaffirmation of the primacy of states in the prevention of conflict, and a clear signal of Council recognition regarding the corrosive influence of “exclusion” on efforts to preserve peace and security. Highlighting  contributions to these sorts of discussions from the 2010 Dili Declaration was also most appropriate.

From our standpoint, perhaps the most important affirmation in the Concept Note highlighted the role of armed conflict as an obstacle to development, noting its potential to destroy “the political, social, economic and cultural fabric of societies.”   Indeed, the impacts of armed violence on all dimensions of development – including environmental protection – are staggering.  This is in part what seems to be motivating so many in the development community to advocate for a ‘peace goal’ within the post-2015 framework as highlighted in, among other publications, WFUNA’s latest issue of Acronym.

In addition, as noted in our own forthcoming publication with Mexico’s Instituto Mora, in sectors of Latin America and other global settings the reverse is also the case – poverty, discrimination and broken development commitments exacerbating trafficking in narcotics, persons and weapons, all of which undermine social cohesion at many levels.   This ‘violence’ might not rise to the level of ‘armed conflict’ that triggers direct Council response, but its exacerbating characteristics are clear and compelling, precisely what Chile’s admonition to pursue more robust ‘early warning’ mechanisms should motivate us all to address more actively.

As usual, we will be in the Council on the 19th listening attentively to member state concerns, and there surely be many, from suggestions of enhanced linkages to concerns about Council over-reach.   We share these and other concerns.   Regarding linkages, there are few examples of Council engagement as ‘ripe’ for recognition of complementary efforts as this one.  Indeed, during the time of this Council debate, the GA will be meeting on stocktaking in the process of intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda.  The Disarmament Commission (not noted for its wide-ranging commitment to UN system complementarity) will also meet during this time to discuss its April session goals.   Moreover, the coming week is full of relevant side-events, including a Netherlands-sponsored event on Women, Peace and Security, “Seeking Synergy with the Reviews on Peace Operations and Peacebuilding.”

While recognizing that the Council is not structured to be a ‘bulletin board’ of overlapping events, the failure of the Concept Note to make more specific mention of the timely and far-reaching efforts by the UN system to harmonize the development and security pillars seems needlessly negligent to us.   The Concept Note does mention the work of the Peacebuilding Commission, and certainly with good reason. But given recent, dramatic, systemic efforts on post-2015 goals and growing, global concerns about security relationships (with or without support for a stand-alone ‘peace goal’), it would have been wise for the Note to have been more generous in its complementary recognitions, especially given the ‘downstream’ nature of much PBC activity and the compelling ‘upstream’ mood characteristic of so many post-2015 discussions.

And this leads to our second point, that the failure to recognize these other, active agents of change on security and development reinforces for some a concern that the Council still has not yet satisfied its ‘appetite’ for the control of thematic interests more skillfully engaged elsewhere in the system.  We have commented many times on why an expanding Council understanding of peace and security responsibilities must come attached to more humble and accountable ‘seizings’ coupled with a robust and generous recognition of related work taking place elsewhere in the UN system.   We strongly urge member states during Monday’s debate to offer this recognition at every relevant opportunity.

The Council simply must learn to better engage issues of interest without appearing to control policy outcomes or undermine colleagues active in other parts of the UN system.  As it rightly prepares for security-related challenges posed by development inadequacies and outright failures, the Council still has a small ‘development’ issue of its own to deal with.

Measuring Stick: Keeping Track of Disarmament Progress

12 Oct

At the opening of the General Assembly First Committee last Tuesday morning, and reinforced at a side event later in the day hosted by New Zealand and with the participation of Mexico, Indonesia and the First Committee Chair, High Commissioner for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane made several upbeat, and even hopeful statements regarding the possibility of progress in both the machinery and objectives of disarmament affairs.

Two statements struck us as particularly pertinent, the first of which is her quite correct contention that there is an important relationship between progress on disarmament and the successful pursuit of other core UN goals.  This of course requires more dialogue between and amongst the goal setters. During this month, other General Assembly committees as well as the Security Council, UNODC and other agencies are addressing policy on terrorism and foreign fighters, stable and peaceful societies, strengthening the rule of law, rapid response peacekeeping, the trafficking in arms and drugs, and other issues that have important perspectives to contribute to First Committee deliberations.  As we have noted over and over in this blog, relegating disarmament discussions to one GA committee creates temptation to needless reiteration and even robs discussions of some of their urgency.  Aside perhaps from discussions on humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, the compelling responsibilities to reduce weapons transfers, eliminate needless weapons spending and stop illicit weapons flows are often more keenly felt in these other security-related discussions.

The other intriguing statement by Ms. Kane focused on progress in developing “metrics” to guide and measure progress on the implementation of various disarmament resolutions and treaties. We need, she noted, significantly more in the way of results-based implementation.

Indeed we do. Her emphasis on metrics adds significant value.  We have long argued that, especially in the context of the Programme of Action (PoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons, more disclosure of successful initiatives and less normative posturing would contribute much to confidence building in conventional weapons – confidence in the quality of interventions generated by the PoA and confidence in the ability of the entire UN system – including its often beleaguered disarmament machinery — to leverage meaningful progress on weapons spending and weapons systems.

But there are issues here as well that require some attention moving forward.  First, we need to maintain clear distinctions between outcomes and impact.   For many years, I ran a food pantry in an East Harlem neighborhood, the objective of which was not to pass out groceries – which we did in large amounts — but to use food security as a lever to enhance the health and participation of the community. That we did not always succeed at this was a failure of skill and stamina, probably mine specifically.   But we never confused full grocery bags with any outcome that was related to the achievement of full and meaningful lives.

Donors in many sectors are increasingly driven by ‘numbers’ which sometimes indicate and sometimes belie impact.  In its recent statement announcing cuts in its contributions to the UN budget, Norway underscored that its preferred development strategy must become driven by metrics that are more about impact than piling up statistics.  While we hope that Norway reconsiders levels of its general contribution to the UN, its point is well taken. The point of diplomatic and capacity support is not activity to generate numbers but meaningful, sustainable progress towards a more peaceful, stable existence for more of the world’s people.

Second, there are dimensions of metrics in this instance that go beyond ticking the boxes of disarmament progress, one of which has to do with a full accounting of stakeholders and responsible parties.   It is important not to horde credit for disarmament progress any more than we should horde information regarding ‘best practices’ on reducing or eliminating the impacts of specific weapons.  With all of the crises we face related to weapons, we must steadfastly resist any temptation to marginalize state and non-state actors willing to help address these challenges.

A potential example of misplaced metrics in this sense is a large and quite attractive display that can now be seen near the Vienna Café in the newly renovated General Assembly building.   The display marks the successful entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty and is essentially a series of multi-lingual aspirations by government officials and select members of the NGO Control Arms about how the ATT is poised to become a ‘game changer’ when it comes to saving lives at risk from illicit transfers.

Putting aside the excessive claims of treaty impact that so often accompany the ATT sales force, the otherwise welcome display misrepresents – miscounts if you will – the footprint of a single NGO coalition and a handful of “supportive’ states in bringing the ATT into force.   As someone who watched and weighed in for many years as the ATT process took shape, who contributed daily to an ATT Monitor whose impact on the negotiations was considerable at least for some states, and who was in regular contact with NGOs in Geneva and in diverse global regions trying to knock down the ‘gates’ of policy access, I have some sense of how much more this display left out than it included.

In addition, I distinctly recall discussion and negotiating rooms over many years filled with diplomats from states far beyond the handful of (mostly benevolent, enthusiastic, well-meaning) co-sponsors.  Simply put, this treaty could not exist without these states as well and their many hours of deliberative investment. Indeed, from our reading it was the states who raised (what we felt were) often valid concerns, rejecting the easiest and most immediate consensus, that helped make this a better treaty in some significant aspects that it would have been otherwise. As we move beyond entry into force, some of these states (and civil society groups) still need convincing on one or more key points, and these concerns should remain tethered to the Treaty implementation process.

Let me be clear.  GAPW would never agree to be the focal point of any display on any of the issues with which it is concerned.  However, we do recognize that, states have the right to fund NGOs and even to brand them in UN spaces if they so choose.   But in the case of disarmament or any other field of UN activity, such branding comes with a reminder that metrics is more than counting the equivalent of grocery bags – it is also about assisting as best we can in all its aspects related to the building self-sufficient and resilient lives.  And it is about acknowledging to the best of our ability diverse and even essential contributions to complex processes beyond the most obvious and best funded suspects.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Without a Trace:   Eliminating the Danger of Unmarked Weapons

27 Jun

Editor’s Note:   GAPW is pleased to welcome our latest intern from West Point, Cadet Keith Miller.   Keith has joined us for several important UN events, including the recently concluded Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms.  In this his first post, Keith explores options for secure, durable tracing of small arms and light weapons. 

In the wake of the consensus on the outcome document of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms (BMS), I found myself digging deeper into the actual mechanisms proposed by the focus of the BMS, the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA), specifically the International Tracing Instrument (ITI).  It requires that “all marks required under this instrument are on an exposed surface, conspicuous without technical aids or tools, easily recognizable, easily recognizable, durable, and, as far as technically possible, recoverable”.  The main form of identification recommended within the ITI is a numeric or alphanumeric serial number, combined with some form of other geometric symbol, stamped into a component of the weapon.  This post will explore the viability of such an identification system using the guidelines established by the ITI.

The ability to trace illicit small arms and light weapons sales is a key component of the eventual elimination. When a cache of illicit weapons is discovered, there are usually no records as to how the weapons were procured.  However, if there is a universal system by which weapons can be traced, then forensic analysts can use that system to begin piecing together the history of the weapon, tracing it from its manufacture, through multiple legitimate sales and transports, until the weapon eventually vanishes from legal records and enters the illicit arms trade.  From there, investigators can begin determining the events that led to the loss or diversion of the weapon. This search can then lead to the arrest and prosecution of those involved in the illicit sale of arms and in time the elimination of the global trade in illicit weapons.

I began by exploring what I thought was a TV myth concerning the durability of an imprinted serial number.  (According to some popular American crime dramas, an enterprising criminal could remove a weapon’s serial numbers to hinder the progress of investigators.)  In searching for alternatives, I discovered several discussion pages focused on potential ways to remove weapon serial numbers, as well as some ways that a serial number, once removed, might be recovered.  However, the number of techniques that are available, especially to well funded transnational crime organizations and other violent non state actors, could easily overcome the ability to recover stamped serial numbers, invalidating them as a suitable tracking instrument according to the guidelines laid out in the ITI, since they lack true durability and recoverability.

An alternative to serial numbers is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking.  In this method of weapons tracing, a small chip implanted in the body of the weapon emits a specific radio frequency which can be linked to all records concerning the weapon in question, including date of manufacture, previous owners, sale dates, and other relevant information.  This quick access to in depth information would be of great use to forensic investigators attempting to learn more about the history of illegally obtained weapons.  It can also be used to ensure physical security for armories and other weapon storage facilities.  Such a system was implemented by the United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 2010, which allows both weapons and personnel to be automatically recorded when moving in and out of an armory, as well as restrict unauthorized access to and removal of weapons.  This system could certainly meet concerns posed in the BMS concerning physical security of weapons stockpiles.  However, an RFID chip based system does not meet the ITI’s guideline regarding any markings being conspicuous with the use of specialized tools, since tracing the chips will require the use of detectors scanning for the required frequencies.

Additionally, there are two issues that arise which may compromise an RFID based system of tracing.  The first is the potential for the RFID chip to be removed.  Depending on its location within the weapon, it could be possible for criminals and terrorists to remove these chips while maintaining the functionality of the weapon, therefore preventing the retrieval of any information regarding the weapon.  This possibility threatens both the durability and recoverability requirements put forward by the ITI.  Another threat to an RFID based system is the possibility of cloning an RFID chip.  By following online instructional videos or using open source products already available, it is possible to detect and copy the frequency being emitted by different RFID chips.  This technology could then be used to change the frequency of an illegally diverted weapon to match the RFID signature of a legal weapon, thereby making proper identification and forensic analysis incredibly difficult.  These possible issues severely limit the ability of RFID chip based systems to meet the ITI’s desire for both durability and recoverability.

A third and slightly less orthodox method of weapons tracing can be derived from analyzing the radiation given off during the decay of radioactive isotopes.  As different isotopes decay, they emit gamma rays of a very specific type.  This radiation can then be detected using fairly simple equipment, analyzed, and paired with its source isotope.  In a global weapons tracing system, each nation that produces arms would be assigned a specific isotope, which has its own specific radiation signature.  All weapons produced would be inculcated with trace amounts of the radioactive isotope assigned to the country in which they are being produced. While detectable, the radiation would likely not have any observable effects on humans, given the limited amount or radiation actually being emitted.  The distinct radiation signatures would allow forensic analysts to determine at a minimum the country of origin of the weapon. While this does not provide nearly as much information on individual weapons as a serial number or RFID based tracing system, it is much less prone to tampering.   Certain isotopes can remain detectable for several thousand years, allowing for the continued tracing of weapons long after their initial manufacture and sale.  Additionally, there is no readily available way to distort or remove this radiation signature, which fulfills the ITI’s desire for durability and removes any real need for a recovery mechanism.  This method of tracing could also be applied to the tracing of ammunition.  The lack of reference to the future tracing and control of ammunition in the outcome document of the BMS was a major concern for many of the countries in attendance.  Ammunition is also not covered in the ITI.  However, by adding these trace amounts of radioactive material to the ammunition, it would be possible to determine country of origin, which could be valuable in any future attempts to root out and stop weapons traffickers.

However, using radiation signatures has its own drawbacks.  Firstly, it cannot provide as much detailed information as a serial number or RFID based tracing system.  The only definitive information that can be drawn from the radiation signature would be the country of manufacture, which, while useful, cannot provide an accurate history of the weapon.  Additionally, a radiation based system does not meet the ITI’s requirement that the system be conspicuous without technical aids or tools.  There could also be an issue with the public perception of irradiating weapons and ammunition, due to the negative stigma associated with the term “radioactive”.  Although there is very little chance of any effects from such a tracing system, it may require a degree of public education in order to pass legislation in various countries in order to globally implement such a system.

In sum, no one system that has been discussed in this article completely fulfills the requirements established by the ITI.  Imprinted serial numbers, while easily visible and individualized, can be easily removed with the correct equipment. RFID based systems can provide additional security capabilities in weapons storage and quick access to record, but RFID chips can also be hacked or duplicated in order to prevent proper identification.  Lastly, radiation signatures do not provide nearly as much information as the other tracing systems, but they are much more resistant to tampering by weapons traffickers.  Radiation signatures also have the potential to allow for the tracing of ammunition.  It is likely that some combination of these different systems could be used to create a comprehensive tracing instrument which would be of great value in the fight to eliminate the global illicit weapons trade.

Cadet Keith Miller, West Point

Text Message: The BMS Draws to a Close

23 Jun

Editor’s Note:   This essay was one of GAPW’s contributions to the Small Arms Monitor organized by Reaching Critical Will. Access to all essays and all monitors is available at:  

Thanks to determined leadership by Ambassador Tanin (Afghanistan) and the Bureau of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS), as well as the willingness of states to ‘walk away’ from some Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA)-related policies dear to their hearts, consensus on a BMS outcome document was reached at around 5PM last Friday.

While we tend not to regard textual consensus as major feature inspiring implementation of PoA objectives, it was nevertheless heartening to see this fine group of diplomats come away with an outcome worthy of applause.  As GAPW has noted from the beginning, as much as diplomats seem to enjoy wrestling with and negotiating text, the purposes of the PoA are likely to be better served through an examination of successfully multi-lateral efforts already undertaken within the key activity frameworks endorsed by the PoA.  As Qatar seemed to imply on behalf of the Arab Group, the consensus sought at this BMS is as much about the value of the PoA itself as about the specifics in the outcome document. Such a document has uses as a window on state priorities, but it is unlikely in itself to force serious reassessment of or increase levels of commitment to PoA implementation.  That motivation will come from elsewhere.

Sometimes what is not said in these documents is more important that what is said.  Australia, CARICOM and others noted issues that were neglected, or omitted altogether – Security Council resolutions, security sector reform, the role of UNSCAR, border-related issues, and of perhaps greatest concern, ammunition.  In addition, there were also closing statements by Israel, Canada, the US and the EU distancing each from language linking self-determination and actions to eliminate small arms.

Nevertheless, the ‘good mood’ largely persisted in the room during the course of the week, in some cases through long meetings that challenged diplomats and civil society to forsake World Cup matches. This was both satisfying and a credit to BMS leadership, including the widely-praised Anthony Simpson.  As Venezuela noted with pleasure, ‘there is still a disarmament process which can still achieve consensus.’  Indeed, this might be the single most powerful message that this BMS sends out to a weapons-weary world.

Clearly, with or without this text, the PoA seemed destined to move forward.   States and civil society will continue to identify small arms-related security problems.   Capacity support will be solicited and offered.   We will continue to seek technology for marking, tracing and physical security of stockpiles that can stay one step ahead of those who seek to undermine its benefits.  We will continue to highlight PoA norms and face squarely the challenges (noted by Egypt, Indonesia and others) of implementation based on national and regional priorities.

And we will continue to count victims of needless gun violence; victims of small arms trafficking, of unrestricted flows of mostly second hand weapons, of arms manufacturers pushing weapons like dealers push heroin, of rabid gun lobby groups who refuse to acknowledge, as my late, gun-using father once said to his then gun-possessing sons, that gun rights are at best a relatively minor part of the myriad rights and responsibilities that make up a great country.

What this BMS made clear is that, as welcome as consensus on text is, there is only so much momentum that text alone can build.   The real momentum, the real hope for the victimized and the fearful, is in the many stories of success that the PoA has leveraged; the borders that are more secure, the streets that are safer, the gang members and insurgents who have been disarmed, the illicit ordinance that has been sent up in flames.

China warned on Friday that there is so much further we need to travel to remove the scourge of weapons-related violence.   It is through stories of progress as much as through textual norms from which the impetus to continue on this challenging and life-saving journey will come.

Dr. Robert Zuber


US gun policies – leading the world by example?

19 Dec

Editor’s Note:  This is the final blog for Marianne Rijke as our Disarmament Fellow.    Soon she will move to Vienna to work for the CTBTO and hopefully will stay fully connected to our office as well.  Here, Marianne addresses an issue that has caused pain and controversy in the US — gun violence and what to do about it.  Her piece is thoughtful and relevant, and GAPW will continue our struggle to find the most effective and viable policy options in her absence. 

December 14 may have seemed like an ordinary day to you and me, but for the people of Newtown (Connecticut) this day symbolizes a pitch black day in their towns history. It was on this day, one year ago in 2012, that Adam Peter Lanza shot and killed 26 people – of whom 20 children – at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Immediately after the shooting, there was talk again about how to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future, especially since it was hardly the first time this has happened in the US. From the beginning there was a great division in views. On the one hand, there were the people like President Obama, who said that getting a gun should be made a lot more difficult. And on the other hand, there were the people like the members of National Rifle Association (NRA), who proposed guns for everyone as protection. They argued that taking away the possibility to own guns would actually put the lives of children at risk because “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

In the year that has passed, several attempts have been made to make gun laws stricter in the US. President Obama suggested fingerprinting for gun permits as well ass background checks. These suggestions were shot down in Senate and stricter gun laws did not get the desired support in Congress. President Obama took the one year anniversary of the Newtown massacre as an opportunity to once again emphasize the need to do more to prevent dangerous people from getting a gun, and then added the need to heal troubled minds. In the year since Sandy Hook not much has been done. No federal gun laws have been changed and in several states gun laws have actually been loosened. And lawmakers in Kansas and Alaska have enacted laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders. In Colorado, where there was a shooting at a school exactly one year after the Newtown killings, a more strict gun law was recently reversed. This makes it even more clear that the present gun law system does not work, despite claims to the contrary.

The (mis)use of guns and other small arms is an often debated issue, not only in the US, but worldwide. During the United Nations First Committee debates, the need to combat the illicit transfer and use of small arms and light weapons (SALW) was stressed. Several delegations stated that “SALW are the real weapons of mass destruction of our time” and that action is needed to regulate their movements and eliminate illicit supplies. Agreements were made and resolutions were signed which will (hopefully) help in the struggle against the illicit transfer and use of guns in the future worldwide. But they will not be sufficient to prevent another ‘Newtown killing’.

What makes the gun violence in the US different than the (mis)use of guns in the rest of the world is the legality of owning the guns used. Whereas private gun ownership is largely regulated and even prohibited in the rest of the world, in the US everyone has a right to own a gun. This ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’ came into effect with the signing of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the US on December 15, 1791. The American War of Independence had just ended (1783) and people were fearful of violence and wary of government. In this time, life in the US revolved around protecting yourself, your family and your land. Rule of law as we know it now, whereby the state is obligated to protect its citizens, did not exist as a principle guiding state conduct. Giving citizens the right to bear a gun to protect themselves made sense, at that time.

But over two centuries have passed and the US has grown into a world leader and is seen as one of the most prosperous and civilized countries in the world. The US takes the lead in several international security issues and positions itself as the protector of the free and safe world. It is difficult for me to understand that this ‘protector’ has a hard time enacting laws that keep ‘crazy’ or angry people from purchasing a gun. In our allegedly ‘free and safe world’, people are still dying every day (and needlessly) because of gun violence.

Since December 14 2012, over 32,000 people have been killed by gun violence in the US alone. Change is needed — getting hold of a gun should be made a lot more difficult, if not forbidden. To make the world a safer place for coming generations, the US should take up its leadership role and start leading the world by example. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said it so wisely: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Marianne Rijke – Disarmament Fellow GAPW