Tag Archives: UNPoA

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


FES’s Fall Academy Takes on Disarmament Issues

14 Nov

Editor’s Note:  The following was presented on a panel organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung as part of their excellent, annual Fall Academy.

I have been asked this year by Volker Lehman of FES to do something different than in years past, not to speak so much about the NGO community at the UN — about which I am not always a huge fan – but to provide a critical perspective on the work of disarmament led by folks such as Fikry Cassidy of Indonesia and Thomas Markram, of UN Disarmament Affairs , two people I have known for some time and respect greatly.

Being critical, of course, does not mean being negative.   We’ve certainly butted heads in the past with a number of delegations and with disarmament affairs, and that isn’t likely to change.   We take peace and security challenges seriously; we know many people worldwide who have suffered devastating consequences when those challenges are not taken seriously enough. We make no apologies for insisting – including insisting of ourselves – that these challenges are taken up with as much serious and wise purpose as possible.

That said, most of our relationships with governments here in New York and with Secretariat officials, are quite positive.   We deeply value what they do.   Most diplomats work very hard,  harder on average than many of the NGOs trying to sell them on one policy or another.   We respect and honor their commitment, even when we differ on the paths chosen or on the assessment of our results.

We (GAPW) are an office completely independent of government and UN money.   We give the best advice we can give, we do it privately whenever possible, and we blend advice with concern about the lives people here are living, the personal sacrifices they often make to be here.   Sometimes our ideas are good; sometimes they are just plain nonsense.   But they are as clear, thoughtful and attentive as we can make them.   We know that lives are at stake in the decisions made at headquarters.  We also recognize that we don’t get a vote.   We can help make better decisions, but we don’t make decisions ourselves.

There are three core values that govern our security-related work.   First is the recognition that, as UN-based NGOs, we represent a mere sliver of the global ideas and perspectives that need to find a place at the policy table.  Despite the inferences of too many of my NGO colleagues, this is not about us.  We are not gatekeepers.  As a group of largely white, English speaking offices which are often much too cozy with our government benefactors, we are surely the least diverse pillar of the UN system. There are many governments that rarely if ever see familiar national or ethnic faces at the back of conference rooms.   We can talk more collectively about why that is so.  But believe me, diplomats notice.  And issues like disarmament are impacted by a lack of diverse policy perspectives.

Second, we must recognize that the UN system is fundamentally imbalanced, that the playing field is heavily tilted –even in the Security Council — and that states in control of the game have largely mastered the skill of coercive management out of the spotlight.   Why we value the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) so much, even when we are occasionally  at cross purposes on policy, is that the NAM represents a key, core challenge to the policy inequalities of this system, the degree to which all states at headquarters really don’t play by the same rules.   The implications of this disparity come up in disarmament discussions all the time, as states plead for consistency in application, transparency in motivation, and an even-handed assessment of the implications and power imbalances that will very possibly accrue from our implementation of negotiated agreements.

Third, we recognize the degree to which none of the key weapons-related issues impacting the UN system is likely to be solved until and unless all of the relevant stakeholders are engaged.  For us, that means looking to the many complementary issues and offices that help to define our security commitments. For instance, Illicit small arms fuel violence against women, impede development, keep children at home instead of at school, dampen prospects for the prevention of mass atrocity violence, negatively impact the health of state security sectors, and create cultures of suspicion that ultimately impact other negotiations, such as efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, efforts which we all agree must remain at the top of the UNs agenda.

A word on the Arms Trade Treaty, which was never conceived as a disarmament treaty per se and on which we worked very hard alongside many diplomats and a couple of the NGOs that considered thoughtfulness a more helpful contribution to Treaty negotiations than cheerleading   There is, all the hype notwithstanding, little reason to believe that this Treaty will result in any significant diminution of arms manufacturing or trade.   The gushing references to the ATT by so many First Committee diplomats is understandable given the success of these negotiations amidst UN disarmament mechanisms that continue to be frozen or rendered virtually irrelevant.   But as with the rest of life, this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment for the UN.  We have a positive outcome over which we all lost lots of sleep.   But it is not a great treaty by UN standards, it does not effectively balance rights and obligations of manufacturers and recipients, it will be challenging to change provisions that turn out to be ineffective once the treaty comes into force, its implications for disarmament are unclear at best, and the opportunity costs of this treaty have been high in terms of energy expended and trust invested.     There is much heavy lifting still to do which will require much sober resolve.  Cheerleading just won’t cut it.

To conclude, we fully acknowledge the right of sovereign states to pursue their own security needs, but our goal is directly tied to the Charter idea of security at the least possible levels of armament.  To achieve this goal, disarmament itself must remain at the forefront of our common policy agenda.  The UN has many gaps in effectiveness to be addressed, and weapons have for too long been the vehicles through which states have pursued both domestic and cross-border interests.  We are convinced that these gaps can be filled, the playing field can be leveled, and thus states will find more and more reasons to embrace collective security with the same fervor that they now embrace its national equivalents.  For as long as our office exists, these are the goals and the hopes that will guide our activities and recommendations.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Sessions at UN Geneva

19 Nov

In Geneva this past week, High Contracting Parties (HCPs) are meeting to discuss the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) and some of its individual Protocols. HCPs to the CCW must sign at least two of the Convention’s Protocols, but are not required to sign all of them.

The CCW, negotiated by 51 states in 1980, seeks to address the use and effects of so-called inhumane weaponry. To achieve these aims, the CCW itself contains only general rules and was designed to be expanded and updated to encompass new technological and methodological developments in warfare through the adoption of individual protocols. The Convention is considered a “living instrument” seeking to address new security challenges as they emerge in modern practice. As noted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in remarks to the opening of the Conference on Protocol V on Monday morning, the CCW has been judged by its ability to catalyze action for states to prevent and remedy human suffering. This is a critical point in the context of the CCW framework as it seeks greater relevance to international peace and security. Nevertheless, the assertion that a proper balance between “military requirements and humanitarian concerns” must be struck continues to be made, particularly by delegations such as China and Pakistan. This is an ongoing and even at times unsettling debate in light of international humanitarian law (IHL) implications of the CCW.

Protocols to the CCW include (I) Non-detectable fragments; (Amended Protocol II) Landmines, Booby-traps, and other Devices; (III) Incendiary Weapons; (IV) Blinding Lasers; (V) Explosive Remnants of War (ERWs). Other issues remain unresolved in the context of the CCW, such as a compliance mechanism, a provision to ban small-caliber bullets, as well as a ban on cluster munitions and a restriction on the use of anti-vehicle mines. During last year’s 4th Review Conference for the CCW held in November 2011, a controversial debate arose regarding an attempt by some states to negotiate a new protocol focused on cluster munitions. In addition to the problem of adopting a framework that would ultimately allow for the use of cluster munitions is a larger normative problem insofar as such a protocol  would represent the adoption of an application of IHL that is weaker than a previously, and generally accepted, law in the form of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). The CCM comprehensively bans the use of cluster munitions and has been signed and ratified by 111 states parties. The cluster munitions protocol was ultimately blocked, which was deemed a great victory by civil society and many states parties alike.

This year, the CCW HCPs convened for the 6th Conference on Protocol V on ERWs, the 14th Conference on Amended Protocol II, and a two-day Meeting of States Parties (MSP). In particular, the two-day session assessing implementation of Protocol V was a refreshingly practical and beneficial exchange among HCPs as well as civil society experts who are working directly on mine action activities. Protocol V was adopted in November 2003 covering both abandoned and unexploded ordnance. The President of the Conference, Ambassador Akram of Pakistan, led Conference discussions on the themes of universalization; clearance, removal or destruction of ERWs; victim assistance; national reporting; generic preventative measures; cooperation and assistance and requests for assistance; and follow-up mechanisms. HCPs to the Protocol, other HCPs, observer states, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other non-governmental organizations actively engaged in information exchange and the sharing of best practices on these themes in order to promote and improve full implementation of Protocol V. The ICRC had convened a meeting of experts the previous week to explore implementation challenges of Article IV of the Protocol related to recording, retaining and transmission of information. The delegation of UNMAS also encouraged HCPs to make greater use of the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG) adopted last year in the General Assembly. As for follow-up, the Conference decided that the next Meeting of Experts would take place from 10-12 April 2013 in Geneva and, as noted by the delegate of the European Union, Meetings of Experts are important for assessing progress and building on the substantive discussions of previous years.

Since the last CCW gathering, three new signatories have joined Protocol V—Lao People’s Democratic Republic, South Africa, and Turkmenistan—while the delegations of Cuba and Montenegro announced their intention to begin the process of acceding to the Protocol. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the work of Protocol V HCPs in addressing the challenges of states affected by ERWs, with a particular focus on safe storage of ammunition, sharing of best practices, and assessing fulfillment of Protocol obligations. The delegation of South Africa noted that the issue of ERWs is particularly alarming for the international community as almost every armed conflict generates ERWs that continue to wreak havoc on societies long after active hostilities cease. Observer states that are not a party to the Protocol, including the delegations of Lesotho and Yemen, also underscored the importance of universalization of the Protocol.

Following a general exchange of views, delegations received individual briefings from the respective Coordinators appointed on the various thematic issues and correspondingly adopted relevant recommendations included in the final adopted outcome document. This issue-specific format lent itself to a robust and constructive engagement on the technical aspects of implementation of Protocol V. The US delegation expressed its preference for these sessions noting, “The plenary format does not encourage an exchange of views.” With regards to universalization, HCPs requested the President-designate to consider reporting to the next session of the General Assembly on his/her endeavors. Furthermore, HCPs also agreed to continue consideration of clearance, removal or destruction of ERWs through capacity-building in the areas of surveillance, clearance and removal at the community level. They also agreed to continue to share practices and experiences among HCPs. The plan of action for victim assistance was also identified as a core component of mine action strategy and praised “the heart of the mandate” of the Protocol V instrument. Moreover, the Coordinator of this session noted the links between victim assistance and development, and HCPs agreed to continue to promote data collection and needs assessment, in particular “with regard to disaggregated data on gender and children as well as information on the needs of families of victims…” The delegation of Chile rightly noted that victim assistance is covered in a central chapter of implementation of the Convention and its practical value in this context is clear.

Recommendations on cooperation and assistance as well as national reporting were also adopted, in particular a recommendation on encouraging greater use of the Guide to National Reporting, which was adopted by the 4th Conference. The HCPs also committed to continue to address one specific technical issue directly related to the implementation of Article 9 and Part 3 of the Technical Annex of Protocol V, which includes important practical measures such as munitions manufacturing management, training, transfer, and future production. The delegation of UNMAS encouraged meetings of ERW-affected states to discuss their priorities and views. Likewise, the delegation of Australia, which is currently serving as chair of the Mine Action Service Group (MASG), underscored national ownership and capacity building with regards to cooperation and assistance requests. The UNMAS delegation also highlighted the importance of coordination for cooperation and assistance and noted the role of the UN system in serving as a conduit for such assistance requests. NGO colleagues also offered useful interventions. The Mine Action Group (MAG), for instance, offered its reflections on the work it has conducted in mine action on the ground in diverse global regions. In a similar fashion, the delegations of the Philippines and the US also offered detailed presentations on their national experience related to clearance and removal of ERWs in post-conflict settings.

As stated by the delegation of the Holy See during the general debate, ERWs not only pose a safety problem, but also a regional security challenge. Although no “new,” groundbreaking issues related to Protocol V were highlighted or resolved this session, the continued interest and enthusiasm around its universalization and robust implementation are important for both the disarmament and human rights communities as advocates and diplomats alike work to prevent gross human suffering during acts of warfare. It is essential that HCPs, in the context of Protocol V as well as the broader CCW framework, address not only the devastating humanitarian effects of such weapons during conflict, but also post-conflict and even during times of peace. As was noted by UNMAS and other delegations, unplanned explosions of munitions and ammunition sites are increasing risks and deserve attention at all times. Damage from unplanned explosions at munitions sites is far more costly than implementation of generic preventative measures that seek to curb this threat.

Many lessons can be drawn from the work on Protocol V of the CCW, namely the central role of victim assistance, the strong emphasis placed on national reporting and corresponding national templates, and the robust and regular exchange of information and best practices in an issue-specific format. With many other related processes underway in the disarmament and human rights fields, including the ongoing arms trade treaty (ATT) process and the Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALWs), the hope is that CCW practices based on the values of transparency and accountability will inspire these parallel processes. Such core principles must be an inherent part of any successful arms control, disarmament, or humanitarian instrument seeking to make a concrete difference on the ground.


—Katherine Prizeman

UNPoA on Small Arms Review Conference Ends with Consensus Document

10 Sep

After the President of the Review Conference (RevCon), Ambassador Ogwu of Nigeria, provided a third revision of the draft outcome document on Friday afternoon, delegations were able to adopt, by consensus, the compilation document. This document is composed of a Declaration, two implementation plans for the Programme of Action (UNPoA) and International Tracing Instrument (ITI), respectively, and a follow-up mechanism detailing a future schedule of meetings to guide the small arms process. As expressed by the President in her closing remarks to the Conference, the successful completion of the RevCon with a consensus outcome is a welcome achievement in helping to create positive momentum in the multilateral disarmament fora. As the representative of Algeria noted, this RevCon “achieved success where the ATT [arms trade treaty] couldn’t.” Likewise, the fact that member states were able to constructively engage and adopt a consensus document indeed represents a positive reaffirmation of the importance of the UNPoA framework to international peace and security and, more specifically, combating the scourge of illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALWs). Undoubtedly, the UNPoA remains the only global framework of practical measures for combating illicit trade in SALWs and its dire humanitarian consequences.

Many delegations took the opportunity to praise the work of the Conference on Friday afternoon, including the representative of Mexico who noted how this success represented a significant step forward since the first RevCon in 2006, and the German delegate who welcomed this “landmark” document. Similarly, the delegation of Switzerland affirmed the document as an impetus for success in the area of disarmament that is “crucial to the work of international peace and security.” While it is true that this RevCon can be hailed as a general success, due in large part to the great skill and dedication of the President as well as the four facilitators, the RevCon on the whole did not thoroughly take stock of progress achieved nor did it provide for an in-depth assessment of implementation to date in order to draw lessons for the future. As has been previously expressed in this Monitor, a reiteration of previous UNPoA or ITI commitments is not sufficient. The various components of the review cycle, including this RevCon, should be integrally linked so that they can incrementally build upon the specific findings and discussions of the preceding debate in the context of the current security circumstances. As noted by the delegate of the UK in his concluding remarks, although the RevCon achieved a significant success in the consensus document, “ambition” in the document was left wanting.

The third revision, and subsequently adopted text, was identical to the previous version with the exception of a paragraph in Annex 1 (under the UNPoA implementation plan) referring to the risk of diversion in the context of export authorizations which was deleted. Following the adoption of the document, many delegations expressed regret over the lack of inclusion of certain elements as well as weak language on others. In particular, many delegations noted with regret the exclusion of language on a gender perspective in UNPoA implementation (EU, Germany, Mexico,) as well as on munitions (Colombia, ECOWAS, Guatemala, Switzerland), parts and components (EU, Ghana, Guatemala, UK),  and a lack of strong language on diversion (CARICOM, Trinidad and Tobago, UK). Also missing from the document were strong references to monitoring and assessment and evidence-based research on implementation as the text refers only to measurability in the context of international cooperation and assistance. Moreover, there were no references to monitoring and assessment of casualties of armed violence through which states could better understand the effects of illicit use of SALWs. Rather, such language was weakened to “…enhancing their ability to monitor and analyze the consequences of the uncontrolled spread of illicit small arms and light weapons and their misuse,” not an altogether terrible substitution, but weaker nonetheless.

While the document was hailed as “fair and balanced” and the best possible representation of consensus, states must use the next 6-year review cycle to achieve more in the way of practical implementation.  Moving forward, the ongoing discussion of how to ensure full and effective implementation of the UNPoA will persist as many delegations called for a return to the many issues previously mentioned that were not addressed in this RevCon. More alarming, however, will be the ongoing debate and inability to convince some delegations of the difference between “reviewing” the UNPoA in order to strengthen its implementation by applying a fresh context in light of changing dynamics and circumstances and “re-writing” the UNPoA.  If left unresolved, it is expected that this division will continue to challenge the process and undoubtedly limit the effectiveness of the subsequent meetings of the review cycle. Adoption of the latter approach, limiting and constraining the process to only that which is explicitly found in the 2001 document, is precisely what future review meetings must seek to avoid.

Prior to adopting the outcome document by consensus, the delegate of Iran stated that although his delegation would not “stand in the way of success,” the document was unsatisfactory as it “lacked clarity and accuracy and at times went beyond the scope of the PoA.” The representative of Syria echoed this sentiment when he shared “reservations” about certain proposals adopted in the document that “were not in the PoA.” Likewise, the delegation of Cuba called references to resolutions related to women as well as the term armed violence “selective and outside the specific framework of the PoA.” This central debate—how to balance reiteration and re-commitment to the “old” language of UNPoA with infusion of “new” forward-looking language that addresses challenges related to national implementation that introduces concepts and recommendations not explicitly found in the original 2001 document—is absolutely crucial to future success. Finding this balance is imperative if the UNPoA can continue and even strengthen its relevance to ending the scourge of illicit trade in SALWs.


–Katherine Prizeman

Second Review Conference: Reviewing, Strengthening, and Energizing the PoA on small arms

15 Aug

As member states gather for the second Review Conference for the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA), a potentially contentious policy gap remains between those who emphasize only the implementation of the PoA and those who seek to strengthen the instrument itself. During the first Review Conference (Rev Con) in 2006, the PoA came close to collapse as divisions surfaced between those states wanting to expand its scope to include provisions on ammunition, civilian possession, and a prohibition on transfers to non-state actors and those that wished only to focus on implementation of the existing measures adopted in 2001. Concern that the PoA process would be permanently damaged was fortunately unfounded, although much of the attention devoted to the PoA was subsequently diverted to the arms trade treaty (ATT) process. The PoA process did received a welcome infusion of robustness following the successful (and first of its kind) 2011 Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE) under the leadership of Ambassador McLay of New Zealand when practical and technical discussions were held regarding the PoA and the corresponding International Tracing Instrument (ITI).  However, after a busy summer for First Committee experts with the conclusion (without agreement on a consensus Treaty document ) of the ATT negotiating conference just a few weeks back, there is now legitimate worry that the PoA will not receive the attention it deserves during this Rev Con.

As previously expressed, member states have extensively debated whether the Rev Con mandate, in addition to a “review,” should include “strengthening” (through expansion, legal status, or amendment) of the PoA. This disagreement is not semantic in nature. It is a critical distinction that will affect both member states’ approach to the Rev Con and the future of the PoA framework. Methods of strengthening national implementation measures must be identified and pursued at this Rev Con. Therefore, it would be wise to avoid highly divisive debates regarding expansion of the scope and nature of the PoA (i.e. discussion over its non-legally-binding status) and focus instead on highly important and practical implementation issues such as stockpile management, proper disposal and storage of surplus arms, the role of peacekeepers and DDR programmes in SALW management, the responsibilities of national contact points, and the possibility of institutionalizing technical meetings such as MGEs. In this case, functionality should trump legality, at least for the moment.

Despite the arguable “overshadowing” of the PoA process by the ATT, preparations for this Rev Con have been moderately successful. The March 2012 Preparatory Committee for the Rev Con yielded a factual and procedural report, although a more substantive Chair’s summary under the authorship of Ambassador Ogwu of Nigeria was also produced. The summary laid forth views expressed by member states during the week according to the structure of the PoA itself—measures to combat illicit trade at the national, regional, and international levels; international cooperation and assistance; follow-up mechanisms to the Review Conference; and review of the ITI. The summary was not a consensus document, but did its best to summarize member states’ views and recommendations on which elements would serve as a basis for the discussion during this Rev Con.

As the two-week Rev Con gets underway, the PoA’s importance must not be underestimated. While the lion’s share of attention this year has been paid to the ATT process, the PoA is an instrument with tremendous potential to directly and practically address the dire consequences related to the illicit trade in SALWs and, perhaps most notably, to dry up existing stockpiles of weapons already in circulation. This was an issue all too clear in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution when weapons went unaccounted for and stockpiles were pillaged by rebel groups after the fall of Qadaffi. Member states must take advantage of the Rev Con both to honestly assess existing efforts to curb illicit small arms and to robustly and comprehensively tackle the proliferation of looted arms and lack of adequate stockpile management.

The real challenge of the PoA is to fully implement the benchmarks laid forth in the instrument in all national contexts.  The division of provisions among the national, regional, and global level is a helpful format and allows states to thoroughly address the responsibilities at all levels for implementation of the PoA and ITI. Moreover, the proposal to address the schedule of future meetings is an important contribution to the long-term success of the framework. For example, modification of biennial meetings of states into biennial meetings of governmental experts who are directly responsible for national implementation of the PoA would be significantly beneficial to fulfilling a host of PoA-related responsibilities.

It is clear that full implementation of the PoA requires continuous review with an eye towards strengthening national implementation of its measures. Many, if not all, of the challenges associated with full implementation—border control mechanisms, technical information exchange, marking and tracing expertise—require international efforts and cooperation. Therefore, this Rev Con, as well as future meetings of states, must provide for a transparent and honest exchange of information regarding implementation and how to best combat the deadly consequences of illicit trade in SALWs. There is little argument that the PoA’s provisions, if adopted according to national needs and flexible with regard to new challenges, can and will prevent illicit flows of SALWs and thus eliminate the dire consequences of these flows for international peace and security.


–Katherine Prizeman



The Arms Trade Treaty: No Treaty, Weak Treaty, ‘Plan B’?

25 May

As the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) preparations are drawing to a close and diplomats and civil society alike anxiously await the July Diplomatic Conference, much of the attention has turned to the possible configurations of a (hopefully) forthcoming consensus treaty. Some would argue that it is best to focus on making the negotiations a success rather than prematurely anticipating their failure. As such, the levels of pessimism and optimism vary according to whom one is talking, whether a member state delegation or civil society advocate.

One could continue to debate the ‘nuts and bolts’ of treaty language from scope and final provisions to the strength of the humanitarian references included. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is absolutely necessary at this point to, at the very least, objectively evaluate and consider the possible scenarios of the 4-week Diplomatic Conference and the corresponding consequences of each circumstance irrespective of one’s position on the desired outcome. Such an evaluation would be useful insofar as it would essentially reveal the net effect of each outcome, whether positive or negative, on what I see as the most desirable outcome of the ATT process—a robust instrument of international standards to regulate the global business of the transfer of arms that is fully implementable to include a comprehensive scope, primary attention on diversion, provisions and structure to facilitate international cooperation and assistance that will ultimately stop transfers of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict, poverty, and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Questions on the minds of many who have dedicated themselves to this process for over a decade are clear— is a weak treaty better than no treaty at all? Would a weak treaty do more harm than the harm caused by opting out of the process altogether? Where are the ‘redlines’ that would warrant such an abandonment come July? Are there alternatives for negotiating an ATT within the UN system, or perhaps outside it? In order to address these inquiries it is important to contextualize the ATT debate. To my mind, the ATT process will encompass much more than the month of July. It is essential to assume a long-term perspective, in particular a process through which states commit to a review process that establishes regular meetings of states parties to assess and adjust the ATT to better reflect evolving security circumstances. Moreover, as with all multilateral negotiations, the ATT has not and will not be formulated in a vacuum. In 2012, member states are faced with parallel disarmament and arms control challenges—high stakes for a Conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, a continued stalemate in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament now stretching over 15 years, and a 13th straight year without consensus recommendations in the Disarmament Commission. Furthermore, a failed negotiation on an ATT would, in turn, also cast a long shadow over the Review Conference of the UNPoA, which is scheduled to take place in August after the ATT negotiations have concluded.

What, then, are the possible scenarios for the ATT Conference? It seems that two of the principle scenarios—adoption of a weak treaty or adoption of no treaty at all—will have significant negative consequences. The only outcome that would not have negative effects would be adoption, by consensus, of an ideal treaty characterized by high levels of state accountability (especially on weapons diversion), oversight capacity for an Implementation Support Unit (ISU), and strong, binding humanitarian language. However, as this process is subject to a consensus rule, a provision that was introduced by the US as a precondition for taking part in the negotiations, this scenario is highly unlikely. Some member states, including the US, have already made clear that a high level of oversight, or any oversight, will not be acceptable and that it is entirely a national prerogative to determine how to manage national export controls in response to any international standards adopted in the ATT. Other member states have continuously asserted that the ATT is a trade treaty seeking merely to regulate the legal business of arms transfers and will not seek to limit the right of member states to sell or purchase arms by overburdening them with treaty-specific reporting obligations.

Therefore, I highlight two principle scenarios and what effect each would have on the long-term process. There are strong arguments that an ATT deemed ‘weak’ is better than no treaty at all. Some would argue that a strong review process with the possibility for improving on the first iteration of the ATT would be a generally positive outcome. Similar to the evolutionary process of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the argument would be that the ATT will most likely require sequential refinement under the auspices of a regular cycle of review conferences in order to achieve even close to its full potential, but that such refinements are possible and preferable to abandoning to the process altogether.

It could also likewise be argued that prospects for success of an ATT next July, as opposed to this July, is not any higher (especially given the consensus provision); thus any postponement would be futile, especially given the weight of the consensus provision. In light of other related UN processes such as the UNPoA, a completely failed ATT Conference would be severely detrimental to the other, in many cases already broken, parts of the multilateral disarmament machinery dealing a major legitimacy blow to the system. Even if the ATT is not universally considered a disarmament treaty per se it is certainly being treated as such by civil society and some member states. A failed process would indubitably be a serious blow to a system desperately in need of tangible victories.

In contrast, there are those that argue, and rightfully so, that a weak treaty would have far greater negative effects in the aggregate. A weak treaty— a simple list of principles which member states should bear mind in when transferring weapons without any accountability or implementation mechanism—could be used as cover for future transfers of questionable character. Signatories could argue that they are acting in accordance with their international law obligations as parties to the ATT, have evaluated a given transfer according to this list of principles (‘bearing them in mind’), and have nonetheless decided to continue the dubious transfer. Moreover, a weak ATT could potentially be used as the basis for states seeking to curtail UN efforts to advocate for better controls of illicit small arms or for stronger application of international humanitarian and human rights law related to the production or use of armaments. Either of these outcomes would fuel considerable skepticism regarding the viability of the UN in regulating the global arms trade, not to mention anger at the UN for creating ‘cover’ for bad behavior rather than eliminating said behavior.

Universality of the ATT process will have a direct effect on its strength—the more member states that subscribe to it, the weaker it will inevitably become. This debate begs the question, then, when is it better to walk away from the process than to proceed with a weak treaty? What are the points that are ‘non-negotiable’? For each member state, the answer to this question will vary. The CARICOM states have placed tremendous emphasis on the inclusion of SALWs in the scope, while the UK has recently underscored the arms trade as the ‘greatest threat to development, beyond disease and disaster’. Brazil, on the other hand, has continuously asserted its marked opposition to references to corruption, development, and stability in the criteria. Needless to say, the ‘redlines’ are not uniform and vary according to national interests, but it is absolutely essential that delegations know what those lines are before formal negotiations begin in July. Delegations must evaluate when the best course of action would be to ‘walk away’ from the process and seek alternatives elsewhere.

If delegations choose to ‘walk away’ from the process in July, alternative forums for negotiating an ATT are available, but also with their own set of limitations. There is the option to take the issue to the General Assembly in the fall and seek a new resolution and form of recourse to get negotiations back on track. Some like-minded states have discussed, unofficially, the possibility of opting out of the universal process in order to pursue a more comprehensive ATT, but one that will inevitably have fewer signatories. Foregoing a universal forum for ATT negotiation could call into question the future relevance of universal negotiations in the field of disarmament and arms control, which is already in serious jeopardy given the CD paralysis. Furthermore, such an approach would meet the same difficulties as have been encountered with regards to international efforts to ban cluster munitions and landmines. While such courses of action of like-minded states contribute to norm-setting, they likely fail to provide a universal framework for addressing the issue at hand. The value added of an ATT that is not universal, most especially one that does not legally bind the primary arms manufacturers and exporters, is not altogether lost, but certainly substantially diminished. The states subject to such treaties negotiated outside the universal process are usually those already committed to the regulations.

What, then, is the best scenario? The best scenario is, as previously mentioned, a robust and comprehensive instrument with full implementation capacity. However, this is not the only question that should be asked. The focus now should not be just on what is the best scenario, but also on the best path towards the ideal scenario, even after July negotiations conclude, by objectively evaluating the consequences of each of the most likely negotiating outcomes.


–Katherine Prizeman