Cautious welcome for agreement on illicit small arms trade

By staff writers
July 25, 2008

Peace groups and religious bodies have offered a cautious welcome for a voluntary United Nations agreement on small arms that they hope will be a step towards curbing the dangerous trade in illicit weapons.

But many conrinue to believe that without ststutory international sanction, a business which is laregely in private and criminal hands will continue to flourish - costing thousands of lives.

Countries swamped with weapons in poorer regions where arms-smuggling is rampant had pleaded for ‘real assistance’ from technical experts and civil society organizations to curb illegal commerce in small arms and light weapons at the Third Biennial Meeting to halt the illicit trade.

Held every two years since 2003, the Meeting considers implementation of the 2001 UN-backed Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects. The recent Meeting ran from 14 to 18 July 2008.

During discussions on ‘Implementation challenges and opportunities’, countries prone to smuggling expressed their need for financial and technical assistance to monitor their borders for illegal weapons.

For instnace, the representative from Jamaica said the island state’s porous coastline made it an arms trafficker’s dream. In turn, the illicit small arms trade had a negative impact on development.

Crime and violence negatively affected productivity and diverted valuable resources away from social needs, he said. The treatment of one gunshot injury, for example, cost $5,800.

In general, speakers praised the Biennial Meeting process as a step in the right direction. Ghana’s representative said it had opened a ‘space’ for inter-State collaboration, and suggested that future Meetings discuss ways to increase south-north collaboration.

The Meeting should act as a forum for countries adversely affected by armed violence, making use of the North’s deep understanding of arms control, and the arms trade more generally, he suggested.

However the event was not without difficulty and controversy. Through a recorded vote of 134 in favour to none against, with 2 abstentions (Iran and Zimbabwe), the Meeting eventually demonstrated overwhelming support for what Pakistan's delegate called 'the unorthodox methods' applied by Dalius ?ekuolis of Lithuania, chair of the Third Biennial Meeting, to foster consensus at the Biennial Meeting, whose members had failed to adopt a formal outcome document on the same subject at a major review conference in 2006.

The Meeting followed seven months of intense preparation, explained Mr ?ekuolis, with facilitators working actively with the Office for Disarmament Affairs in New York and Geneva to identify topics that could build consensus among Member States on how best to implement the Programme of Action. That process involved three rounds of open-ended consultations and the active engagement of capitals through national reporting.

The Programme of Action, which had been endorsed by United Nations Member States in 2001, establishes a global framework for curbing the illicit trade in small arms. It contains substantial agreed norms and programmes on several issues, including preventing and combating the illicit production and trafficking of small arms and light weapons; ensuring effective controls of the legal production of those weapons; their holding and transfer; weapons collection and destruction; and the control of those arms in post-conflict situations. National strategies, which had been an important result of the 2001 Conference, were in varying stages of implementation, but they had emerged as a key focus for increased global assistance.

The topics chosen for the Third Biennial Meeting were international cooperation and capacity-building, curbing illicit brokering, stockpile management and surplus disposal. States had also reviewed progress on the implementation of the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons. All were discussed in the report of the Meeting.

Expressing their support for the report were the representatives of Moldova, Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Norway, United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Pakistan, Netherlands, Colombia, South Africa, China, Syria, Egypt, France (on behalf of the European Union), Italy, Japan, Kenya, Jamaica, Switzerland, Colombia, Cuba, India and Barbados.

NGOs working on arms and development say that the 2008 outcome is better than the 2006 one, but much more progress is needed. Iran and Zimbabwe abstained, and a number of states involved in the illicit trade, often tangentially, were not represented.

Acknowledgments to United Nations Disarmament Commission

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