The global fight against illegal weapons

Dr Nelson Alusala Correspondent
This week, from 6–10 June, United Nations (UN) member-states are convening in New York for the Sixth Biennial Meeting on the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA).

The meeting will review the progress made in implementing the UNPoA, and will also focus on the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), which was adopted in 2005.

The UNPoA, adopted in 2001, outlines steps governments must take to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

The ITI complements the UNPoA by promoting effective measures to mark, record and trace such arms, and thus combat their diversion to unintended users.

This meeting is historic in the global fight against the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it is the last meeting of states before the Third Review Conference of the UNPoA, which will take place in 2018. As such, states have an opportunity to deliberate on and set the agenda for the review conference.

Second, the review conference will define the future direction, objectives and implementation plan of the UNPoA, which in itself is no more than a political instrument.

As major importers of small arms, African states must therefore use this week’s meeting to think ahead in terms of the direction they’d want the UNPoA to take.

Third, this is the first UNPoA international meeting to take place following the entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in December 2014.

The ATT is a legally binding instrument that sets out robust global rules to prevent the flow of weapons, munitions and related items to countries where the arms are likely to facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious human rights violations.

Fourth, the ratification of, and accession to, the ATT has been gathering momentum.

As at the beginning of June 2016, there are 81 state parties to the ATT, 83 ratifications, two accessions and 130 signatories.

Of the 54 African Union member states, 37 have signed, 17 ratified, two acceded and 18 are states parties. This is a notable achievement given the continent’s struggles with internal armed conflict, and the fact that it’s a major target for the arms trade.

The success and effectiveness of any arms control instrument, however, depends on the ability of the states to implement its provisions.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS), through its Arms Management Programme, offers technical support to African states in implementing the provisions of the various instruments.

This includes the development of national legislation; tracing and marking; stockpile management and security; as well as the destruction of surplus and redundant stock.

Improving international and regional co-operation is also a priority; as is enhancing the exchange of information in the field of arms control and disarmament. With support from the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms (UNSCAR), the ISS works closely with a number of African states towards domesticating the UNPoA, the ITI and the ratification of the ATT. Encouragingly, it has been clear from this process that African countries recognise the importance of these global instruments.

While the political commitment to develop and implement practical measures might pose a challenge, meetings held in countries like Rwanda, Botswana, Namibia and Uganda have shown that the biggest obstacle is implementation.

This, in turn, can be attributed to a lack of sufficient resources, which would enable countries to put in place the national and regional structures needed for effective implementation.

The gains made as a result of financial support from UNSCAR is a clear indication of the link between sufficient resources and the success of arms control instruments.

States, and African states in particular, should prioritise negotiating a clear roadmap to sustainable resource mobilisation, along with technical support, towards the implementation of these instruments.

With the eye on the 2018 review conference, a likely question at this week’s meeting will be whether states wish to retain the UNPoA in its current format, despite the entry into force of the ATT, or whether the UNPoA should metamorphose into a new instrument.

The latter scenario could take place much the same way that the Millennium Development Goals were reconstructed and repackaged as the Sustainable Development Goals.

But if the UNPoA were to change, what form would it take, and which issues would it prioritise?

Developing countries must highlight the need for matters of development and poverty alleviation to be placed at the centre of arms control initiatives.

The cyclical links between poverty and vulnerability, and conflict, arms abuse and the illicit trade is a real one, especially in Africa. The question is therefore how these issues can be integrated into discussions at the biennial meeting and the review conference.

Member states must also work together to promote transparency in reporting arms transfers (while taking note of the relevant reservations provided for in the ATT). Successfully implementing these instruments depends on the commitment of states to adhere to the requirements of the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA). Transparency is also a helpful indicator of instances where there might be an excessive or destabilising accumulation of arms; which could point to potential conflict.

Being open about the arms trade could therefore encourage restraint in the transfer or production of arms, which can contribute to preventive diplomacy.

The UNROCA should therefore be seen as a confidence-building tool, as much as it is a source of transparency.

It is worth pointing out that receptiveness to the UNROCA remains dismal.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that since 2012, fewer states are reporting their arms imports and exports.

Whether the entry into force of the ATT in 2014 and the review of the UNPoA in 2018 will accelerate reporting will depend on whether states remain committed to implementing these instruments.

Finally, as the sixth biennial meeting of states gets underway this week, credence must be given to the role that civil society continues to play in supporting governments in implementing arms control instruments.

The above-mentioned successes — and many others that UNSCAR has supported through the ISS and other African civil society organisations — are the result of smooth collaboration between these organisations and local governments.

These are invaluable lessons that, if shared at the meeting this week, will inspire many more countries to embrace the UNPoA, the ITI and the ATT. — ISSAfrica.

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