UN forges program to combat illicit trade in small arms

Since the early 1990s, a global network of arms control groups, humanitarian aid agencies, United Nations (UN) bodies, and concerned governments have been working to adopt new international controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, as I discussed in my article, “Stemming the Lethal Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons” (Issues, Fall 1995). These efforts culminated in July 2001 with a two-week conference at UN headquarters in New York City, at the end of which delegates endorsed a “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” (available at www.un.org/Depts/dda/CAB/smallarms/).

Although not legally binding, the Programme of Action is intended to prod national governments into imposing tough controls on the import and export of small arms, so as to prevent their diversion into black market channels. Governments are also enjoined to require the marking of all weapons produced within their jurisdiction, thus facilitating the identification and tracing of arms that are recovered from illicit owners and to prosecute any of their citizens who are deemed responsible for the illegal import or export of firearms. At the global level, states are encouraged to share information with one another on the activities of black market dealers and to establish regional networks aimed at the eradication of illegal arms trafficking.

Adoption of the Programme of Action did not occur without rancor. Many states, especially those in Africa and Latin America, wanted the conference to adopt much tougher, binding measures. Some of these countries, joined by members of the European Union, also wanted to include a prohibition on the sale of small arms and light weapons to nonstate actors. Other states, including the United States and China, opposed broad injunctions of this sort, preferring instead to focus on the more narrow issue of black market trafficking. In the end, delegates bowed to the wishes of Washington and Beijing on specific provisions in order to preserve the basic structure of the draft document.

Although not as sweeping as many would have liked, the Programme of Action represents a significant turning point in international efforts to curb the flow of guns and ammunition into areas of conflict and instability. For the first time, it was clearly stated that governments have an obligation “to put in place, where they do not exist, adequate laws, regulations, and administrative procedures to exercise effective control over the production of small arms and light weapons within their areas of jurisdiction and over the export, import, transit, and retransfer of such weapons,” and to take all necessary steps to apprehend and prosecute those of their citizens who choose to violate such measures.

The imposition of strict controls on the production and transfer of small arms and light weapons is considered essential by those in and outside of government who seek to reduce the level of global violence by restricting the flow of arms to insurgents, ethnic militias, brigands, warlords, and other armed formations. Because belligerents of these types are barred from entry into the licit arms market and so must rely on black market sources, it is argued, eradication of the illicit trade would impede their ability to conduct military operations and thus facilitate the efforts of peace negotiators and international peacekeepers.

Nobody truly believes that adoption of the Programme of Action will produce an immediate and dramatic impact on the global arms trade. Illicit dealers (and the government officials who sometimes assist them) have gained too much experience in circumventing export controls to be easily defeated by the new UN proposals. But the 2001 conference is likely to spur some governments that previously have been negligent in this area to tighten their oversight of arms trafficking and to prosecute transgressors with greater vigor.

The Programme of Action calls on member states to meet on a biennial basis to review the implementation of its provisions and to meet again in 2006 for a full-scale conference. This will give concerned governments and NGOs time to mobilize international support for more aggressive, binding measures.