Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 23 August 2007

A More Responsible Trade in Guns

Next week, over 100 States will gather in Geneva to see if they can come any closer to agreeing on a set of common standards that they should all apply when deciding whether or not to export guns to other countries. The goal is to stop so many guns from finding their way into regions, countries and hands where they are likely to be used to abuse human rights, violate the laws of war or otherwise kill or intimidate civilians (for some background on this, see my posting of 18 April 2007).

This should be no ordinary multilateral conference on the small arms trade. For starters, it is taking place outside of formal UN frameworks. The venue is not the UN office in Geneva, where most official UN business takes place, but the international conference centre across the street. And, most radically of all, the wearing of ties has been officially discouraged, an unheard of deviation from standard UN practice!

To understand the context of this meeting, we need to transport ourselves back to July 2006, to UN headquarters in New York, minutes before the first Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons closed without UN Member States reaching any agreement on how to follow up on their 2001 pact to eradicate the black market in guns. As the meeting fell apart, the Canadian delegate, in an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage, took the floor to invite all States to Geneva the following summer to work on developing common standards to govern transfers of small arms and light weapons. To its credit, Canada followed through on its spontaneous invitation and a surprising number of countries have answered the call.

So what does this meeting hope to achieve? On a very basic level, it aims to identify, clarify and underline commitments that UN Member States have already made to transfer guns responsibly. These existing commitments derive from a variety of sources, including international humanitarian law, international human rights law and Security Council resolutions, not to mention treaties and agreements to which States are already party. The meeting also aims to elaborate specifically on the commitments that all UN Member States have made in the 2001 UN Programme of Action on small arms regarding transfers of small arms.

Simply put, next week's meeting seeks to engage as many States as possible in collectively identifying and refining principles to govern all transfers of small arms and light weapons. But this is as far as collective action would go. The task of interpreting and applying such principles would remain at the complete disgression of each individual State.

But next week's meeting is not taking place in a vacuum. In a separate but related process, a record number of UN Member States have submitted their ideas to the UN Secretary-General on what they would like to see contained in a proposed new legally-binding agreement to regulate the transfer of all conventional weapons, from guns to aircraft carriers - the so-called Arms Trade Treaty. It would seem that governments are finally paying serious attention to regulating the global arms trade. If next week's meeting can move us one more step along that road, it will be time well spent.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Informal Meeting on Transfer Control Principles for Small Arms and Light Weapons, 27-31 August 2007, Geneva.

UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons

Photo credit: NorthSun on flickr.