In 2001, the United Nations created the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA). The PoA is not a treaty; rather, it is a political mechanism for encouraging voluntary cooperation.
On June 6–10, the Sixth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS6) under the PoA will be held in New York City. BMS6 purportedly will focus on issues raised at the Second Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE2) under the PoA, which was held on June 1–5, 2015, and summarized in the “Chair’s Summary” released on June 17, 2015.
The PoA is a useless process that has achieved nothing of value and appears unlikely ever to do so. The only reason for the U.S. to participate in it is to prevent bad outcomes. If BMS6 does indeed focus on the issues raised at MGE2, the U.S. will have to work hard to keep the bad ideas raised in 2015 from becoming part of the U.N.’s PoA agenda in 2016.
Uselessness of the PoA
Both supporters and critics of the PoA agree that it has achieved nothing. A 2014 assessment by nominal PoA supporters, “Firing Blanks: The Growing Irrelevance of the U.N. Small Arms Process,” condemns it for focusing on “peripheral issues.”
The PoA’s problems are inherent both in the process and in the broader structure of the U.N. In theory, nations are politically committed to submitting biennial reports on their implementation of the PoA, but in practice, reporting has steadily declined. Moreover, while the annual meetings on the PoA in theory offer an opportunity to assess whether nations are living up to their commitments under the PoA, in practice, they are almost completely devoid of any such assessments.
Serious assessments are lacking because an honest process would have to acknowledge that many U.N. member nations are unable or unwilling to live up to the commitments they have made under the PoA. Thus, the PoA is a box-checking exercise in which, even for supporters, submitting a report is all that matters—and even that does not matter much. No one examines whether these reports are accurate, meaningful, or relevant to events on the ground. In practice, this suits many U.N. member states perfectly: They get credit for participating in a process that has no genuine substance while the PoA remains safely focused on peripheral issues.
Because most of the diplomats who attend the PoA are not experts, they may be unaware that they are not talking about serious concerns. This lack of expertise makes them vulnerable to manipulation by activists, but it also gives the U.S., which does bring genuine experts to the PoA, an important advantage. Unfortunately, however, institutionalization of the PoA has made it harder, not easier, to address the genuine issues surrounding the illicit arms trade because it has given its participants an easy out: They can always claim that they support the PoA.
MGE2 “Chair’s Summary”
MGE2’s agenda focused on polymer firearms (so-called plastic guns); modular firearms (guns with interchangeable parts); 3-D printed firearms; and calls from some U.N. member nations for increased foreign aid. These four subjects are supposedly central to controlling the illicit arms trade, though in reality, they are only peripheral to it.
The “Chair’s Summary” of MGE2 dealt at length with two of these subjects. At China’s urging, it calls for consideration of “strengthening 3D printing regulations in the context of 3D weapon printing,” for “ensuring export licenses [are] in place for 3D printers,” for highlighting “the need to pay attention to the resale of such printers,” and for “strengthening controls over 3D printing technology.” This would radically expand government control of a rapidly growing and widely used technology.
The summary also calls repeatedly for more foreign aid, including both “capacity-building” and “the transfer of technology and knowledge” to help close a so-called technological divide between richer and poorer U.N. member nations. It even includes the suggestion that this be done through the U.N.’s regular budget, of which the U.S. pays 22 percent. This is unacceptable and ignores the reality that what is really needed at the U.N. is not more aid, but more competent and democratic governments.
The summary also emphasizes the tracking of civilian firearms owners and the use of technology to control their firearms. It suggests that radio-frequency ID chips, GPS tracking, and biometric technologies be applied “to civilian-owned weapons” and that the U.N. create “adequate and sensible safe storage requirements for weapons owned by civilians.” Again, these demands—which are part of the larger push, promoted by the Obama Administration, for so-called smart guns—would radically expand government controls, this time in the realm of privately and legally held firearms.
Finally, the Summary contains a grab bag of other problematic issues raised by U.N. member nations, including the supposed need to promote “a culture of peace” (which is code for government propaganda and censorship); concerns about “craft production of small arms and light weapons” (which in the U.S. is entirely legal if done on a noncommercial basis); and a call to promote “linkages between the Programme of Action and the Arms Trade Treaty” (instruments that are in fact legally separate).
BMS6 Draft Outcome Document
The concerns that will dominate BMS6 are also reflected in its outcome document, which—as of May 25, over two weeks before the end of BMS6—is already in its second draft. This draft reiterates many themes found in previous PoA meetings. Precisely because the PoA achieves nothing, it is ideally suited to reiterating vague generalities about international cooperation.
Thus, the draft outcome document places considerable emphasis on the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in September 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprise 17 goals with 169 separate targets. Most are exceptionally vague. As Heritage experts Brett D. Schaefer and Terry Miller have pointed out, “the SDGs are, quite simply, a mess—broadly unusable as a framework for development. They do, however, hold great promise for fulfilling the real purpose of their drafters: to justify the inevitable calls of development professionals and developing countries for more funding.”
In light of this, it is not surprising that the draft emphasizes “consideration of international cooperation and assistance.” It is also no surprise that the working paper submitted by the Non-Aligned Movement emphasizes “the importance of rendering actual and continued unconditional and non-discriminatory assistance to developing countries, upon their request.” Such calls are as regular as they are irrelevant, but the new SDGs may lead BMS6 to focus more intently on aid than it has in the past.
The draft outcome document also contains other undesirable elements, including large, vague, and extraneous claims about gender (including the PoA’s supposed need to “foster the creation of alternative livelihoods for young men,” as if that were a suitable subject for the U.N. and its small arms process). It also reiterates the themes of the summary, including the “policy implications of new technologies for enhanced small arms and light weapons control,” which is a reference to “smart gun” technology.
The U.S. should be wary of a U.N.-led effort to promote the global harmonization of end use and end user (commonly abbreviated as “end use/r”) control systems. End use/r control systems (in particular, end user certificates, which are used in international arms sales) are intended to prevent the diversion of arms from legal to illicit channels.
The U.S. has a fully functioning system of such controls that, importantly, differentiate between the “end use” and the “end user,” but because the U.S. is a federal system, it does not require licensed importers to identify the final, individual end user. A fully harmonized system, by contrast, might require the identification of individual American firearms purchasers by the original importer. Not only is this impossible without new and far-reaching federal controls, but it would raise serious privacy concerns and would constitute a de facto national registry of owners of imported firearms.
Improving the reliability of end use/r systems would be a modestly useful step and might reduce the burden on legitimate businesses, but any move toward harmonization should not ask too much. It should also be preceded by efforts to simplify national systems. Given the complexities of international trade and national systems alike, any effort to negotiate a comprehensive, top-down harmonization between governments, or to mandate an internal compliance regime or training systems for businesses, would fail badly.
Finally, reformers should recognize that effective export control systems can have perverse effects by driving irresponsible purchasers toward less well-controlled suppliers. In short, harmonization is not a silver bullet. The problem with the world’s end use/r control systems is ultimately not that they are not harmonized. It is that many of the U.N.’s member nations are neither efficient nor responsible.
What the U.S. Should Do
The PoA has achieved and will achieve nothing of value. It will continue to be a focus of interest for supporters of gun control, though even these activists have partly shifted their emphasis from the PoA to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). That, in fact, is why the PoA remains important: It is a classic U.N. norm-building institution that seeks to build up purely verbal commitments that can be transformed by the alchemy of frequent meetings into supposedly binding international law. Not for nothing does Germany refer to the results of the PoA’s meetings as its “acquis”—the EU’s term of art for the legally binding totality of all of its laws, decisions, and directives.
The PoA’s approach is brilliant, if perverse: Claim to be the centerpiece of any U.N. program, institution, or treaty that has any relevance at all to small arms; build up the acquis; and then argue that even unrelated treaties or institutions have to be interpreted in light of that acquis. Thus, for example, while the ATT is supposedly limited to the international trade in arms and is actually separate from the PoA, it risks being pulled into the PoA orbit and thereby contaminated with the gun-control norms that the U.N. advances through its International Small Arms Control Standards.
But the PoA also offers hope that these efforts will come to naught. Activists have largely given up on the PoA itself because its meetings usually proceed on the bland assumption that all of the attending nations (with the exception of the United States, of course) comply with all of their commitments. As a result, meetings must focus on peripheral topics that pose no threat to this assumption.
Today, activists believe that the ATT’s meetings, unlike those of the PoA, will be filled with hard-hitting assessments of national compliance (which, inevitably, they hope will focus on the West in general and the U.S. in particular), but the ATT’s meetings will actually proceed on the same bland assumptions as the PoA’s. It will be a while before the activists realize this, but light is already beginning to dawn.
The goal of the U.S. at BMS6 is simple: Make sure that nothing happens, because if anything does happen, it is unlikely to be good. In previous years, the U.S. delegation has worked hard to minimize the PoA’s weaknesses, and there is no reason to believe it will be less effective in 2016. While it would be better if the U.S. withdrew completely from the PoA on the grounds that it is a failure, the advantage of continued U.S. participation is that it allows the U.S. to limit the consequences of that failure.
The U.S.’s greatest advantage is that, unlike most other nations at the U.N., it has competent and experienced experts who fully understand the issues at stake. The U.S. should continue to vigorously oppose the irrelevant, intrusive, and wasteful measures that are sure to form a central part of BMS6 and, above all, ensure that the PoA continues to stand on its own as an entity entirely separate from the ATT and from other unrelated U.N. institutions and processes.—Ted R. Bromund, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in Anglo–American Relations in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.