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The 2001 UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) will celebrate its tenth anniversary in the summer of 2011. What difference has it really made, asks Sarah Parker?

In 2001, UN member states signed up to a politically binding plan to tackle small arms. They did this amidst a growing awareness that the illicit manufacture, transfer and circulation of small arms and light weapons - and their excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread in many parts of the world - was undermining human security and development.

The 2001 UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA) came into existence. Ten years on, it is vital to see what progress it has made.

Measuring ‘progress’ in UN's Programme of Action implementation is no easy task

Before doing so, what exactly is in this Programme of Action (PoA)? It contains national, regional and global commitments to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. This covers a wide range of issue areas including:

  • small arms manufacturing;
  • marking,
  • record-keeping, and tracing;
  • stockpile management and security;
  • surplus identification and disposal;
  • international transfers;
  • brokering;
  • public awareness;
  • disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes;
  • and international cooperation and assistance to facilitate implementation of the PoA.

© Reuters Ricardo Moraes

Measuring ‘progress’ in PoA implementation is no easy task. Several factors hamper our ability to measure or assess the extent to which states are fulfilling their PoA commitments.

Firstly, the PoA has no formal monitoring process. No mechanisms or bodies have been established to assess states’ compliance with their commitments. The PoA follow-up provisions foresee meetings every two years to ‘consider’ the implementation. Beyond this, it contemplates reporting by states ‘on a voluntary basis’ on their implementation efforts. So the limited consideration of compliance and implementation is dependent on self-reporting and evaluation by states themselves.

Secondly, although the PoA is broad in terms of the range of issues and small arms control measures it covers, many of its commitments are open-ended. They articulate a range of important goals, but rarely set out the concrete steps states need to take to achieve them.

For example, the PoA says that states should adopt “adequate laws, regulations and administrative procedures to exercise effective control over the production of small arms and light weapons … and over the export, import, transit or retransfer of such weapons”. But it does not elaborate on what ‘adequate’ laws are - or what ‘effective’ control looks like.

Reporting on implementation of the UN Programme of Action has generally been good. However, 34 member states have never reported

Despite this, there have been several promising developments in the PoA process. For instance, there has been a high level of participation in PoA reporting. Between 2002 and 2010, 158 member states reported at least once on their PoA implementation, (though 34 member states have never reported).

Reporting activity has been most intense during years in which biennial meetings were held (2003, 2005, 2008 and 2010). Indeed, biennial as opposed to annual reporting now appears to be firmly established practice.

Over 580 national reports have been submitted since 2002, describing the progress states have made, the support they have given or received, and their unmet needs in implementing the PoA.

What the statistics do not reveal is the quality of information and level of detail contained in the reports submitted, which vary widely. This affects the comparability of national reports, which in turn hampers an overall assessment of PoA implementation.

The absence of a prescribed format for reporting has contributed to this divergence in reporting practice. Although a reporting template was developed to assist states, they have not used it consistently nor is it comprehensive in its coverage of PoA commitments. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has now revised the reporting template to ensure it is more comprehensive and eases the ‘burden of reporting’

© Reuters Faleh Kheiber_2

The move towards biennial reporting may help to increase the number and quality of reports, and use of the new reporting template should increase comparability among national reports.

Other tools developed by UNODA, such as the web-based tool for matching needs and resources in international cooperation and assistance to implement the PoA, also offer outlets for enhanced implementation.

But comparability of national reports is limited. This is not just because of diverging reporting practices, but also due to a lack of specificity in many PoA commitments and the absence of benchmarks.

However, there are several developments in the PoA process that will enhance states’ understanding of what adequate and effective controls look like (and, in turn, provide a benchmark against which we can measure their implementation progress). These include:

  • The development of International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS) by the United Nations Coordinating Action on Small Arms mechanism. These will provide guidance on implementation and measurable benchmarks for assessing the adequacy of states’ implementation efforts.
  • The adoption of the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (the International Tracing Instrument or ITI). The ITI contains politically binding commitments designed to enhance the traceability of small arms and light weapons through improved marking, record keeping, and international cooperation. It builds on the marking and tracing provisions in the PoA.
  • A growing and evolving understanding of the PoA commitments and benchmarks for assessing PoA implementation. For example, the report of the group of governmental experts on brokering provides recommendations such as record-keeping by brokers and/or the state and examples of penalties that could be imposed for illicit brokering activities. Another example is the 2008 biennial meeting (2008) which highlighted the need to minimise the environmental impacts of destruction programmes.

While these developments are promising, it is unclear whether states will take advantage of these new tools. For example, just under one-third of all states that submitted ITI national reports in 2010 provided specific information on their implementation of this instrument, even though it includes a firm commitment for states to report biennially.

The disappointing level of reporting on the ITI suggests that six years after its adoption, states are generally unaware of their obligation to report on its implementation, or, alternatively, choose not to report specifically on it.

There is a need to go beyond the text of national reports to fill in missing details of implementation

In summary, ten years after its adoption, the PoA should not be viewed in isolation. It established the normative framework for small arms control, but is now, effectively, ‘supplemented’ by other instruments and processes that enhance and expand on its provisions. Further development of specific benchmarks and practical guides for implementation will, if integrated into national reporting practices, assist in evaluating overall progress in PoA implementation. But whether they translate into concrete action by states remains to be seen.

The 2012 Review Conference provides an opportunity to assess the state of overall implementation. Some ten years after the adoption of the PoA, it has become clear that national reports, although an important basis for any such evaluation, rarely offer sufficient information. There is a need to go beyond the text of national reports to fill in missing details of implementation and, further, verify the information they contain.

A further question relating to the PoA and ITI—extending beyond the facts of implementation—is whether such implementation is having the impact it was intended to have. Is the PoA in fact ‘preventing, combating or eradicating’ the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects?

The current focus of attention is on improving our understanding of implementation and determining how much states are in fact implementing the PoA. Over the medium and longer term, both questions are in fact crucial to determining the course of future action on small arms: are states implementing the PoA? Is this having an impact on the illicit trade in small arms? Next year’s 2012 Review Conference will have a crucial role to play in guiding the process towards answering these questions.

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