27 August 2012

Q: What has the PoA actually achieved on the ground? A: We have no idea

by Daniel Mack, Instituto Sou da Paz 

After more than a decade in existence, the PoA indeed comes to a “crossroads” at the 2012 RevCon, forcing governments to look back and seriously scrutinize the instrument’s (few) achievements and (plentiful) limitations. Also, they cannot squander an irreplaceable opportunity to look forward and act to overcome the PoA’s myriad failures and challenges. Many in civil society and government alike perceive this RevCon as possibly the last chance to avoid condemning the PoA to the ‘dustbin of history’.
As Amb. Jim McLay of New Zealand noted in his excellent brief for the Small Arms Survey, the PoA “now faces a more insidious threat (than paralysis) — that of a gradual, but sustained slide into indifference and obscurity, with national awareness of and commitment to the process ebbing away, and with donor attention and funding increasingly directed elsewhere… Another acrimonious failure would be as damaging to the credibility of the Programme of Action process as would one that simply and blandly restates existing commitments”.

Indeed, ‘more of the same’ is simply not an option. Even though on a normative level the PoA has several damaging ‘wounds’ from birth that should be urgently ‘cured’ – such as the omission of the illicit trade of ammunition as part and parcel of that in firearms, and the instrument’s politically- rather than legally-binding nature – it is arguably the PoA’s lack of an independent mechanism to assess its actual implementation on a national level that poses the largest threat to its relevance. 

This lethal gap must be effectively overcome during the next two weeks, with the creation of a credible blueprint for the coming into existence of an implementation assessment mechanism as soon as possible.

To put it simply, we have close to absolutely no idea whether the decade-old PoA has had an actual impact on changing the world around us. We know the PoA has served as a framework, catalyst or inspiration for many important efforts, especially national and sub-regional gun control legislation and technical measures (stockpile security, marking, destruction, etc.). However, it remains utterly unclear whether, and especially how much, the PoA has impacted levels of gun violence – on a national, regional or global basis.

While data is patchy, partially because often non-existent and partially because concepts and methodologies have not yet been perfected, the best available research suggests that armed violence is not diminishing worldwide even as the number of actual armed conflicts decreases. On a regional level, some areas are in fact going in the opposite direction – Central America and the Caribbean, for example, are reportedly experiencing higher levels of gun violence than before.

On a national level, some countries (including my own, Brazil) have had success in diminishing gun violence levels in the last decade – but has this been due to the PoA, even if indirectly? And the many countries unable to diminish their armed violence levels – is it because they haven’t implemented the PoA at all, haven’t done so effectively or sufficiently, or tried and it didn’t work?

We just don’t know for certain, mainly because most assessments have been ad hoc, selective, and self-analysing. Even if annual national reports on PoA implementation were universal, comprehensive and analytical – which they are most certainly not, as the always insufficient levels, periodicity and quality of reporting have decreased over the years – anecdotal self-assessment is never a sufficient tool to monitor, measure and analyse any “program of action”. Such exercises, like the statements in plenary they often inspire, are often biased, incomplete and uncritical.  

The PoA was not developed because countries were “gravely concerned” with the illicit trade in SALW per se, but rather because they were “determined to reduce the human suffering caused by” said trade. Given this clear raison d’être, agreed by all UN Member States, the very heart of an answer to the question of whether the PoA is serving its purpose depends on having enough evidence to make such analysis from a fact-based, comprehensive and comparative perspective. Recent efforts on the matter from UNIDIR and the Small Arms Survey, among others, suggest this is clearly achievable.

High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane has rightfully stated that the PoA ‘suffers from the absence of measurable benchmarks and concrete targets for implementation'. If nothing else, this RevCon must deliver a clear prescription for this crippling malady, mandating a path towards a comprehensive, independent and objective mechanism for the monitoring, measuring and analysis of PoA implementation, with evidence-based benchmarks and targets. At the next RevCon, whether the answer is “yes, significantly”, “yes, a bit” or “no, not at all”, we must be able to minimally respond to the question “has the PoA impacted levels of gun violence on the ground?”

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