30 August 2012

The Programme of Action on the illicit trade in ‘heavy sticks’

by Daniel Mack, Instituto Sou da Paz 
After the phrase “small arms and light weapons are the real weapons of mass destruction” came into fashion, it seems that the arms control world is on course to establish a new favourite cliché: “guns without bullets are nothing more than heavy sticks”. As it turns out, many clichés happen to also be true—and these two are indisputable. Why, then, does the PoA continue to exclude the very items that allow the illicit trade in SALW to have the negative human consequences the instrument was devised to tackle?

Experts in international agreements often highlight the importance of anti-circumvention: none of an instrument’s provisions can be allowed to undermine a party’s ability to fulfil its objectives. In a way, the PoA does precisely that by omitting a provision. One could argue that the knowing absence of ammunition in the PoA’s provisions is a clear avenue to circumvent commitments and undermine objectives. At times, omission becomes commission.

To pontificate about legal musings, of course, is not the issue. The issue is this: without ammunition, the governments charged with implementing the PoA are ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ in practical terms because they are knowingly refraining from a simple normative improvement that could help in achieving its human security objectives.

How many countries choose to self-inflict similar wounds nationally by ignoring or excluding ammunition from gun control legislation or procedures, domestic or export control lists? (Hint: not many). Regionally and sub-regionally as well, most instruments on SALW—whether on their licit or illicit trade—such as CIFTA, ECOWAS Convention, SICA (Central America), Decision 552 (Andean Plan)clearly recognize ammunition control and regulations as part and parcel of those for firearms.

If the global instrument on small arms intends to tackle the issue in “all its aspects”, how can ammunition remain excluded when its widespread availability is one of the most important “aspects” rendering the illicit trade in SALW deadly? As this year’s edition of the Small Arms Survey illustrates, many non-state actors already have the tools of armed violence in their hands, using older generation weaponsit is therefore the illicit trade in ammunition that allow them to continue killing.

No wonder, then, that it is precisely the regions of the world most affected by gun violence at the forefront of the call for the inclusion of ammunition in the PoA (as well as rendering the instrument legally-binding for that matter; the same is true for the International Tracing Instrument). From Mercosur to CARICOM, from Central American to African nations, these countries know that said inclusion would improve the tools at their disposal to undertake efforts to help keep their citizens alive.

In July, the overwhelming majority of UN member states demanded the inclusion of ammunition in a legally-binding instrument, the future Arms Trade Treaty. While quite different in nature (yet complementary) to the PoA, the ATT proved that most countries are ready to shoulder obligations regarding measures to avoid the diversion and illicit trade of SALW ammunition—why wouldn’t all countries agree to at least have commitments? What are they afraid of?

Though the draft text presented by that Conference’s chairman was insufficient in how it (partially) included ammunition, the response to that insufficiency—especially from Africa, CARICOM, and Latin America—was quite telling. The resoluteness with which African countries pushed for the inclusion of ammunition in the scope of the ATT was particularly inspiring. Arguably one of the best statements of the month came from an African delegate who noted that, in fact, whether major conventional arms or SALW, the weapons themselves are no more than “delivery systems”—it is ammunition and munitions that kill and maim.

It was no surprise, then, that the outcome document of the regional PoA implementation meeting for Africa (Nairobi, 14–15 August) renders this statement: “We agree to interpret the Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, as including small arms and light weapons ammunition. We will therefore continue to include ammunition controls in our own national and sub-regional implementation efforts.”

It may be true that “opening the text” of the PoA would create political difficulties—cue the “Pandora’s box” cliché—but the UN was devised precisely to overcome international political difficulties. At the very least, a concerted effort should be undertaken to seriously consider the feasibility and mechanics of formally including ammunition in the instrument.

Regardless of that effort’s outcome, as a recent UNIDIR study has rightly pointed out, “the PoA should not be viewed in isolation. Ten years after its adoption, it now stands as a framework document that is, effectively, supplemented by other instruments and processes that enhance and expand on its provisions”.  

In other words, if the PoA text itself is deemed “sacrosanct” or a political “can of worms”, there are alternative ways to supplement, strengthen, and update itincluding through RevCon Declarations and other supporting documents being circulated in plenary this week. As suggested by the African outcome document, it could come down to a matter of interpretation, practice, and precedent that eventually gets formalized.

Finding a way out of the quandary of how to effectively include ammunition in the PoA is up to governments to negotiate. But negotiate they must. Guns and bullets have a symbiotic relationship—neither can fulfil their lethal mission without the other. Like the syringes and substances used for lethal injections, they are physically distinct components of a unitary and interdependent system developed to inflict damage to humans. 

To treat their respective illicit trade as if unrelated is nothing short of absurd. Hopefully, when the 2018 RevCon rolls around, the international community in its entirety will have seen the truth in these clichés.

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