28 August 2012

Voluntary associations

by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War
Ambassador Ogwu of Nigeria, President of the Review Conference, set the tone for the initial meeting noting that illicit small arms represent an 'enduring problem' with profoundly negative ramifications, most especially for fragile states. The audience of diplomats and NGOs seemed attentive to her urgency. The 'hangover' that some of us feared from the month-long arms trade treaty negotiating conference was not in evidence this morning. This ability to recover and respond anew is worthy of high praise. At the same time, there is a recognition by many delegations that the need is still urgent to dry up and properly dispose of illicit stockpiles, secure borders and harbors, share the highest quality information within a predictable and reliable framework, and create more abundant and transparent streams of capacity support.
In a section of the draft outcome document entitled “Strengthened Implementation at the National, Regional and Global Levels 2012-2018,” there is a reference to the need for “supporting comprehensive needs assessments.” There is broad recognition on the wisdom of assessing needs thoroughly and honestly prior to any effort to address those needs. However, this 'wisdom' does not always translate into national policy. The kinds of rigorous assessments that anchor sustainable policy change are less common than we might wish them to be, both inside UN conference rooms and within the security establishments of member states.

Assessments in any form are very much part of the 'voluntary' activities that define implementation priorities in the UNPoA. Indeed, there are many points in the UNPoA draft outcome documents where 'voluntary' participation is underscored. Reporting is voluntary. Focal points for both the UNPoA and International Tracing Instrument are voluntary. Sharing of national experiences in eliminating illicit weapons is voluntary. Capacity assistance is voluntary, as are careful reviews of the benefits and challenges associated with such assistance.

To a large extent, this pattern is to be expected. As a norm setting institution, the UN generally has challenges in binding member states to any particular implementation strategy, and weapons-related implementation reinforces high levels of anxiety for some governments. With few exceptions, states are responsible for motivating themselves and each other to abide by political agreements. It would be inappropriate at this time to suggest structures of institutional coercion to enforce what is likely to remain a state-defined and motivated process.

However, while giving states a wide birth, we must be careful of allowing voluntarism to skew assessments (and the reporting on which they are ostensibly based) for political purposes. Sarah Parker of the Small Arms Survey (SAS) updated delegations on levels of reporting under the UNPoA. Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW) is highly supportive of the work that SAS does in reviewing national reports and highlighting trends. SAS has also been deeply involved in work to create templates that can rationalize reporting and allow us to benefit from the most accurate national comparisons possible.

But, alas, the use of such templates, like the reporting obligation itself, is also voluntary.
In this context, GAPW feels compelled to remind delegations to review not only their levels of reporting under the UNPoA, but also the quality and reliability of information offered. 'Accuracy' as a voluntary obligation can have severe ramifications for small arms policy as well as impact levels of trust needed to keep donors and recipient states in transparent engagement.

As noted during the SAS presentation, response by states to the call for national UNPoA focal points is quite gratifying. It is indeed possible for states of diverse interests to respond 'voluntarily' to suggestions that build capacity for UNPoA implementation. We would suggest that vigorous reporting based on thorough and accurate information is one of the 'voluntary' contributions that must command a higher priority by states.

There is a maxim in philosophy that there are actually two 'tests' of truth. The first is getting our 'facts' right. The second is placing those facts in their proper context. Information provided under the UNPoA must be factual, but also comprehensive and embedded in the most relevant contexts. We simply cannot make good implementation policy, including sustainable capacity support among and between states, in the absence of comprehensive and accurate information on needs, successes, disappointments and concrete activities within and between the borders of member states.

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