by Dr. Natalie Goldring
UN negotiators and observers are accustomed to parsing words carefully. The use of “shall” instead of “should”, for example, is the difference between a potentially robust mandate and a mere suggestion.
Semantic discussions, while important, can often become tedious. This was certainly a risk when delegates debated the meaning of the word “consensus” for almost the entire week of the last Preparatory Committee for the Arms Trade Treaty. But that debate affected the outcome of the treaty negotiation conference last month. Participating governments’ willingness to in effect define consensus as unanimity allowed the United States to singlehandedly block approval of the Arms Trade Treaty.
In another example of this phenomenon, the latest version of the proposed PoA document, “Strengthened Implementation at the National, Regional and Global levels 2012-2018,” could (albeit inadvertently) significantly weaken implementation. In the June 2012 version of the document, the sections on implementation at these levels all began with nearly identical phrases: “In implementing the Programme of Action at the [national/regional/global] level, Member States undertake: …” In the 23 August version of the document, however, the sections on implementation at each level had changed. In each case, the edits include inserting the phrase “where they have not yet done so”. The current versions of the chapeaux for each section follow:
In the implementation of the Programme of Action at the national level and with a view towards reducing the suffering caused by the illicit trade, excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons, Member States, where they have not yet done so, undertake:….
In implementing the Programme of Action at the regional level, Member States in cooperation with the United Nations Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament, where they have not yet done so, undertake:….
In implementing the Programme of Action at the global level, Member States where they have not yet done so, undertake:….
Encouraging countries to fully implement the Programme of Action is a laudable pursuit. But a literal reading of the new text suggests potential unintended consequences. By only referring to countries that have not yet undertaken the various listed activities, the current text in effect excludes countries that have already implemented some of the provisions. Some provisions, such as establishing a national coordination agency, may only need to be carried out once, in which case the change in language would not have a significant effect. However, many other provisions are ongoing commitments, such as ensuring that surplus stocks of weapons are destroyed, and ensuring effective control over the production, export, import, transit, or retransfer of weapons. Exempting countries from these continuing responsibilities would significantly weaken the implementation of the Programme of Action.
Fortunately, fixing this problem should not be difficult. One option is to simply remove the phrase “where they have not yet done so” in the language on national, regional, and global implementation. Another option is less graceful in its wording, but more inclusive from a substantive perspective. It would involve inserting, “…member states commit to continuing, and where they have not yet done so, undertake: …” instead of the existing clause. Using this amended wording would encourage countries that have not yet implemented particular practices to do so, while also encouraging other countries to continue to participate. Either option would strengthen the text and would be inclusive. Words matter.
Natalie Goldring is a senior fellow with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She also represents the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.