by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War
Friday saw the end of a successful two-week Review Conference (RevCon) characterized by a consensus outcome document; generous pledges of government assistance; the release of a new “Matching Needs and Resources” booklet and other, more data-driven resources; the revival of one of our small arms partners; a particularly successful series of Small Arms Monitors; the skillfulness of some relatively young and immensely talented facilitators; the consistent, helpful presence of UNODA staff; expressions of leadership on UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) implementation from a new group of regionally diverse states; and much more.
Delegations on Friday were drained, but more so relieved. The prospect of a long summer of deliberations and negotiations resulting in two failed consensus documents (following the July arms trade treaty negotiations) was too much to contemplate. The last days of diplomacy in the RevCon demonstrated both diplomatic skill and a resolve to come away with an outcome that we would mostly be pleased to share with societies wracked by gun-related violence. The UN disarmament community needed this victory as well. There have been too many ‘near misses’ and even not-so-near misses over the past several years.
As participants are catching their breath and even managing a satisfied smile, the temptation in all this is to indulge one of two reactions—either to sentimentalize this UNPoA and its outcome document or to focus only on the limitations of the RevCon and its outcomes. Both reactions would best be avoided.
On the one hand, while this outcome document can help restore confidence in both the UNPoA process and, more broadly, in the UN’s ability to broker meaningful disarmament agreements, the document left out much that some of the more ‘ambitious’ delegations would have liked to see included. From more gender language to more focus on export controls, the limitations of the document are clear. And, beyond the document, there was probably insufficient attention in plenary as well to a range of issues that, as many delegations noted, will simply need to be taken up again if full UNPoA implementation is to have a reasonable prospect.
On the other hand, the RevCon and its outcome document do not contribute to something that many of us feared—a rollback of UNPoA-related commitments. In some instances, the UNPoA review failed to take into account, as Ray Acheson and Katherine Prizeman have noted often in the Monitor, of the many changing circumstances that should prompt us to simultaneously honor and update UNPoA obligations. Clearly, changes in technology, political alliances, and more since the turn of the century have created new challenges for the UNPoA, not all of which were properly addressed during these two weeks. But there is enough in this outcome document, and so much more in the full RevCon context, for us to move forward with confidence and enthusiasm.
And move forward we must. Beyond the immediate implications of any UNPoA outcome document exist gaps in capacity and political will to which the document hopefully points—the under-managed stockpiles, the porous borders, the informal arms supermarkets that cater to a wide range of unauthorized needs. As Global Action has noted many times, illicit weapons threaten more than violence. They create unacceptable levels of risk for children seeking an education, women seeking a rightful place at the policy table, or communities attempting to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts. We simply cannot successfully encourage societies to engage in these practices so long as illicit weapons remain out of control. The stranglehold of gun-related violence on so many communities must be responsibly loosened, and this RevCon gave all of us ample reason to think that such an outcome is on the horizon.