04 September 2012

Pacific paradox: Successes of PoA implementation and the struggles of 'next steps' in the Pacific

by Marcus Wilson, International Action Network on Small Arms
The Pacific is often overlooked in discussions on the international small arms process, but look closer and the region is an example of what can be achieved through the Programme of Action (PoA). However, like other regions, the Pacific too struggles with sustainable, on-going attention to small arms issues. The future of the PoA, and the outcome of the Second Review Conference, must address the same issues. How to implement successful policies and practices to ‘prevent, combat and eradicate’ the illicit trade in small arms now, while sustaining long-term, effective, and measurable approaches to small arms control and the illicit trade?
The governments of Australia and New Zealand have, over the years, provided a great deal of funding and expertise to assist Pacific states with their PoA implementation requirements. But in a region that, when compared to others, is hardly ravaged by the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, the challenge arises when attempting to sustain action while remaining relevant to local concerns.
A priority issue in the region has been to address state stockpile leakage which exacerbated tensions and facilitated armed violence during instability in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, as well as on-going issues in Papua New Guinea. State stockpile facilities were upgraded across the region; in the Cook Islands, Nauru, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Additional assistance projects include: collection and destructions campaigns; police, customs, and security training; demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants; post-conflict reconstruction; capacity building of police, judicial and penal systems; and public awareness campaigns.

These areas were addressed because of their direct relevance to each national context. But relevancies change over time. Once stockpiles are upgraded, and staff trained, there is only so much on-going work that can be done. In many areas of the Pacific there is now an often justified sense of ‘job done’, ‘mission accomplished’; which is where the Pacific Paradox occurs. For many Pacific states, guns and illicit trafficking are simply not an issue. Convincing states to join a conversation on ‘small arms’ (not ‘guns’), in countries without armed forces and only an arm-full of WWII-era civilian rifles, where livelihoods are being affected by the destruction of fisheries and rising sea levels, is a challenge in itself. 

But this forgets the PoA’s value as a preventative mechanism. Even states unaffected by small arm violence or trafficking should be encouraged or assisted to participate in the PoA implementation process. The key is to ensure on-going attention to prevent small arms accumulation and trafficking. The Pacific provides several cases of rapid accumulations of even small numbers of weapons among essentially unarmed civilian populations, creating instability and exacerbating insecurity among communities. So making the PoA relevant to different local contexts is an initial step to universal participation.

The Pacific is not all palm trees, turquoise water, and smiling faces. Papua New Guinea, the region’s most armed violence-affected state, faces devastating accumulations and movements of small arms among its tribal communities and within its capital Port Moresby. Modern tribal fighting and gun crime has threatened communities for decades as spears were set aside in favour of firearms. There is anecdotal evidence from locals, and claims from government officials, that weapons flow across its sea border from Australia, and land border from Indonesia. However, evidence of trafficking and smuggling is rare, and the accumulation of high-powered firearms is more likely due to diversion from official armouries through theft and corruption. But the results of small arm violence are undeniable—communities are ravaged by gun violence, emphasising the need for action on implementing measures aimed to eradicate it. 

For the PoA to be universally successful over its next decade, implementation needs to be adaptable. It needs to be relevant to local and regional contexts. Measures need to be, well, measurable. And successful measures should be sustainable. The Pacific has been able to implement a great deal of the PoA provisions, but achieving on-going interest and activity is the battle. The fear is that a less-than-successful outcome of this Review Conference will further reduce interest. Tragically, there seems to be an attitude among states that not failing (as they did at RevCon 2006) will mean success. Slowing momentum, for regions like that Pacific, where capacity is strained at best, could create gaps for complacency to reverse the good work that has been done.

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