Sixty-first General Assembly: First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)

The First Committee, one of the main bodies of the General Assembly, enforces disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons. In 2006, it made huge strides in international security when it adopted resolutions condemning surplus weapons stockpiles and agreeing on deeper international cooperation in the tracing of black market arms. It noted a serious deficit in international trust, especially on issues such as nuclear security. "In today's world, it is almost incomprehensible that conflicts can be solved without confidence-building measures", Committee Chairperson Mona Juul of Norway said, acknowledging that mutual mistrust among States often frustrates some of the Committee's best efforts. Particularly prominent during the 2006 debate was the Committee's unabashed condemnation of nuclear-weapons testing, specifically the one conducted by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which made headlines in October 2006. Many delegates also urged the universal acceptance of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Acknowledging the many positive uses of nuclear energy, the Committee continued to defer all non-weapons matters to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but stressed the need for a significant improvement in international nuclear transparency. It also approved resolutions affirming the objective of building nuclear-weapons-free zones in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Tracing of Small and Light Weapons

The steel barrel is made in a deafening factory in Eastern Europe, its sleek casing fitted along an assembly line. A spinning cylinder and a spring trigger appear beside it; it is buffed, packed and closed into a box like thousands before it and thousands after. However, somewhere between its first march on the shoulder of a national guardsman and its final resting place, this weapon is likely to disappear. It will be repackaged and traded for cash, then travel over rugged dirt roads in the back of a truck, becoming one of the world's most dangerous commodities -- a silent, untraceable killer -- sold to the highest bidder.

In conflict zones around the world, weapons like this make strange bounty for local authorities and peacekeepers. Ranging from handguns to automatics and anti-tank guns, small arms and light weapons (SALW) are a major component of illicit armies and a main target for police. However, for peacekeepers and military officers, confiscating a stock of weapons is hardly a sustainable victory. For every Uzi found, hundreds more exist; and for every stockpile discovered, another will arrive on the black market.

For the last decade, the United Nations has led the international community in developing policies to stop the spread of black market weapons at its roots. "Small arms and light weapons kill many people every year, as opposed to weapons of mass destruction; that is why the issue is so important at the UN", said Shutaro Omura of the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, a co-sponsor of the resolution on the illicit trade in SALW in all its aspects. "The United Nations provides a forum for how to systematically and effectively deal with the issue of small arms."

Owen Greene, Director of the Centre for International Cooperation and Security (CICS) at the United Kingdom's University of Bradford and a former UN consultant on small arms, leads the Centre's research in identifying better ways to confront the illegal weapons trade. The challenge is an especially difficult one, he explained, because most illicit SALW were at one time legally produced. Unable to target the legitimate sources of weapons, policies have instead focused on their point of departure from the legal market. "The priority is to enable tracing of weapons that go astray", he said.

The tracing of weapons through permanent physical markings engraved directly into the weapon's body has become the international standard in stemming the flow of black market arms. A marking branded during production or as the weapon is imported into a country can create accountability for its manufacturer or those who sold the weapon illegally. In 2001, the United Nations adopted two major documents dealing with the tracing of weapons: the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (UN Firearms Protocol) and the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. A group of government experts organized by the Programme made significant headway in 2003, when it reported that it was both feasible and desirable to mark weapons for tracing. Since then, successful tracing policies have been addressed by a multitude of bodies, including regional and expert groups, as well as UN organs.

Despite a flurry of activities over the past decade, results in tracing weapons in conflict zones have been poor. This is because, according to Dr. Greene, tracing is more than just about engraved markings; it requires countries to keep detailed records of their weapons and respond to inquiries of other States. "Until recently, there were no international agreements that clarified the responsibilities for tracing mechanisms", he said. States were free to mark up, record and respond to queries as they saw fit -- a problem that would only be solved by a major paradigm shift in the international community.

Enter the first United Nations resolution, adopted in December 2005, designed to foster international cooperation on arms tracing. The International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, which addressed for the first time weapons sold en masse to conflict zones, called for States to keep records for a minimum time period and submit contact information to the United Nations for trace inquiries. Both of these seemingly small changes enable cooperation and accountability in arms production, said Dr. Greene. "That's the real innovation of this tracing mechanism." Delegations at the sixty-first General Assembly session considered the Instrument a success and unanimously adopted the resolution that called on States to implement it. "The Instrument is one of the first and most important achievements of the First Committee and the United Nations in the effort to stop the killing by small arms and light weapons", he said.

As weapons tracing has become a top priority both regionally and internationally, a paradigm shift has occurred. According to experts like Dr. Greene and Glenn McDonald of the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent research group based in Geneva, most producers today will mark their weapons as a matter of course and even have a selfish interest in proper marking and record-keeping, as this is a way to clear their names when weapons go astray. However, those concerned with enforcing the innovative tracing mechanism face major obstacles. Marking weapons at their point of production is a key feature of the Programme of Action, but marking them at the point of import -- a major area of international contention -- is not. And, most importantly, the Programme of Action and the follow-up resolutions have not been made legally binding. As legal ratification is difficult and can take years, the United Nations opted instead to make the documents politically binding, meaning they are, at their core, only voluntary. Member States are called upon to report to the Organization on their own compliance.

Experts in SALW are hoping for another shift in the international climate -- this time regarding implementation. Faced with voluntary standards, States are only likely to implement the Programme of Action's initiatives if other countries have already done so. To this end, both CICS and SAS continue to work closely with the United Nations. For example, in the fall of 2006, SAS published a study on weapons brokering -- a new focal point in conflict-zone management -- and is looking into compliance by States. "The key challenge now is to take that framework and make sure it's implemented", said Mr. McDonald. "Enforcement really depends on practical measures."