The UN Role and Efforts in Combating the Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in various parts of the globe continues to pose a systemic and pervasive threat to the long-term social and economic development of many nations, particularly in small developing states.

No nation, region, or sub-region is immune from the dangers posed by the illicit trade in and the proliferation of SALW. As we have witnessed time and again, events in one localized area can have far-reaching implications in many areas throughout the global community. The wide circulation of these weapons is oftentimes the catalyst that transforms localized incidents into global events.

SALW are indiscriminate and their effects are devastating, regardless of age, gender, religion, or ethnicity. Our efforts in combating their proliferation must therefore be viewed as contributing to the global good, rather than a zero-sum game.

The right to life and the right to live in freedom and dignity are rights that all Member States uphold in various fora. The daily reality for many men, women, and children is the opposite, and their lives and freedoms are curtailed by armed militias or criminal gangs which, through their possession of powerful SALW, hold the power over life and death.

Over the years, the United Nations has significantly enhanced the global efforts to combat the proliferation of SALW. In 2001, the adoption of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects (PoA), the subsequent adoption of the International Tracing Instrument,1 and the Firearms Protocol of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,2 have established an overall framework within which Member States and regional organizations have, both individually and collectively, enacted numerous legislative and administrative measures to combat the proliferation of these weapons. Of these, only the Firearms Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, is legally binding. However, this fact does not purport the political commitment and action by Member States to implement the provisions of these various instruments.

The success of implementation by Member States in this respect is dependent on many factors, including the lack of available resources. Small developing countries, such as those of my own region, the Caribbean, face particular financial and human resource constraints. As a demonstration of our commitment to the people of our region, Member States of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) have pooled their efforts to fight the scourge of SALW proliferation, and have established a regional mechanism known as the CARICOM Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS). In early 2011, CARICOM Heads of State and Government adopted the CARICOM Declaration on Small Arms and Light Weapons, a politically binding agreement reinforcing our joint commitment to fully implement the PoA, and took all necessary measures to combat the proliferation of SALW. The efforts of CARICOM Member States to tackle this problem in a coordinated manner are mirrored in other parts of the globe, particularly in Africa.

Regional efforts, such as those being undertaken within CARICOM and in other parts of the globe, form one tier of global action to combat the proliferation of SALW, and we count the United Nations as one of our main partners. The United Nations, and in particular the Programme of Action Implementation Support System, has been instrumental in assisting Member States in identifying their priority imple- mentation needs and in recognizing those in a position to help meet these needs.

The year 2012 holds the promise of a turning point in our efforts to combat the illicit trade in and the proliferation of these weapons. Member States and the international com- munity as a whole will convene to examine the gains made since the adoption of the 2001 PoA, as well as to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty. A positive outcome from both meetings will set the foundation for our efforts in this respect in years to come. The underlying question in the minds of many diplo- mats, policymakers, and researchers is what has been accomplished 10 years after the adoption of PoA and the finalization of the Firearms Protocol?

Undoubtedly, we have raised awareness of the devastating impact of the proliferation of these weapons on the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe, including in countries that are not in conflict. We have strengthened the legal and administrative framework of many states to combat and prevent the illicit flow of these categories of weapons across their borders. Member States now recognize the importance of efforts to combat the illicit flow of SALW, and have begun to integrate such efforts into wider national development planning documents. Member States, including CARICOM Member States, have begun to implement the highest inter- national standards for the storage and safe disposal of SALW.

Such achievements over the span of 10 years are by no means trivial, and the United Nations has a key role to play in assisting those Member States that may be falling short in these areas. The challenge before us will be to build on these achievements and prevent the use of SALW that are used to terrorize the innocent and destroy families, lives, and livelihoods.

The 2012 Review Conference of the Programme of Action should aim to go beyond a mere procedural review of its implementation. Such an approach would serve the interests of no one. Rather, the 2012 Review Conference should seek to identify ways and means of strengthening its implementation. Anything less would serve the interests of those who wish to maintain the status quo, wherein lax rules and procedural loopholes facilitate the illicit trade in and proliferation of these weapons.

To adequately combat the illicit trade in and the proliferation of SALW, we must address these issues in a holistic manner. Efforts to combat the proliferation in SALW can no longer be divorced from efforts to combat the proliferation of the ammunition that make these weapons viable.

Over the coming years, Member States, with the assistance of the United Nations, will have to build on this framework in order to realize more tangible, quantifiable benefits. Member States must begin to demonstrate the political will to, at the very least, address seemingly taboo topics, such as ammunition and trade across borders. The United Nations and the international community of non-governmental organizations should continue to play a key role in this respect by ensuring that there is adequate research to assist Member States to hold factual, evidence-based discussions on these issues.

There must also be a greater exchange of information and sharing of best practices at the state-to-state and region-to- region levels to enable individual Member States and regions to ensure that programmes and policies that are developed are ahead of the curve, and to forestall the repetition of the failures and setbacks already experienced by others.

The vital role played by the International Tracing Instrument in combating the illicit trade in and the proliferation of SALW cannot be over- stated. While many Member States frequently rein- force their political commitment to implementing the provisions of the Instrument, the limited number of states reporting on its implementation is a problematic issue that should be addressed.

From the perspective of a sma ll island developing state, one with porous borders and geographically positioned between consumers and producers of illicit drugs, Jamaica, with its CARICOM partners, has remained at the forefront of efforts to combat the illicit trade in and proliferation of SALW and other elements of transnational organized crime.

Jamaica and its CARICOM counterparts have always advocated that efforts to combat the illicit trade in and proliferation of SALW cannot be divorced from wider efforts to combat transnational organized crime. CARICOM efforts in this respect have been severely compromised as a result of the closure of the CARICOM Regional Office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). While recent contacts between UNODC and
CARICOM IMPACS are welcomed, a re-establishment of an on-the-ground presence by UNODC will be critical to achieving further progress.

CARICOM's experience underlines the importance of the United Nations to speak with one clear, coordinated voice, and to deliver as one. Stating a commitment to combating trans- national organized crime and stemming the proliferation of SALW, while closing the mandated UNODC office in a region currently experiencing unprecedented high levels of armed violence and gang-related criminal activity, sends an inconsistent message, which in no way serves the ends we wish to achieve.

This strong commitment has led to CARICOM's unrelenting support for a future Arms Trade Treaty -- one that includes in its scope SALW and ammunition. While there remain differing views on the value of such a treaty, for CARICOM and many other developing countries that witness the devastating impact of these weapons on a daily basis, the Arms Trade Treaty will contribute to significantly stem the proliferation of SALW, and combat their illicit trade by establishing a frame- work for transparent and responsible arms transfers. While there is much expectation surrounding the future Arms Trade Treaty, seeing this future Treaty as a panacea would be unwise. In so doing, we would relegate the gains made through the implementation of the existing international and regional agreements to the unfortunate status of a mere afterthought.

The United Nations is the only venue within which any significant progress can be made to stem the illicit transfer in and combat the proliferation of SALW. It is the only venue within which each individual Member State has an equal voice and an equal right to be heard. The United Nations is not an abstract entity; it is the collective will of its Member States and the citizens they represent. Each of these citizens has a right to live free from fear -- a right which cannot be realized while the threat posed by illegal guns in the hands of criminals remains a part of their daily existence. Success requires more than political will -- it requires upholding our responsibilities to the people that we represent. Only then can we truly achieve success in our efforts.

The work we undertake each day is intended to ensure progress in the areas of security, development, and human rights, the three pillars of the United Nations. Stemming the illicit transfer in and combating the proliferation of SALW is a key component of these efforts. It is only through success in these efforts that we can make a significant contribution to creating safe communities for our citizens, securing their human right to live in freedom and dignity, and laying the foundation for long-term socio-economic development. Given the high numbers of SALW currently in circulation, and the loss of life that occurs as a result, maintaining the status quo should be unacceptable to all.

For a safe, secure future, we, the United Nations, and its Member States must seize the opportunities that are now before us to combat the proliferation of SALW.

1 International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons.

2 Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.