The 2012 Review Conference for the U.N.’s “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” (PoA) concluded with a consensus agreement on Friday. The agreement continued the PoA’s track record of over-promising and under-delivering, but, in the context of the PoA, that is about the best outcome the U.S. could realistically have achieved.
Unlike the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the PoA is not an effort to negotiate a legally binding treaty. Also unlike the ATT—which will likely be the subject of a new negotiating conference in the first half of 2013—it clearly and explicitly promotes gun control.
On the other hand, the PoA and the ATT share an underlying approach: Both seek to develop supposedly binding norms that will eventually acquire the status of international law. If there is one thing the U.N. is good at, it is this strategy of building institutions—such as Model U.N.—that over time shape the debate, both at home and abroad.
The U.S. delegation did well to prevent the consensus agreement from being worse. It stopped the agreement from formally incorporating the U.N.’s new International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS) and kept ammunition, munitions, and parts and components out of the PoA. In a strong intervention, Steven R. Costner, Deputy Director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, stated explicitly that there “can be nothing in the [final PoA] document that in any way touches on civilian possession.” Given the U.S. decision to participate in the PoA, with which we disagree, the U.S. delegation’s firm stand deserves applause.
However, the outcome was hardly a U.S. triumph. The PoA’s backers won a victory by further institutionalizing the Programme and scheduling meetings through 2018, allowing the PoA to continue to thrive on bureaucratic momentum. As with so much at the U.N., the U.S.’s job at the Review Conference was essentially to stop too many bad things from happening. The Conference’s outcome means that, if the U.S. continues to participate in the PoA, it will have to keep on playing that role.
Over the coming years, the ISACS standards will be further elaborated, will move from their current base in Geneva to New York, and will be more closely integrated with the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs. The Conference demonstrated that these standards are appealing both to the European Union and to mischief-makers like North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, which spent a good deal of the Conference yanking the U.S.’s chain by demanding civilian gun control. The dictatorships are not alone in demanding this: As one NGO speaker put it, the PoA is the basis of “U.N. gun control.” The ISACS standards are central to that long-term effort.
The fallacies of the PoA are illustrated in a report produced by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based NGO. According to the Survey, based on assessment of national reports, the U.S. ranks only 28th in fulfilling commitments it has made under the PoA. Far ahead of the U.S., in 17th place, is the African nation of Mali. The government of Mali was overthrown by a coup in early 2012, its northern regions are occupied by an Islamist movement, and its borders were never very meaningful. Yet supposedly, it is in substantially fuller compliance than the U.S.
This is the kind of nonsense that comes from taking the U.N.’s norm-based approach seriously: Lawless nations like Mali get credit for achievements that exist only on paper, while the U.S. is ranked lower than Algeria, a center for regional arms smuggling.
The Survey is funded, in part, by the U.S. State Department. It would be a modest contribution to sanity if Congress ended that grant and the U.S. withdrew from the PoA, a U.N. institution that has palpably failed to advance U.S. interests and in which the U.S. has no role other than stubbornly playing defense.