The Fifth Biennial Meeting of States for 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) is being held this week in New York City.
Supposedly, the point of the PoA is to improve international cooperation on monitoring and controlling illicit small-arms trafficking, and thus armed violence, throughout the world. In reality, this meeting is primarily an opportunity for diplomats and gun-control sympathizers to gather in New York and engage in activity for its own sake. Nothing that happens at the PoA will make a tangible improvement to peace, human rights, or economic development.
U.N. member states have committed to submit annual national reports on their implementation of the PoA. But in recent years, states have demonstrated that their level of commitment to the PoA is extremely low. After a spike in 2008, when 110 reports (about 57 percent of the U.N.’s members) were submitted, the number of reports declined to 85 in 2012. Clearly, most nations do not take the reporting commitment seriously.
Since 2001, when the PoA came into existence, nations in Europe—which have much less armed violence to worry about than Africa and no real need of the assistance the U.N. claims to be offering—have usually been the most conscientious about filing their paperwork. On a generous estimate, only 88 nations submitted their reports in time to meet the deadline for the current meeting, and since 2001, the median nation has filed only three reports, instead of the six necessary to meet their commitments.
In other words, the PoA has no accountability mechanism. That is not a bad thing: The U.N. would certainly abuse such a mechanism if it existed, and giving the U.N. enforcement power would be bad for national sovereignty. But if the U.N. cannot hold nations to account, and nations will not fulfill their commitments voluntarily, the PoA cannot achieve much. When the PoA originally came into being, it offered some incentives to draw national support, such as the hope of more foreign aid, a tyrannical justification for disarming civilian populations, and a way to divert attention from the recurring human rights violations in many U.N. member nations. But predictably, none of these enticements translated into actually encouraging nations to fulfill their commitments under the PoA.
Even the PoA’s most enthusiastic supporters recognize that the PoA has achieved little. In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, researcher Sarah Parker notes:
[S]ome ten years after the adoption of the PoA, it has become clear that national reports, although an important basis for any such evaluation, rarely offers sufficient information.… A further question relating to the PoA…is whether such implementation is having the impact it was intended to have.
Parker concludes that states and other organizations need to focus on evaluating whether the PoA has actually achieved anything before deciding to give it any further responsibilities.
You might think that, at the least, the PoA meeting would feature free-flowing and genuine debate. You would be wrong: An outcome document for the upcoming meeting has already been drafted and is available from the U.N. online. The meeting itself is merely for deciding on the final, contentious details.
It is time for the U.S. to quit the PoA and for anyone who cares about armed violence to stop confusing the PoA with an institution that actually has the power to make a difference.