National Security & Defense

At the U.N., Lather, Rinse, and Repeat for Gun Control

(Fabrizio Mariani/Dreamstime)
Half the delegates couldn’t find the trigger. The other half smuggled the gun.

The more time you spend at the U.N., the more its activities fall into a pattern. There are big promises, followed by failure and complete unwillingness to look that failure in the face. The affair invariably concludes with the piling up of yet more promises. Like a naughty child, the U.N. responds to evidence of past underperformance with pledges of future overachievement.

Late on Friday, the sixth biennial meeting of 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” (usually mercifully abbreviated as PoA) wrapped up in New York. In spite of its impressively long name, there is virtually unanimous agreement among both supporters and critics that the PoA hasn’t achieved much, if anything, by way of reducing the illicit trade in small arms.

That’s partly because the PoA isn’t really about taking serious action to stop the illegal trade. It’s actually predicated on the assumption that civilian ownership of firearms, per se, is the problem. Thus, none of the working papers submitted to the meeting even mention legal ownership, and the PoA’s “outcome document” refers to the “excessive accumulation” of small arms. If many of the nations at the PoA had their way, that accumulation would be reduced close to zero.

In a world where the majority of firearms are legally owned by civilians — not by national militaries — this attitude doesn’t make a lot of sense. It puts the PoA in the impossible position of trying to include everything — this year’s outcome document has a ridiculous 121 paragraphs, making it less of a sensible plan and more of a kitchen sink. It also means that the PoA is in practice completely uninterested in any real technical input. As Nico Wirtz, speaking for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, put it, “no other UN endeavor has so ignored scientific and technical facts from the most knowledgeable sources.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration: The U.N.’s track record in the realm of development is also pretty dire. But certainly the U.N. has shown no real interest in tackling the actual challenges posed by the illicit trade. Notoriously, for example, China — uniquely — hasn’t agreed to mark its firearms to make them traceable, nor does it respond to tracing requests, facts that received no attention at the PoA. More broadly, as Australian tracing expert Gary Fleetwood pointed out, the quality of tracing requests even in a nation as efficient and uncorrupt as Australia leaves a lot to be desired. What most of the rest of the world is typing into its tracing forms doesn’t bear thinking about.

Of course, if the U.N. wanted to tackle tracing, for example, it would have to begin by acknowledging that most of its member nations aren’t very good at it. Indeed, of the 193 nations in New York, only 73 even managed to submit their report of activities under the PoA on time — and no one knows (or seems to care) if those reports are truthful, or bear any relation to reality. By the same token, speeches at the PoA are full of irrelevant twaddle about the special expertise that women can supposedly bring to PoA implementation, though curiously no one ever specifies the source or nature of this expertise. Most of the delegates at the PoA know nothing about firearms, and quite a few represent nations that are deeply involved in the illicit trade. The result is predictable: As the PoA has failed to make any noticeable dent in that trade, the delegates want nothing more than to avoid any reflections on their own competence by focusing instead on expanding its remit.

Most of the delegates know nothing about firearms, and quite a few represent nations that are deeply involved in the illicit trade.

Their big push this year was on ammunition, which isn’t included in the PoA. With the world producing about 16 billion rounds of ammo every year, it seems obvious that this is a commodity that can’t usefully be tracked or traced. But, never shy of piling on more failure, over 40 nations supported a Ghanaian proposal to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the PoA itself, and 63 backed an Australian effort to insert ammo by linking the PoA to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This isn’t merely about expanding the PoA; it’s an example of the basic strategy of the U.N.’s gun controllers, which is to link the PoA, the ATT, and all the U.N.’s other small-arms processes together, and then to use the terms of one to lever the others up. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of lifting yourself by your own bootstraps.

The U.S. delegation — and kudos to them — did an excellent job, as it has in past years, of fighting off these follies, and managed to keep explicit references to both the ATT and ammo out of the outcome document. But implicit references abound, and in 2018, when the entire PoA is up for review, the U.S., which has signed but not ratified the ATT, will find it extremely hard to keep ammo (and perhaps grenades and other explosive weapons) out of a revised PoA. The gun controllers are always ready to take 5 percent of what they’re asking, even if they’re not very gracious about it, because they know there will always be a next time, and a chance to take another nibble.

In one way, the entire affair is rather sad. This PoA meeting included, as it always does, a speech by a victim (recruited by the gun controllers), who was listened to much more eagerly that the industry representatives. It’s hard to know, but sitting in the gallery on the final afternoon, it was hard for me to doubt that a lot of people genuinely believe the PoA is a useful instrument.

It’s not. The incompetence and malevolence of most of the U.N.’s member nations ensures that the PoA is going to matter only in places like the U.S., if it matters anywhere. The U.N. likes to preen itself on its moral superiority, but the PoA, by its very grandiosity and the cover it gives to nations like China, actually obstructs genuinely useful, serious, unglamorous things that could be done to make life for arms traffickers a little harder. But rest assured: That consideration won’t stop the PoA from coming back and doing it all over again in 2018.

— Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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