The Corner

At the U.N., An Ever So Small Win Against Gun Control

If you’ve never attended what’s commonly described as a debate at the United Nations, you might believe that the U.N. actually proceeds by debate. You would be wrong.

Much of what happens is cut and dried well in advance. This week’s “Programme of Action” meeting on the illicit small-arms trade, for example — the PoA I began describing on the Corner yesterday — published the fourth draft of its “outcome document” before the meeting began.

But that doesn’t mean there are no surprises. It’s one thing to read the draft of an outcome document, but it’s quite another to see how nations interpret it when they address the floor.

The first theme of this year’s PoA, “stockpile management and security,” is a case in point. There is always much to mock: Turtle Bay has already heard a great deal this week about the special role of women in the management of small-arms stockpiles, though so far no one has dared to explain exactly what that role might be. And it’s hard not to chuckle when the Mexican delegation proclaims that its army has a firm hand on all the Mexican government’s own armories.

The major points of contention, though, are clear. First, there’s the question of whether ammunition should be included in the PoA. At the U.N., ammunition stockpile guidelines are developed through the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG), not the PoA, thanks to the Bush administration, which negotiated ammunition out of the agreement in 2001.

But that’s not what a lot of nations want: For them, stockpile management is a Trojan horse for, among other things, including ammunition in the PoA. That would, they hope, lead to a further commitment to ammunition marking and tracing (which is both impractical and undesirable). In its statement on Monday, the U.S. strongly rejected ammunition’s inclusion in the PoA.

The second is whether U.N. peacekeeping missions should be mandated, as a matter of course, to carry out the PoA’s commitments on arms control. Today, each U.N. operation is a unique enterprise. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration is included in the mandates of these operations where it is relevant. The PoA, if added as boilerplate, would bring additional baggage that might often be beyond the scope of, irrelevant to, or a distraction from the key objectives of each mission. It’s therefore unwise to make this a general mandate for all peacekeeping missions. At worst, the PoA could require the U.N. to act as gun controller general in conflict zones around the world. Since governments will never give up their guns, that could put the U.N. in the position of disarming — and thus rendering defenseless — a civilian population. After the Srebrenica massacre, the dangers of this approach should be obvious.

Third, and fundamentally, there’s the desire of many nations to roll all the U.N.’s small-arms initiatives — from the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to the International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS) — into one great big undifferentiated gun-controlling ball.

Nation after nation on Monday argued that the ATT makes a major contribution to the PoA’s goals, and that ISACS is an essential part of clarifying precisely what the PoA is supposed to achieve. As I’ve argued for years, this is the essence of the game: One reason the ATT is a bad idea, for example, is that most nations refuse to treat it as a self-contained instrument with well-defined terms, and instead want to use it as a conveyor belt that moves as directed by the U.N.’s other initiatives and the gun-control NGOs.

To its tremendous credit, the U.S. on Monday went beyond its generally solid working paper and, as I called on it to do last week, explicitly rejected any efforts to expand the PoA’s scope. But as today’s statements show, the U.S. is, as always when guns are under discussion at the U.N., in the distinct minority in the conference room.

— Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations with the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.

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