The U.N.’s Biennial Surreptitious Gun-Control Conference Begins

The “Programme of Action” — which starts its fifth biennial meeting in New York today — is a classic U.N. institution, in that it manages to combine a complete lack of substantive accomplishments with sinister intentions.

Commonly and mercifully abbreviated as the PoA, it’s properly the “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects.” Translation: While it poses as an effort to control the illicit arms trade, it’s actually the centerpiece of the U.N.’s gun-control efforts.

The PoA does have a few saving graces. While its supporters would like to turn it into a binding treaty, it’s so far remained a voluntary program. And though the U.N. talks a lot about using it to increase and coordinate the flow of aid from donor nations, that has remained mostly talk. As a result, its backers are forthright in admitting that, as a 2012 survey by New Zealand’s permanent representative to the U.N. put it, “it is almost impossible to acquire an accurate picture of Programme of Action implementation and effectiveness” and that “the results of those more limited assessments that have been undertaken have not been encouraging.”

But the upsides of the PoA’s weakness are outweighed by its potential for mischief. Above all, it’s a classic U.N. norm-building institution that seeks to build up purely verbal commitments that can be transformed by the alchemy of frequent meetings into supposedly binding international law. Not for nothing does Germany refer to the results of the PoA’s meetings as its “acquis” — the EU’s term of art for the legally binding totality of all its laws, decisions, and directives.

The PoA’s approach is brilliant, if perverse: claim to be the centerpiece of any U.N. program, institution, or treaty that has any relevance at all to small arms, build up the acquis, and then argue that even unrelated treaties have to be interpreted in light of that acquis. So, for example, while the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is supposedly limited to the international trade in arms and is actually separate from the PoA, it is being pulled into the PoA orbit, and thereby contaminated with the gun-control norms that the U.N. advances through its International Small Arms Control Standards.

It’s therefore a mistake simply to sneer at the PoA’s failures, tempting though that is. The gun controllers have only one real advantage at the U.N., but it’s a powerful one: They have the patience to play the long game. They’re willing to take 5 percent this time, knowing that there will always be a next time, and they can take another 5 percent then. When you couple that with the opacity of the U.N.’s institutions and the regrettable tendency of conservatives to mistake ineffectiveness for failure, you get a strategy that is tactically feeble but strategically potent.

The best defense against opacity is sunlight, which I’ll be providing as an NGO representative of the Heritage Foundation at the PoA for the next week. The irony of a nation like Iran lecturing the U.S. — this is a regular feature of PoA — about the need to control the illicit small-arms trade is laughable, but as tempting and valuable as mockery can be, it can’t substitute for knowing what the U.N.’s gun controllers are up to.

— 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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