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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 90, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 90, Spring 2009

Will President Obama meet the Challenge to Control the Conventional Arms Trade?

Natalie Goldring

The United Nations has increasingly been coming to grips with the challenges posed by the global trade in conventional weapons. It has largely done so over the opposition of the US government. During the Bush administration, the United States regularly attempted to block efforts by its allies to curb small arms and light weapons (SALW), and also impeded more recent efforts to promote an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This article provides an update on international efforts to curb the arms trade and asks: Will President Obama's message of hope and change extend to controlling conventional weapons transfers?

By necessity, this must be a provisional analysis, as few sub-cabinet officials are in place and the new administration has not yet articulated many policy approaches on these issues. However, if the Obama administration is willing to take on the challenges posed by conventional as well as nuclear weapons, this article suggests some relatively low cost, high impact initiatives it could begin to implement now.


The 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects put these weapons onto the international diplomatic agenda and produced a Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) that has served as the framework for the UN's work ever since. At the time, many analysts and advocates were frustrated with the limited scope and ambition of the document, which had been weakened during a lengthy preparatory process and tough negotiations in which reluctant states had made their agreement contingent on a substantial watering down of many provisions.

Subsequent biennial meetings in 2003 and 2005 were generally disappointing. Advocates of more stringent controls on the licit and illicit trade in small arms and light weapons wanted to strengthen the PoA and take the UN's approach forward. Instead, we found ourselves having to fight to prevent a roll back of progress achieved in 2001, as international relations deteriorated.

In 2006, the United Nations held the first review conference for the Programme of Action. Measured in both substantive and procedural terms, the conference was also a disappointment. As documented in previous articles, it failed to resolve key issues.[1] The consensus process made it possible for progress to be blocked by a single country. This was usually the United States, which did not even allow a final statement from the meeting to be agreed.

In his evaluation of the outcome, the Chair of the 2006 Review Conference, Prasad Kariyawasam of Sri Lanka, cited several causes, including the failure to make progress during the Preparatory Committee meeting for the conference; disagreements over what the conference agenda should cover; the fact that some countries were not willing to seek or agree to compromise; and the treating of consensus as if it equalled unanimity. He also referred to a "malaise" affecting all disarmament work in multilateral fora at the time.[2]

The final document that states were negotiating in 2006 was weaker in many respects than the 2001 Programme of Action. The US determination to block a new agreement therefore had the consequence of preventing the PoA from being formally diluted, an irony that appeared lost on the Bush administration. This was because the UN gives a great deal of deference to precedent and generally continues to follow earlier agreements unless they have been directly overruled or supplanted. Though this unintended consequence may have been better than the alternative, the aim of conventional arms control advocates was to move forward to build a more effective regime. After the disappointments of the 2006 Review Conference, few had high hopes for the 2008 Biennial Meeting of States.

The 2008 Biennial Meeting of States

Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania was only appointed as the chair-designate of the 2008 Biennial Meeting of States in December 2007, about seven months before the meeting opened. In addition, no funding was provided for preparatory meetings, and the conference itself was limited to a single week. To overcome these significant obstacles, Cekuolis developed a new strategy and immediately began substantive and procedural organizational tasks. In his first round of consultations, held in New York and Geneva, he stressed the need to find a different way to operate, in both the preparatory process and in the meeting itself.

The conference mandate already included discussion of the implementation of the International Tracing Instrument (formally known as the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons), so that was a given focal point for the discussion. The International Tracing Instrument was approved by the General Assembly in 2005, to improve governments' marking of small arms and light weapons, and to increase the likelihood of tracing the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

In addition to the required focus on the International Tracing Instrument, Cekuolis suggested focusing on illicit brokering and stockpile management and destruction or disposal of surplus weapons. He also stressed the need to discuss two cross-cutting issues: international cooperation, assistance and capacity building; and how to improve the small arms process.

By the time of his April round of consultations, he had only received national reports from 49 countries. This was disappointing, as he wanted countries to use those reports as a substitute for the traditionally lengthy general statements in the Biennial Meeting. Accordingly, he focused significant attention on this issue in his April consultations.

Cekuolis also appointed a set of facilitators to help prepare work on the core conference issues. Jürg Streuli, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), dealt with stockpile management and surplus weapons disposal. Daniel Avila Camacho of the Permanent Mission of Colombia to the United Nations Office at Geneva led consideration of international cooperation, assistance, and national capacity building. Hossam Aly of the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations in New York, took the lead on preparations for the International Tracing Instrument, and Jong Kwon Youn of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations in New York, worked on illicit brokering in small arms and light weapons. Cekuolis charged these four with developing discussion papers and developing a plan for each of their sessions of the Biennial Meeting. He also negotiated a provisional agenda and a draft programme of work during this time.

Overcoming past barriers to success

Aided by his Bureau of key diplomats, Cekuolis avoided some past problems by controlling the process and agenda much more closely than had been the case in the past. He did not permit the painfully inefficient sessions on agenda structure that had plagued prior conferences and preparatory committee meetings.

Cekuolis also took some unusual steps to enable increased participation by civil society, an issue on which the UN lags behind many other fora. While civil society representation on some national delegations has become more common, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have usually been formally limited to a half-day presentation on the issues at SALW conferences. In addition, negotiating sessions have generally been closed to NGO representatives. By contrast, this time, NGOs led two sessions of the 2008 conference, and virtually the entire conference was open to civil society participation. This was a key change. It suggested a realization that much of the expertise in the room belonged to the NGO researchers.

As happens in many international fora, a few countries sought to undermine the process. In this case, Iran was in the principal role as spoiler, rather than the United States. The conference required unusual procedures to produce an agreed final document, including a vote on the final document itself. This vote was arguably the most important change Cekuolis made.

When questioned during the week, he was deliberately vague on his intentions but left open the possibility of a vote if delegates were unsuccessful in reaching consensus on a final document. However, there were indications that the Bureau did not expect matters to get to that stage. As late as the last morning of the conference, some Bureau members did not seem to understand how the voting process would work if it were necessary.

On the last day of the conference, Cekuolis suspended the plenary session several times, in an unsuccessful attempt to continue private negotiations and secure Iran's agreement to the final report. Iran continued to insist on either opening the document to line-by-line negotiation (effectively killing it, given the time constraints) or removing the substantive sections of the document and downgrading them to a Chair's report.

After a series of procedural steps documenting the lack of consensus, the meeting recessed into another conference room that had voting facilities. In the end, only Iran and Zimbabwe abstained from the resolution to adopt the final report of the conference. The United States chose to be absent, but the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council all voted in favour.

The difficulty of the organizers' task was compounded by the fact that the meeting was held over the objections of the United States. The US government had opposed continuing negotiations on implementation of the PoA, particularly with respect to regular meetings. The US argued that countries would be better off doing the work, rather than meeting to report on it. The fact that the United States still pays a larger share of the costs of UN-based events than other countries was presumably also a factor.

Although the US government's reasoning may have appeared sensible on its face, the fact is that such meetings serve as attention-focusing events. Governments seem to get more done when they are preparing for international meetings. As mentioned above, only 49 countries had submitted their national reports by the 31 March 2008 deadline. By the conclusion of the meeting, 105 countries had reported, suggesting that the holding of the meeting itself prompted some governments to complete and submit their reports. As recent SALW meetings had ended in near-chaos, with attempts to broker last-minute agreements generally failing, few diplomats, activists or analysts had very high expectations going into the Biennial Meeting. Yet it succeeded in adopting a final document that was stronger than the drafts, an extremely rare phenomenon in diplomatic circles.

The final document closely followed the structure initially suggested by the chair. Three main topics were covered in the body of the report: international cooperation, assistance and national capacity-building; illicit brokering; and stockpile management and surplus disposal. In addition, the annex to the report summarized the implementation of the International Tracing Instrument. The report provided an overview of the discussion in each substantive area. In addition, each of the topics included a section on "The way forward", with numerous suggestions for follow-on measures that could be taken at national, subregional, regional, and international levels.

The final document also mentioned several issues that are key to civil society, and are not usually mentioned in this setting. These included gender questions, root causes of conflict, building a culture of peace, the importance of controlling ammunition, civilian possession of weapons, and demand for small arms and light weapons. Though incorporated into the body of the report in a section on "other issues", their inclusion represents a milestone.

Proceedings to date have devoted markedly more attention to the supply of small arms and light weapons than to demand for those weapons, for example. The interrelationship between supply and demand is critical, and requires further attention. In addition, national delegations gave increased attention to issues related to gender in their interventions at the 2008 biennial meeting. This helped prompt what appears to be the first mention of gender issues in the final conference documents of the various UN meetings on this issue.

The agreement on a final document and the contents of that document were not only a diplomatic triumph, but were also in marked contrast to recent meetings, in that substance triumphed over process. One factor that may have enabled this outcome was that the role of the Bush administration was relatively minor. It appears that a decision was taken for the US delegation to be absent from most of the proceedings, though it was notably present for the day devoted to consideration of issues related to the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons.

Most importantly, the success of the Biennial Meeting was due to the effective preparations and strong management by the Chair. Cekuolis followed a high risk, high reward strategy. He met with key constituencies around the world, and worked with diplomats and experts to draft an outcome document. He risked a great deal by prohibiting line-by-line negotiations during the conference. And he succeeded in enforcing this policy and bringing about a substantive outcome, despite strenuous efforts by some participants to make him abandon his approach.

UN First Committee resolutions

The success of the biennial meeting may have given increased impetus to efforts to control conventional weapons transfers in the 2008 First Committee and General Assembly. Two of the several resolutions dealing with conventional weapons in that setting have particular significance for the issues addressed in this article: the omnibus resolution on small arms and light weapons; and the resolution on the Arms Trade Treaty.[3]

Adopted by 181 votes to 1, Resolution 63/72 on "The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects" included agreement to hold the next Biennial Meeting of States in 2010. This will be followed by a one-week meeting of governmental experts in 2011, focusing on key challenges to implementation of the Programme of Action. The next Review Conference is scheduled to be held in 2012. As with many arms control resolutions considered during the Bush administration, the US government was the only "no" vote on this resolution.

Resolution 63/72 continues the small arms process and provides options for strengthening the PoA. The election of a new administration in the United States is likely to remove one of the largest barriers to progress on this issue. But the United States was not the only major supplier to oppose strengthening the PoA, so more obstacles still lie ahead.

Although efforts to develop an Arms Trade Treaty continue to move forward within the UN process, countries appear to agree more on the general concept than any specific provisions. Such a treaty has significant potential, including linking international humanitarian law and human rights, while also connecting small arms and light weapons and other kinds of major conventional weapons. The treaty would help to set global standards and make it more difficult to undermine national laws controlling conventional arms.

The resolution mandated a series of open-ended working group meetings, beginning in 2009. The group is charged with seeking possible areas of consensus for a prospective Arms Trade Treaty. The fact that 114 states co-sponsored the ATT resolution in the First Committee is cause for optimism. Even so, the debates indicate that it may be extremely difficult to achieve consensus on the substance of such a treaty. The United States and Zimbabwe voted against this resolution in the First Committee. In the General Assembly the United States was the only "no" vote, and Resolution 63/240 "Towards an Arms Trade Treaty" was adopted by 133 votes to 1, with 19 abstentions.

The election of a new administration in the United States may remove one of the largest obstacles to taking the ATT process to the next stage. But even though the United States is reportedly reviewing its position on the ATT, the ATT still faces many challenges. It is still early in its development, and considering the prospects for potentially moving toward a treaty is not the same as actually negotiating a treaty. The United Nations is a useful place for this initiative if it can keep the process moving, but working within the UN is not the only viable approach. Informal consultations have already taken place outside the UN, under the auspices of interested governments.

Obama administration approaches

As a first-term Senator, Barack Obama indicated his interest in this issue by joining Senator Dick Lugar (Republican from Indiana) in an ambitious bi-partisan proposal to control conventional weapons globally. Though this has contributed to optimism about the potential of the Obama administration to take a more constructive attitude towards conventional arms control, the new administration has been largely silent on these issues. It is therefore too early to draw robust conclusions about the administration's likely approaches.

Conventional weapons issues seem to be largely below the radar in the early days of the Obama administration, and key positions have yet to be filled. Other than one brief mention of the Obama-Lugar initiative to control conventional weapons, the White House website has very little information on what the new administration plans to do to curb small arms and light weapons or conventional weapons transfers.[4] The section on defence only discusses conventional weapons in the context of issues such as domestic weapons procurement, preserving global reach in the air, and maintaining our power projection capacity at sea.[5] The section on foreign policy focuses primarily on anti-terrorism efforts and nuclear weapons issues, though it includes strong language about "Israel's Right to Self Defense" and supporting foreign assistance to Israel.

In her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama's nominee for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr Susan Rice, mentioned the importance of regional political and security challenges and identified four priorities: improving the UN's capacity to carry out complex peace operations, addressing climate change, preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons, and implementing the Millennium Development Goals. But the daily toll of small arms and light weapons received scant attention.[6]

In turn, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed in her confirmation hearing the need to use "smart power" to carry out American diplomacy and emphasized the need to keep "weapons of mass destruction" away from terrorists. Speaking of challenges in the US-Mexico relationship, she couched the issue as "the shared danger arising from drug-trafficking and the challenges of our border".[7] Absent from her analysis was the fact that drug-traffickers increase the economic efficiency of their operations by combining flights to bring drugs north with return flights that bring US weapons south.

Unfortunately, the US statement to the March 2009 Open Ended Working Group on an Arms Trade Treaty showed significant cynicism about controlling conventional weapons transfers. The statement accused ATT proponents of unrealistic behaviour: "...I have been struck this week by the number of interventions proclaiming generic and laudable 'goals, objectives, parameters, and elements' that fit more appropriately into a treatise following on to Thomas More's 'Utopia'."[8]

By contrast, in an April 2009 visit to Mexico, President Obama stressed the urgency of dealing with the drug-gun connection. In a prepared statement, he said, " is absolutely critical that the United States joins as a full partner in dealing with this issue, both through initiatives like the Merida Initiative, but also on our side of the border, in dealing with the flow of guns and cash south."[9]

Interim steps to improve US standing

Expensive initiatives are highly unlikely in the current economic climate, but some early, inexpensive steps could be taken by the Obama administration. Under Ambassador Rice's leadership, the Obama administration is already beginning to rebuild the United States' reputation.

Demonstrating active US government support for negotiations towards an Arms Trade Treaty would be welcomed by US allies. It would also send an important message about our willingness to re-engage in conventional arms control. This would not commit the United States to specific wording - or even to a treaty. But it would demonstrate US engagement in an internationally-advocated process to set a new global norm that takes into account the short- and long- run benefits and costs of the global arms trade.

Another possibility would be to return to an effort that began during the Clinton administration, which was to focus on those small arms and light weapons that are likely to be most useful to terrorists and non-state actors. The Bush administration was unwilling to consider any restrictions on transfers to non-state actors, but if the Obama administration were to revisit this initiative, the United States might well find common cause with other governments concerned about arming criminal gangs and terrorists.

The Obama administration could also begin to develop clearer distinctions between licit and illicit transfers. The so-called 'grey market' consists of arms transfers that may not technically be illegal, but have often been concealed - usually for political or economic reasons. At the 2008 biennial meeting, France offered an initiative in this respect, proposing closer control of SALW transfers to "restrict the grey area in which arms traffickers, non-state actors, terrorist movements and organised crime have access to arms..."[10] US support for this initiative would be consistent with the new administration's emphasis on increasing the transparency of government decisions and actions.

Significant change on these and related issues is likely to be impossible unless the Obama administration works to increase cooperation with civil society groups dedicated to controlling conventional weapons. Such cooperation would be a welcome change from the previous US administration, which frequently shut out arms control groups while including National Rifle Association board members in its delegations to UN conferences. To combat the scourge of conventional weapons, it is necessary to draw on the assets, resources and commitments of knowledgeable NGOs as well as governments.

These are complex issues, and long-term substantive change is likely to require a more ambitious set of proposals than is detailed here. By beginning with these modest steps, however, the United States can start to reverse the worst excesses of the Bush administration, as President Obama has already begun to do in so many other areas.


[1] Natalie J. Goldring, "2006 Review Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons: A Study in Frustration," Disarmament Diplomacy 84 (Spring 2007).

[2] Prasad Kariyawasam, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Chair's Statement, October 12, 2006, found at:

[3] For coverage of the 2008 First Committee, see Michael Spies, "Between Irrelevance and a New Era: Report on the 2008 UN First Committee," Disarmament Diplomacy 89 (Winter 2008).

[4] White House Fact Sheet, The Agenda: Foreign Policy, accessed at, 3 April 2009.

[5] White House Fact Sheet, The Agenda: Defense, accessed at, 3 April 2009.

[6] Susan Rice, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nomination Hearing to become Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, January 15, 2009.

[7] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nomination Hearing To Be Secretary of State, 13 January 2009.

[8] United States Mission to the United Nations, "United States Statement: ATT Session One," delivered 5 March 2009, accessed at
20 April 2009.

[9] "Remarks by President Barack Obama at welcoming ceremony," Los Pinos, Mexico City, Mexico, 16 April 2009, accessed at
, 20 April 2009. The Merida Initiative is a cooperative arrangement between the US and Mexican governments, as well as participating governments in Central America. It is designed to combat organized crime and drug trafficking.

[10] Statement delivered by the Representative of France to the 2008 Biennial Meeting of States under topic number 2, Fight illicit brokering in SALW, 15 July 2008.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring is a Senior Fellow in the Center for Peace and Security Studies and an Adjunct Full Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. Dr. Goldring has written extensively on conventional and nuclear weapons, the international arms trade, non-proliferation, and small arms and light weapons. She earned her PhD in Political Science from MIT, with a specialization in defense and arms control; her Master's in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School; and her BA from Wellesley College.

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