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Re-Examining the PoA

The United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security is currently underway at the UN headquarters in New York. First Committee offers a forum to Member States, UN officials and civil society organizations to report triumphs in the arena of international security, as well as reflect on areas which can yet be improved. The ultimate goal of the UN during First Committee is to encourage states to ensure international security not through building their own arsenals, but by moving towards cooperative security arrangements. As member states present their own national interests in the general assembly hall, many side events at the UN involve members of civil society voicing their concerns regarding international policy aimed at controlling and eradicating the illicit trade of arms globally. Paramount to these concerns is the inclusion of ammunition in the United Nations Program of Action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects.

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When the Program of Action (POA) was first adopted by all UN member states in 2001, it represented a ground-breaking, politically binding instrument in the struggle to place greater oversight on the international trade of small arms and light weapons [3]. These classifications of weapons, which can be loosely defined as any weapons easily operated by a single individual, are associated with significant adverse humanitarian effects in the past centuries. The POA created a politically binding plan for the eradication and control of the illegal trade of these weapons at a national, sub national and international level for all member states. It concerns the illicit manufacture, transfer and circulation of small arms and light weapons and their excessive accumulation and uncontrolled spread [3]. The POA also created the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), a way to ensure greater tracing capabilities on small arms and light weapons.

These weapons typically prove more difficult to track than larger weapons systems due to their smaller nature and technologies such as modular weapons and 3-D printers capable of producing firearms [1].

For the many successes the POA represents in international disarmament, one fault of the instrument is its lack of language including ammunition [2]. It is a quite obvious and essential assertion that ammunition is intrinsically linked with the humanitarian abuse of firearms. Without specific oversight on the production, trade and stockpiling of ammunition, the POA fails to mention a fundamental component in the lethality of firearms. Small arms and light weapons are difficult enough to trace, and while the POA has made progress towards their regulation, it clearly has not yet fully eradicated the illegal trade of these weapons. Once these weapons are in the possession of organized crime and terrorist groups that would use them to commit human rights abuses, ammunition is still necessary to inflict lethal damage. The lack of language mentioning ammunition in the POA essentially facilitates a free flow of ammunition internationally. It is essential that member states recognize the power that including ammunition would have towards preventing human right abuses. Weapons are immobile without ammunition, and thus the inclusion of ammunition in the POA would greatly increase the international community’s ability to protect populations.

It is essential to note that the POA is not a legally binding agreement between member states, meaning there are no specific consequences mandated by international law to a nation’s disobedience of the POA [3]. Rather, it attempts to create a political environment in which those nations that do not abide by the POA are tabooed by the international community. There is a piece of legally binding legislature passed by all UN member states that mandates regulation of the small arms and light weapons trade: The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT was passed in 2013, and like the POA, places a strong emphasis on the tracing and reporting of arms within a nation, as well as their circulation and management [4]. However, the ATT also does not include language regarding ammunition, and thus falls short of including this essential component to weapons abuse [4].

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay

For those member states and civil society organizations invested in disarmament matters, the third UN Review Conference on the Program of Action represents an opportunity to affect meaningful change upon the document. The Review Conference offers a chance to examine the POA and its implementation, as well as alter the language in the program in order to increase its capabilities. There are member states who have pushed for the inclusion of ammunition, most notably those from the African Union (AU) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as well as Germany. However, past efforts have been met by pushback from those nations with economic and political interests running contrary to the mention of ammunition, notably the U.S. Furthermore, several pro-weapons groups have been granted civil society status at the UN, providing them a platform to spread the narrative that the POA represents an attempt to impose government control on citizen armament. It is essential to reiterate that the main purpose of the POA, as well as the ATT, is to provide greater oversight and data regarding the production, stockpiling and trade of small arms and light weapons so as to protect civilian populations. The inclusion of ammunition in these instruments is essential in meeting this goal, and must be a paramount priority at the 2018 Review Conference.

[1] Bilton, Nick. “The Rise of 3-D Printed Guns.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13

Aug. 2014,

[2] Bromund, Ted R. “At the U.N., An Ever So Small Win Against Gun Control.” National Review, 17 June 2014,

[3] “Programme of Action on Small Arms and Its International Tracing Instrument – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations,

[4] “The Arms Trade Treaty – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations,

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