You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, can you get what you need (to address the illicit small arms trade)?

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By: Moshe Ben Hamo Yeger

National reports on the PoA: Inadequate for articulating assistance needs

In July 2001, United Nations (UN) member states adopted by consensus the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (PoA). It is a UN instrument that outlines measures to be taken to regulate small arms throughout their life cycle in order to prevent their diversion to the illicit small arms trade, and improve the detection of illicit small arms and subsequently remove them from circulation. Under the PoA, UN member states are regularly invited to report on national measures undertaken to implement the instrument, namely regulating manufacture, international transfers, stockpile management, and surplus destruction, as well as the collection, seizure, and tracing of illicit small arms. These national reports also provide an opportunity for member states to express their assistance needs in order to put in place effective measures to address the illicit arms trade.

In 2018, I co-authored an analysis of national reports on PoA (and International Tracing Instrument — ITI) implementation submitted during 2012–17 (also available in French and Spanish).

A key finding of this analysis is that many countries in Africa and Latin America consistently indicate in their national reports that they need assistance to address the illicit small arms trade in their country. These requests for assistance range from asking for support to amend regulatory frameworks for the manufacture of small arms through to support for increasing capacity to destroy small arms deemed surplus to national requirements or that have been taken from illicit circulation. Out of the 110 countries that submitted at least one national report on PoA implementation during 2012–17, 40 different countries made at least one request for assistance during that period.

However, most of these assistance requests tend to be vague or inconsistent, obscuring the real needs of requesting states. The poor articulation of needs is perhaps why such a small proportion of requests have been met. Many countries in Africa and the Americas indicated the same assistance needs in multiple reports submitted during the period 2012–17. And this continued with the national reports submitted in 2018. This blog asks whether PoA reporting is helping states to meet their assistance needs. What lessons have we learned from such reporting? Are states getting what they need to implement the PoA in order to mitigate the risk of diversion of small arms into the illicit trade and strengthen efforts to remove small arms from illicit circulation?

Requests for assistance in 2018

Most countries that request assistance to address the illicit small arms trade are developing countries. For instance, in 2018, 80 per cent of all assistance requests were filed by countries in either Africa or Latin America. Most of these requests are related to assistance to strengthen regulatory frameworks or build capacity to regulate international transfers of small arms. A large number of these states also requested assistance to improve record-keeping for small arms and tracing illicit small arms. That said, as Figure 1 shows, many countries requested international assistance to strengthen control over all stages in the life cycle of small arms.

Our analysis found that while states will tick a box in the PoA reporting template to indicate that assistance is required, most of these states have not developed a proposal that explains what assistance is required and why. As shown by Figure 2 below, a large proportion of requesting states — about two thirds — do not develop a project proposal supporting their request. This is important because donors and partners need some sort of guidance to understand the needs of recipient states. If states fail to give enough detail on what they need, the whole exercise can prove futile, as the next section shows.

Is international assistance hitting the right targets?

Almost 90 per cent of states that requested assistance during 2012–17 made a request for the same type of assistance in 2018. One potential explanation is that, in general, the assistance being offered does not necessarily correspond to what countries need. This analysis based solely on PoA reports can provide only a partial account for the repeated request for assistance. At the same time, it could be that the national point of contact routinely submits the same information in the national PoA report without updating information on assistance received during the reporting period and new priorities. It can certainly be daunting to see a national report that asks for assistance to develop or strengthen a regulatory framework and build capacity in every area of a national system to control small arms to prevent their diversion to the illicit trade.

The Small Arms Survey has developed a mechanism to help bridge this gap: the Arms Control, Capacity, and Evaluation Support System (ACCESS) project. ACCESS works to help states overcome foundational challenges that have prevented their successful implementation of arms control measures by working closely with partners to identify and address core challenges via targeted and tailor-made capacity-building activities. The key contribution of the project for states seeking assistance is that it can help them to prioritize and express their needs in a way that can be clearly understood by assistance providers and donors. In contrast to other types of support, ACCESS is flexible and responds to requests to identify priorities for assistance and undertake strategic planning — enabling targeted injections of assistance where needed as a means for countries to be able to move their arms control work forward on their own.

Moving forward

PoA national reports should be an effective tool for states to clearly express their assistance needs. The reports do not currently fulfill their potential in two areas in particular. First, states do not articulate their assistance needs, and in particular their priorities. Second, it seems, most assistance requests are not being met. Projects like ACCESS could serve as a bridge between donors and assistance providers and recipient states, identifying the most pressing assistance needs, while at the same time ensuring effective and efficient channeling of resources effectively. Therefore, countries cannot always get what they want, but by prioritizing assistance needs and clearly articulating them, these states can get what they need.


Moshe Ben Hamo Yeger was a research assistant at the Small Arms Survey and is currently undertaking graduate studies at Oxford University.

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