Overview: Meeting of Governmental Experts on Small Arms

May 19 2011, 7:47 AM  by Ray Acheson

Since the adoption of the UN Programme of Action (UNPoA) on small arms and light weapons (SALW) ten years ago, significant progress has been achieved: states have strengthened their relevant legislation aimed at stemming the proliferation of SALW, improved the security of stockpiles and destroyed surplus weapons. Some states have integrated the UNPoA into national development strategies and reported small arms transfers to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, thereby increasing transparency and member cooperation.

by Giedre Zavistauskaite, Global Action to Prevent War

While such improvements are notable, at the opening plenary the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Mr. Sergio Duarte pointed out some gaps regarding UNPoA implementation. In some regions, national reporting under the UNPoA has remained low, lagging behind small arms control measures actually undertaken such as brokering, marking, and record-keeping. Moreover, operational information exchange between states and INTERPOL is not as effective as it could be. For this reason, the MGE focused largely on marking, tracing, and record-keeping of SALW, in order to address key implementation challenges that member states have faced and to discuss further opportunities for better implementation in the future.

At the opening session, the Chair, Ambassador McLay, emphasized the objectives of the MGE: learning from the governmental experts on the challenges encountered, as well as governmental experts learning from each other. Sarah Parker, a representative of Small Arms Survey, illustrated those challenges by presenting the Analysis of National Reports on the International Tracing Instrument (ITI). According to the observations and information gathered, reporting on ITI implementation in 2010 was disappointing (Parker, S. ‘Analysis of National Reports: Implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and the International Tracing Instrument in 2009-2010’), as only 33 states submitted a separate report on the ITI. This suggests that states are generally unaware of their ITI commitments and their obligations to report specifically on ITI implementation and that additional awareness raising is necessary.

Of particular relevance to the work of the MGE are draft international standards on ‘Marking and Record-keeping’ and on ‘Tracing Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons’, which were presented by Mr Patrick McCarthy, coordinator of International Small Arms Control Standards and Coordinating Action on Small Arms. Mr McCarthy underlined that the purpose of ISACS is to strike the balance between effectiveness and achievability of the UN standards, which seem to find their place amid Global Norms and Technical Guidelines.  It is also necessary to provide clear and comprehensive guidelines for building a foundation based on regional/sub-regional standards, best practices, codes of conduct, and model regulations with regard to ITI and Firearms Protocol. Only if a weapon is uniquely identifiable, and if readily accessible records of its history of ownership and movement are available, will it be possible to trace it back to its point of diversion. 

Ambassador McLay informally summarised member states’ broad discussion on marking SALW. All states expressed the importance of the implementation of the UN PoA and welcomed the opportunity of experience and good practice sharing. Challenges posed include new and more modern designs of marking firearms; endurance of the warranty; durable marking of polymer frame weapons; combating alteration and sanitisation of arms; combating illicit trade of separate parts of guns; poor commitments to the ITI in national reports; the unsettled issue of whether ammunition should be included in the ITI; shortfalls of expertise, technology and financial resources; necessity of training law enforcement officers; and marking during transfers and re-import.

During the second round of debates on record-keeping, countries were invited to discuss the establishment and maintenance of accurate and comprehensive records, despite individual constitutional differences on structures and methods of record-keeping. It was agreed among delegates to keep records on SALW indefinitely, with only Japan objecting to it being ‘unrealistic’. 

Mr Bill Kullman, US Department of Justice, and Ms Kim Marcus, INTERPOL, presented the challenges involved in record-keeping and marking, which can lead to the failure of issuing and responding to tracing requests.

Record-keeping mistakes include lost, misfiled, destroyed, or non-existent records; lack of understanding of the identification standards necessary for record keeping; commercial originator going out of business, changing hands, being subject to disaster, computer failure; Government record keeper changing, automating, failing to enact record keeping legislation in keeping with the duration required. Marking faults include a failure to adequately mark the firearm with the maker, model, serial number, country of origin or legal import; worn or inadequate markings, alterations including changing of the grip, addition of after-market signs, addition of personal identification marks; and use of symbols. 

To illustrate the statement, it was revealed that 70% of INTERPOL traces fail because of inaccurate or incomplete firearms identification. There is a similar situation at the US Department of Justice – 40% of the failure is due to the error of individual (officers recording inaccurately); 35% due to the error in record-keeping; 19% due to firearms being manufactured before 1968 and 6% due to various other reasons.  Both delegates agreed that a constant education process for data recording individuals is necessary. INTERPOL has introduced two tools on education available to law enforcement agents: 1st tool – sending sample pictures of firearms to identifying officers; 2nd tool – online firearm courses, which consist of 6 modules and are in 3 languages. Police and law enforcement officers are encouraged to provide as much marking information as possible, even if it means going ‘back to basics’ on some hard-to-identify-arms occasions, for example, taking a picture of the firearm, and emailing it to an expert capable of identifying it. Stressing that one-time training is never enough, Ms

Marcus suggested several more ways for probable success: 
– Standardizing the mandatory identification criteria;
– Identification training-recurring;
– Harmonizing disparate national authorities;
– Adhering to commitments for timeliness and responsiveness.

Compliments went to Colombia for 100% successful tracing and record-keeping. According to Ms Marcus, it is easy to accomplish as long as these 4 steps are followed: acknowledgement of receipt of request; responsiveness; no excessive delays; and complete responses. These steps would enable competent authorities to connect and avoid the so called ‘trace-attempt fatigue’.

On the third day, Ambassador McLay convened the agenda item ‘Cooperation in Tracing’. Processes, practices and tools of ITI implementation were to be discussed. Participants highlighted essential elements in tracing cooperation – a national point of contact, reliable records and good marking, sufficient information in any tracing request, timely manner of processing any received tracing request, sanctions for lack of assistance and communication, cooperation with private sector, and access to the information they hold.

Tracy Hite, the representative of INTERPOL’s Firearms Program identified lack of standardized national processes as a starting point, as well as access to and use of existing law enforcement tools as most commonly faced challenges in tracing cooperation. Opportunities for improvements were also raised: technical and communication system to exchange data; identification and tracking training, which should be updated continually. Four powerful tracing tools were brought to attention: INTERPOL Firearms Tracing Tool; INTERPOL Firearms Reference Table; INTERPOL Firearms I.D. Online Training; INTERPOL Ballistic Information Network, and the newest tool called SLARM, which serves for tracing stolen and lost arms.

Participants also outlined other important issues, like working with ballistics information systems (Mexico, Algeria); responding to the tracing requests from UN expert’s panels (Belgium); reports of not receiving any response to trace requests issued (USA); insufficient identifying information and marking of weapons (all); lack of direct communication; falsifications of markings (Germany); difficulties of tracing weapons that have crossed several borders; and lack of capacity (Philippines, Sudan). The latter and, especially the need for sufficient human, material, financial and training resources, were stressed by many participants.

Last but not least, the presentation of Mr William F. Kullman (ATF/US representative) on the E-Tracing tool suggested that the trace is successful if it leads back to the first purchaser.

The subject of national frameworks included debates on designation of national points of contact and exchange of information on national implementation of the ITI. Mr Guy Lamb, a representative of the Institute for Security Studies (South Africa) emphasized gaps and challenges in national frameworks commonly shared amongst states. These include outdated policy and lack of legislation in some states; marking and record keeping; minimal details in SALW National Action Plans; insufficient information sharing between law enforcement agencies and militaries; and dissonance between national frameworks and reporting/communication on ITI implementation. Mr Lamb expressed his delight that quality and quantity of national frameworks is more substantial than the ITI report reveals. Moreover, several states outlined plans to develop or enact new legislation and to amend and strengthen existing legislation that relates to implementing the ITI.

Regarding regional cooperation, the Chairman McLay raised questions of regional mechanisms and instruments for facilitating implementation of the ITI provisions, information exchange at a regional level, and challenges and opportunities for capacity building to be discussed. Several states noted that substantial progress has been made in strengthening such cooperation and stressed the importance of continuity, complementarity and cost-effectiveness. Nevertheless, a number of challenges were outlined: a lack of harmonization of national legislation as well as legal regulation in specific issue areas (in certain regions); need for model legislation, regional implementation standards, and best practice guidelines; logistical and transportation shortfalls; lack of donor attention in regions; and overlapping efforts among organizations in a single region. In order to strengthen regional cooperation several steps were recognized, most importantly establishing strong links with regional organizations, civil societies and research institutions, and effectively exchanging information and practices learnt.

Daniel Prins, Chief of the Conventional Arms Branch of UNODA stressed that international assistance and capacity-building need to be identified, prioritized and presented, and the best way to do it is through the online reporting (that can be accessed on www.poa-iss.org) or submission of a national report.  In this way, country-specific needs can be indicated, technical advice issued, and assistance proposed and considered by potential donors. Mr Prins highlighted that infrastructure is provided, and it is up to countries to take action. Several countries shared their successful international cooperation projects and others suggested that good capacity building is through practical implementation such as seminars and bilateral meetings.

After lengthy discussions and remarks Ambassador McLay thanked all contributors for sharing information, experiences, lessons learned, good practices, and challenges on the implementation of UN small arms process. General inspiration for enhanced national and regional implementation of the PoA and ITI will hopefully serve as a steady background for the 2012 Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action.