Just more than a week ago at the United Nations saw the close of the Meeting of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects -- an elaborate name for an initiative whose progress has been marred by bureaucratic chaos, slow implementation and unequal state capacities. The Program of Action, created in 2001, is a series of recommendations on small arms and light weapons, ranging from destruction of surplus arms to changing national laws to regulate the arms trade.
The initiative responds to a recognized problem. In 2000, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called small arms "the real weapons of mass destruction." But in contrast to the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, which has spurred a global movement to regulate and control their use and spread, the international trade in small arms and light weapons is unregulated, as well as uneven. While major arms suppliers such as Russia and the United States provide the arms, the major recipients of these weapons are developing nations (.pdf). Small arms and light weapons are also a key enabler of human rights abuses worldwide.
Civil society groups, as well as states affected by the illegal arms trade, have long called for a legally binding mechanism to hold actors in the arms trade accountable. And in December 2009, the U.N. General Assembly voted for a robust arms-trade treaty to be developed. This resulted in the meeting of two Arms Trade Treaty Preparatory Committees, in 2010 and 2011. The parameters of the treaty have yet to be decided upon, resulting in much debate by states over the extent of their obligations under the treaty.