Of all Knowledge, Experience is the Hardest Won
As in all regions of the world, there is potential in the Pacific for arms to cause social disruption and possibly to boil over into conflict. Pacific states have seen small arms fan the flames of smoldering animosity, as in the Solomon Islands where armed tribal conflict damaged the national economy and derailed national development. Civilian control of Fiji’s government was lost in armed military coups, democratic elections were disrupted by armed agitation in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and many thousands died in the nine-year war on Bougainville.
Experience in other regions has also shown that insecurity and conflict can attract arms flows from transnational illicit routes. While the Pacific is not on the region’s main weapon trafficking routes and has only a small and slow ‘ant trade’ in illicit arms, the region’s main threat of weapon diversion comes instead from our own state-controlled armouries.
In order to curb diversion of weapons into the illicit market, in 2001 the UN established its Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPoA). Under this, governments agreed to take measures to improve various areas of arms control; legislation, import and export controls, tracing, monitoring, stockpile manage and international and regional cooperation.
Over the years the UNPoA has been harshly judged for its ability to curb illicit flows of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Others have suggested there is a “negotiating fatigue” surrounding international dialogue on how to improve weaknesses in the UNPoA. Furthermore, as the Arms Trade Treaty split off and became a force on its own, important attention and energy was diverted from the UNPoA.
Against the backdrop of the upcoming 6th Biennial Meeting of States on the UNPoA in June this year, we highlight the reasons why the UNPoA remains of great significance to Pacific states and why states with developed arms control systems should invest in providing technical and financial assistance to strengthen regional arms control.
Geo-strategic Interests in the Pacific are on the Increase
The South-West Pacific is becoming increasingly important to the strategic interests of major powers. Territorialdisputes in South-East Asia are causing ambiguity around Indo-Pacific merchant shipping routes, triggering an arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Pacific Island countries will increasingly be unable to skirt geostrategic maneuvering if access to the Malacca Strait—which sees one third of the world’s traded goods pass through annually—is squeezed by increased militarization of surrounding seas.
The ‘Asian Century’ will see Asia nearly doubling its share of global gross domestic product (GDP) to 52 percent by 2050. This amount of economic activity will surely have consequences for Indo-transpacific security and trade. Pacific Island countries are earmarked as extensions of China’s Indo-Pacific trade strategy in the South Pacific Ocean. As a consequence of the anticipated trade boom, almost every countryin the Asian surroundings, from India to Fiji seem to be in the process of military modernization. Since 2006 six of the world’s 10 largest arms importers have been in Asia and Oceania. The Asian region accounted for 46 percent of global arms imports over the past five years.
The ‘Asian Century’ will be a game changer as the region heats up and becomes the focus of geostrategic concerns regarding states’ access to essential resourses and trade routes. The Pacific states need to be prepared. However, most Pacific Island countries have gaps in domestic arms controls and arms transfer legislation, while almost all Pacific Island States have no legislation regulating arms brokering in their jurisdiction. Already there are more weapons flows into the region. With imports predicted to increase, the Pacific Island states need to be well equipped legislatively and technically to cope, lest weapon diversion becomes an even bigger problem. Applying the measures prescribed by the UNPoA can assist Pacific Island states in this process.
While celebrations around the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) may be well deserved—it’s the first legally binding treaty of its kind to regulate the annual US$100 billion global arms trade—for the Pacific the UNPoA remains the most valuable and immediate arms control instrument.
The ATT is designed to regulate the transfer of all conventional arms, including small arms and light weapons. It is a significant addition to existing international and regional instruments to address problems associated with irresponsible arms transfers. “Irresponsible” being the operative concept here because the ATT is about preventing the transfer and diversion of weapons to places where there is an overriding risk that grave crimes against humanity could/are taking places. The UNPoA, on the other hand, addresses the Pacific’s more immediate needs regarding diversion, most notable looting from state security stockpiles.
The South Pacific imports only small quantities of arms and neither manufactures, nor exports small arms. As a result, states in this region could see themselves as standing on the sidelines of the global arms trade. As a result, informal conversations with government officials at the First Conference of State Parties (CSP1) to the Arms Trade Treaty in August, 2015 revealed that some Pacific Island countries see the UNPoA as having more relevance to their current needs.
The international attention on the ATT could offer the Pacific Island countries an opportunity to reassess how a future arms control framework could work best for them, then to reassess their approach and opt for a stronger regional investment in prevention.
This is not to say that the Pacific should choose one instrument over the other. The provisions of the ATT and the UNPoA are complementary and interlinked, as with other arms control processes such as the International Tracing Instrument (2005), the Group of Governmental Experts on arms brokering (2008), the UNPoA Meeting of Governmental Experts (2011), and the (2012) International Small Arms Control Standard (ISACS).
These arms control extensions are an ever-vigilant attempt to create a comprehensive arms control system that is, as far as possible, politically neutral and easy to adopt for most states. The task of Pacific states is to filter through these instruments and to adopt the framework of most value to their own problems of illicit arms diverted in-country.
Having the ATT and the UNPoA implemented alongside each other is the best formula for a comprehensive arms control system and should be a stronger focus for the region. Pacific Island countries remind us it that just because we now have the ATT, we should not turn our back on the more comprehensive and locally relevant UNPoA.
UNPoA Enhances Regional and International Cooperation
The UNPoA establishes a collaborative community of states that are willing and able to transfer tried and tested solutions, sharing that hardest won knowledge; experience of adapting international instruments to meet local needs. The transfer of knowledge of potential challenges, along with experiences of best practice will allow states to pick and choose from what has been tried before, while avoiding many mistakes.
The UNPoA can be used to encourage bilateral relationships whereby gaps in legislation and procedural practices that affect the implementation of the UNPoA can be addressed. For example, recentlyPSAAG’s Arms Control Manager was invited to assist the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Development at a workshop aimed at increasing the capacity of thePhilippines police to implement the UNPoA provisions.
The Pacific has capacity restraints and major legislative gaps to which the UNPoA is well tailored. This international instrument will continue to encourage and enable a regional set of standards, while expanding an exchange of knowledge, procedures and practice among the police, customs and other agencies of neighbouring states, reinforcing the regional security/stability work of the Pacific Transnational Crime Co-ordination Centre (PTCCC), Pacific Islands Chief of Police and the Oceania Customs Organisation, among others.
A Preventive Approach: Addressing the Heart of the Problem and Lessons Learnt
The importance of the UNPoA for the Pacific comes down to three key points; with increasing potential for arms flow in the region the Pacific needs strong legislation and a comprehensive arms control system to prevent major instability; the main source of weapon diversion from state armouries is best addressed by the UNPoA; and the UNPoA offers the best avenue for exchange of best practices and accessing assistance to improve stockpile management and security. The UNPoA opens each state to a world of arms control exchange, both for self-interest and for mutual benefit. This instrument is now more important than ever to the Pacific due to capacity restraints and legislative gaps, soon to be compounded as uncertainty grows over security in the Asia-Pacific region.
About the Authors:
Nathan Page is the Policy and Outreach Officer for PSAAG. Nathan is responsible for identifying gaps in government arms control systems and building capacity for improved implementation of UN arms control instruments aimed at preventing the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons. His professional and academic interests focus on “Shadow Economies” in conflict.
Laura Spano is the Arms Control Manager of the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction, the Secretariat of the Pacific Small Arms Action Group (PSAAG) – funded by UNSCAR to improve governmental implementation of UN arms control instruments in the Pacific.