I’m Sitting Through One of the UN’s Most Useless Conferences. Here’s What‘s Happening.

For this week and the next, the United Nations is hosting a conference of its Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects—fortunately abbreviated as the PoA.

Like the U.N. Human Rights Council, the PoA is a classic U.N. institution: It’s a good idea in theory, but a terrible failure in practice.

The PoA, as its name implies, is supposed to focus on the illicit trade in small arms. That means less than it sounds, because part of the purpose of the PoA is to convince its member nations to make more things illegal. The result is that the PoA is never going to reach its goal: It is a self-licking ice cream cone.

If the U.N. and quite a lot of the nations here had their way, the PoA wouldn’t limit its focus on the illicit trade in small arms. It would just ban the private trade in firearms, period.

Curiously, the word “illicit” tends to disappear from draft PoA documents. It’s reinserted only after the U.S. protests.

I’ve been attending PoA events for years, and sitting here watching the PoA now reminds me of playing bingo. Particular phrases come up over and over again, year after year—all you need is a card to check them off, and the restraint not to yell “bingo” in the conference room when you complete a row.

Almost every delegation mouths the same phrases: The process must be “transparent and inclusive.” The “special contributions of women and girls” must be acknowledged. The “synergies” between the PoA and things like the Arms Trade Treaty must be included. The need to control ammunition, 3-D printing, and modular firearms must be accepted.

All of this is balderdash. Most of the distinguished national representatives in the room do not know enough to make them worth including, transparently or not. If women, or indeed girls, have relevant expertise, it should of course be employed—but the idea that women have special insight into the issue is the basest kind of pandering.

The so-called “synergies”—as the U.S. delegation rightly pointed out on Wednesday—are never specified, and most likely do not exist. The real point of talking about them is to try to trap the U.S. into accepting the Arms Trade Treaty through the back door.

And then there is 3-D printing. As I write this (on Thursday), the U.S. is pushing back against the U.N.’s desire to treat 3-D printers as though they are guns. Much of the enthusiasm for this stems from the fact that, since almost no one in this room knows anything about firearms, it’s all too easy to convince them that 3-D printed guns are a pressing problem.

But this also reflects China’s long-standing enthusiasm for using the PoA to create a requirement for government licensing of 3-D printers.

The PoA is a tremendous forum if you want to focus on things that are not problems. But ironically, it also offers valuable insight into the actual problem behind the illicit arms trade.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross put it on Wednesday, the basic issue is the “gap between political commitments and actions.” In other words, governments talk a good game, but they don’t act.

If all the governments here just did what they have agreed to do, the illicit arms trade would be radically smaller.

In a way, it’s sad to hear the government of Ghana admit that it does not even have laws that allow the tracing of crime guns—and Ghana is far from the worst place in the world. The chasm between the comfortable U.N. and the world’s dirty realities is vast beyond imagining.

Bluntly, most of the governments represented in this room are incompetent, and quite a few of the remainder are dictatorships. As a result, the PoA is never going to achieve much. And that’s not just my view: Every independent assessment of the PoA has concluded the same thing. In 2008, even the U.N. secretary-general stated that the PoA’s results were not “substantive.”

But condemning most of the U.N.’s membership in detail is one thing the U.N., or its membership, will never do. They therefore prefer to add new commitments—like regulating 3-D printing—than look honestly at their failure to implement the old ones. After all, new commitments are free. Keeping old ones requires a lot of work which most governments aren’t willing, or able, to do.

To its enormous credit, the U.S. delegation—which has intervened frequently and well—made this point forcefully on the PoA’s first day, stating that the U.S. disagrees with the apparent belief of many states that not adopting new commitments is a sign of failure.

The PoA makes, at best, only a minor contribution to controlling the illicit arms trade. At worst, it could well become sinister. With luck, and continued good work by the U.S., the PoA will remain what it is today: a collection of commitments that too few nations uphold, but which pose no serious threat to the United States and to rights protected under the Constitution.

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