ISACS as the work plan for civil society in support of the PoA

Guest post by: Dr. Edward J. Laurance, Monterey Institute of International Studies

First published in The Small Arms Monitor (Volume 6, Number 6, June 2014).  Reaching Critical Will, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

I write in response to the thoughtful and comprehensive piece by my colleague Daniel Mack: An Assessment of the POA (Or, Why We Are Not In New York).[1]  My main argument is that while I definitely agree with the premise that the PoA meetings in New York for national NGOs have had their day, I am surprised that the paper barely mentions what I will call an action plan for national and local NGOs in support of the PoA norms: the International Small Arms Control Standards (ISACS, www.[2] Secondly, I disagree with what seems to be a penchant among most experts for recommending even more global efforts in regards to emerging technologies, etc. for the purpose of more legally binding treaties.

Civil society should work on reducing armed violence at home

Mack and most of the experts cited agree that the UN process on the PoA has run its course. I also concur that the logic of the above conclusion is that it is time for civil society to change its focus to local and national efforts. As a co-founder of IANSA, my vision was that this “action network” would do exactly that. In the early years there were attempts to do this in the form of grants to NGOs but IANSA lost its way for a variety of reasons, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. One of the main reasons was the lack of specific guidance for its NGOs to reduce armed violence in their home countries. The PoA was woefully inadequate in this regard. Another major factor was capacity of NGOs to undertake the activities required to reduce armed violence using the norms established in the PoA.


All of this is changing with the development of ISACS. One of the major questions posed by Mack in the paper: “Is the PoA destined to fizzle out into irrelevance?” In my view PoA, as a document or text, has already faded out. But it has been replaced by the operationalization of the key norms of the PoA; namely, ISACS. (The Arms Trade Treaty will have to go through the same process). In essence, these standards and their failure to be implemented represent all of the causal factors that have led to the illicit proliferation and misuse of SALW. They are, in effect, the work plan for NGOs to reduce armed violence in their home countries by focusing on the role that SALW plays in such violence.

[ISACS] are, in effect, the work plan for NGOs to reduce armed violence in their home countries by focusing on the role that SALW plays in such violence

Guy Lamb is quoted in the Mack article: “The PoA has become stuck on largely technical issues (stockpile management, ITI, cross border), which alienates most civil society organizations as there are only a few specialists that can actually add value to the debates.” True enough, for the modules he cites. Stockpile management is at its core very technical and requires highly trained personnel. But a quick look at the ISACS reveals many other modules with standards that civil society can work on developing with governments to reduce armed violence. For example, there are set of modules on the legislation that can contribute to reducing armed violence. Groups like Parliamentarians for Global Action and the Parliamentary Forum on Small Arms and Light Weapons could take this up, providing assistance to those NGOs who do work with or lobby their governments on legislation.

The siren song of legally binding instruments

I also noted in Mack’s article a penchant by many experts for civil society to still work on generating more norms and legally binding treaties for things like standard marking of weapons, prohibiting 3-D printing, etc. Simply put, civil society should avoid this siren song . I have not seen any serious research that shows that states did not implement the PoA because it was “only politically binding”. There are many reasons why states did not implement the PoA. Forty states never submitted any report. Was this lack of capacity? Rejection of the norms? While this topic is beyond the scope of this note, I believe civil society (not states) has an exaggerated view of the importance of a legally versus politically binding document. There is plenty to do at home from the ground up.

We don’t need to supplement or “super-charge” the PoA, or seek more legally-binding instruments. PoA has served its purpose in developing norms that have now been converted to standards through the ISACS process, the implementation of which is actionable, especially by civil society.


Edward J. Lawrence is Professor of Public Administration, Human Security and Development; and Gordon Paul Smith Chair in International Policy Studies at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, California, USA.  

Disclosures: Dr. Laurance was a consultant to the ISACS project in 2009-2010 and a consultant to the United Nations on the UN PoA, negotiated in 2001.  


[1] This paper, available at images/documents/Disarmament-fora/salw/poa-assessment.pdf, is based on the views of many veterans of the SALW work as well as his larger work, What’s Next? Thoughts for Global Civil Society Working on Arms Control and Armed Violence Reduction, available at whatnext_2014.pdf. A more detailed response to this paper can be obtained from the author at

[2] Mack has posted on the ISACS website advocating the main point I am making here, that ISACS should be the basis for work by civil society: news/tighten-the-nuts-and-bolts.html.