Preliminary Policy Options for Monitoring/Restricting Exports of Light Arms

Prepared by Lora Lumpe (Director, Arms Sales Monitoring Project, Federation of American Scientists, Washington DC) for UNIDIR meeting on Small Arms and Internal Conflict, 7-8 November 1994, Geneva, Switzerland

There are approximately thirty wars raging around the world today. Since the end of the Cold War, global attention to these conflicts has increased dramatically. Regional instability and warfare are now central organizing principles in international affa irs, and governments around the world increasingly are deploying resources to mediate conflicts, demobilize combatants, stem humanitarian crises, etc. Non-governmental organizations (humanitarian, development, arms control, religious, etc.) and business interests are also deeply concerned with the impact of these conflicts on economic and social development.

These wars are being fought primarily with light arms weapons carried by individual soldiers or on light vehicles. Few of the combatants (state or sub-state) produce any, let alone the bulk, of their munitions. Most of the light arms being used were imp orted either through the legal international arms trade, or through the black-market trade in weapons. Black-market transfers are those in which the exporter violates the laws of the weapons-producing state. Both governments and private dealers may make both legal and illegal sales. Generally speaking, arms transferred directly from the producing state (e.g., Chinese arms to Sudan) are legal. Stocks previously transferred to one country and then re-transferred to other end users (e.g., U.S. arms to Af ghanistan mujahideen now being sold by them to others) tend to be illegal, black-market deals.

The widespread availability of small arms compounds the difficulty of alleviating civil crises, and it may actually encourage the resort to warfare (as opposed to non-military means of conflict resolution, state formation, etc.). There are many factors which mitigate against control of the traffic in light arms, or make it extremely difficult. However, there are several possible policy measures which UN member states might consider undertaking to assist in this area. They are grouped according to the ty pe of initiative: information gathering, oversight, export control, arms control/disarmament, demand reduction, and supply reduction.

I. Information Gathering

Nearly all policy work on the international arms trade focuses on large weapons systems (e.g., combat aircraft, main battle tanks, heavy artillery, naval frigates). The central reason for this is that the mass and monetary cost of these objects are much larger than that of small arms; exports of large systems are much more observable and easier to track. In addition, there are far fewer sources of supply of large platforms than of small arms.

Policy on controlling small arms is nearly non-existent (with the exception of policy concerning anti-personnel landmines, see "Export Control" section below), chiefly because so little work has been done to assess the production, flows and uses of this sector of the arms trade. Several steps could be taken to start to fill this information void.

Expand the UN Register of Conventional Arms to cover imports and exports (and possibly production) of some small arms categories. The Register, established under General Assembly resolution 46/36L (9 December 1991), currently calls on UN members to provide data annually on imports and exports of seven categories of major military equipment battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missiles/missile launchers (travelling 25 km or more). Eighty-one countries provided data in 1994, covering imports and exports in 1993. Most developing countries provided "nil" reports, indicating that these seven categories of weapons are largely irrelevant to their situations.

An Expert Group convened during 1993-1994 to consider ways of improving, expanding and strengthening the Register. One suggestion has been to expand it to include some categories of small arms or to encourage countries to voluntarily contribute this information. In particular, adding anti-personnel landmines has been suggested. Shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles may be another category of small arms on which inclusion in the Register might be agreed, given the high degree of concern about potential terroristic uses of such missiles. Inclusion of small arms would likely make the Register more pertinent to many developing countries, and probably, therefore, increase participation. However, the Expert Group discussions of expanding the Register bogged down over inclusion of data on weapons of mass destruction and military holdings (in addition to data on imports and exports).

A related undertaking would be to facilitate the establishment of regional light arms trade registers (e.g., among the states of the Organization of African Unity).

All of these register proposals would only touch upon the licit export of light arms; covert sales would not be reported.

Initiate work on small arms in Transparency in Armaments working group at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). The CD established this working group in 1992 to complement the UN Register and to assist in identifying "excessive and destabilizing arms build-ups." During 1993, the 39 states participating in the CD provided information on their national policies concerning arms production and exports and national holdings. In 1994, this work lost much of its steam, and whether the working group will be re-established in 1995 is now in doubt. An emphasis on export policy and regulations concerning light arms would give a new and valuable focus to the transparency in arms work.

Support private (NGO or for profit) efforts to gather information on small arms production and trading (licit and illicit). Non-governmental humanitarian, development, disarmament, domestic gun control and "pro-gun" groups may be equally or better positioned than governments to amass a data base of information on the traffic in light arms. In the United States, the most developed publicly available work on global small arms holdings and deployments has been done by the private sector, rather than the government. UN members states could support research on light arms by national policy groups or academic institutions or by UN agencies (such as UNIDIR) or international groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Increase international cooperation on monitoring black market (illicit) arms trafficking. The national intelligence agencies (in the United States this would include the CIA, DIA, Army Intelligence, Office of Naval Intelligence, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, etc.) and international anti-crime/anti-terror agencies (e.g., Interpol) could cooperate on building a data base of black-market transfers and black-marketeers.

II. Oversight/Regulatory Measures

Create an international registry of legitimate/authorized buyers. Manufacturers could only sell light arms to private dealers and national governmental purchasers who have registered and are in good standing (that is, they have not been debarred for illegal sales activities). Such a system would alleviate widespread use of false destinations (i.e., non-existent government agencies or corporations). If a dealer were found to have brokered a deal to a false destination, they would face debarment and thus be ineligible for further sales.

Enhance bureaucratic controls and border controls to block illegal exports of light arms; share expertise in these areas. The United States is currently assisting former Soviet republics and China in developing centralized control over exports. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms works closely with law enforcement and customs offices in foreign nations to curb the illegal traffic in U.S.-origin guns. It has set up offices in Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia, and conducted a firearms trafficking workshop in Honduras for senior law enforcement officers and military personnel from 13 Central American countries.

Condition arms exports on non-retransfer of weapons; establish uniform and not easily forged end-user certificates. Increase end-use checks on light arms transfers and on licensed production of weapon systems. U.S. law stipulates that countries importing U.S. arms must receive approval from the U.S. government before retransferring those weapons. However, the General Accounting Agency, the State Department Inspector General and various Congressional committees have sharply criticized the State Department for woefully inadequate end-use checks to determine if equipment is being used for the purposes stated on an export license. The State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls ran only 478 end-use checks on 45,000 licenses approved in 1993; this was a dramatic improvement from the 38 checks performed in 1990.

Moreover, this law is known to have been violated on several occasions, apparently with impunity. For instance, there are currently widespread allegations that light arms supplied to the Thai military often end up with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Increased spot checks of equipment supplied, with a penalty of military aid cut-off or some other sanctions, would likely encourage adherence.

Promote domestic gun control legislation and seek to ease custom of gun culture. In many parts of the world, possession of fire arms is considered a basic right. This is true not only in developing countries, but in the United States, too. However, legal, privately-owned guns contribute to civil strife or end up on the black market. In the U.S., fire arms are often illegally exported to Latin American narco-traffickers. While it is undoubtedly politically challenging, UN member states can work to change the norm of civilian right to gun ownership and/or can enact restrictive gun legislation. Reportedly, a UN study is exploring the relationship between domestic gun control laws and the international traffic in guns.

III. Export Controls

Restrict ammunition to effectively limit the use of weapons. Chris Smith theorizes that the poor quality of locally made ammo would make this a useful approach to consider.

Embargo arms to specific countries or regions. Generally arms embargoes are levied by the UN Security Council only after serious conflict has broken out, and after relatively free flows of arms have occurred. There are several other problems with embargoes: they drive the price for weapons up, attracting black-marketeers; they favor the status quo, which may be politically undesirable; and they are difficult to enforce. The embargoes on Liberia and Yugoslavia (Bosnia) have not ended warfare there; nor did the embargo on UNITA forces end the war in Angola, although it may have contributed to UNITA's willingness to cease fighting.

Embargoes may also lead countries to develop indigenous arms production capability, as happened in South Africa. However, South Africa's economic and industrial strength relative to most developing countries does not make this a highly replicable model.

Many nations unilaterally refrain from exporting weapons to countries "in areas of tension."

Limit/restrict licensed production of light weapons systems. Countries technologically and financially advanced enough (and motivated to do so) could still likely develop light arms industries, but the cost of doing so would be much higher than if able to license-produce arms first.

Restrict either unilaterally or multilaterally the export of certain types of light arms considered particularly inhumane. Over the past several years, a consensus has emerged that anti-personnel landmines are a scourge and a particular menace to non-combatants. Since 1991, Congress has prohibited all U.S. exports of anti-personnel mines. On 15 November the UN General Assembly passed a resolution urging all countries to end exports of anti-personnel landmines; many of the other leading mine exporters have followed the U.S. lead and announced moratoria or other export restrictions. There are no verification measures included in these voluntary export bans.

IV. Arms Control/Disarmament

Ban either unilaterally or multilaterally the production, export and use of certain types of light arms considered particularly inhumane. The 1981 Convention on Conventional Weapons, up for review in 1995, is a forum for prohibition on such weapons. Currently, an International Campaign to Ban Landmines is seeking a total abolition of this weapon. In the United States, members of Congress introduced a bill in 1994 which urged the President to seek an international ban on the production, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines, this being a more stable basis for ending the scourge posed to civilians than a mere export ban. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, too, has called for a ban on landmines. Many armies of the world are wed to anti-personnel landmines, and a norm in support of the abolition of mines does not yet exist.

In November the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution sponsored by Afghanistan requesting that governments submit their ideas "on effective ways and means of collecting weapons illicitly transferred in interested countries as well as any concrete proposal ... to curb the illicit transfer and use of conventional arms." The UN adopted a similar resolution last year, but no ideas were put forward.

Buy the weapons back. The United States has attempted unsuccessfully to buy back the shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which the CIA gave the Afghan mujahideen between 1986-1991. These small, 35 pound missiles were largely credited with the rag-tag mujahideen's victory over the Soviet Union and Kabul government. The Mujahideen short down over 250 Soviet aircraft with the missiles.

The U.S. and USSR agreed in September 1991 to shut off the flow of arms to both sides in Afghanistan by 1 January 1992. The two counties agreed to "work toward withdrawal of major weapons systems from Afghanistan." But the United States hasn't found this so easy to do. Of the approximately 1,000 Stinger missiles transferred, 340 are known to have been fired. 16-30 of them are believed to have been sold to Iran. The remainder are unaccounted for, and unavailable to the United States. As far back as 1989 the U.S. government reportedly offered to buy back the Stingers from the mujahideen commanders, but, "there were no takers." In late 1992, though, it was reported that the CIA had been buying back some of the Stingers, but at grossly inflated prices---more than double the $20,000 cost per missile. In January, the outgoing Bush Administration was seeking approval from the congressional intelligence oversight committees an estimated $10 million to buy back the missiles. "Even if this ends up costing $100 million," one supporter of the buy-back plan is quoted as saying, "that's peanuts compared with the cost of one civilian 747 airliner being shot down."

In fall 1994, a buy-back scheme was also discussed to collect guns in Haiti, similar to one which has been used quite successfully in several American cities.

Blow the weapons up. "Demilitarization" of accumulated small arms stocks has been utilized several times in the past few years, most notably in Somalia and Iraq. Another, and more cooperative example of this approach, is the increasing amounts of aid money being put toward de-mining locating and blowing up deployed anti-personnel landmines.

Collect the arms. In Haiti U.S. armed forces have conducted building to building searches in some cases in an effort to collect guns and other weapons. Rwandan soldiers were required to leave their weapons at the border before taking refuge in Zaire. While mounds of weapons were collected, many were smuggled into the refugee camps, and the disposition of the collected weapons is unknown.

Insert a technical failsafe to disable the system at some specific time or under some specific condition. Many arms industrialists, in particular, fancy the idea of inserting some sort of lock or failsafe device into weapons to keep them from being used by unintended parties, or in unintended ways. For example, the United States manufactures "self-neutralizing/self-destruct" landmines, which contain a battery designed to run out in a set amount of time.

V. Reducing Demand

Carrot" and "stick" approaches might be utilized to reduce demand.

Formally or informally condition multilateral (IMF, World Bank) or bilateral aid on military expenditure, or abidance by some specific import restriction.

Provide aid for good government, demobilization or downsizing of forces, or "acceptable" levels of military expenditure.

VI. Reducing Supply

Incentives and disincentives also may be used to reduce supply.

Tax exports of light arms (all or certain items). It has been suggested that arms sales taxes could fund peacekeeping costs or the UN Register of Conventional Arms.

Provide economic incentives (business opportunities) for disarmament. Locating and deactivate a $10 anti-personnel landmine can cost up to $1,000. As an example of this approach, countries could provide de-mining contracts to companies that verifiably quit the landmine export business.

FAS Home | ASMP Home | Search | About ASMP
Publications | Sales Data | Issues | Resources