Norms on Arms Transfers

The U.S. government should be a leader at the national, regional, and international levels in setting norms on government-authorized transfers of small arms and light weapons. In this way, the U.S. government can help prevent weapons from going to places where they are likely to be used to pose security threats for U.S. forces, exacerbate conflicts, undermine peace initiatives, repress the rights of law-abiding civilians, or divert scarce resources from pressing development needs. Setting strict guidelines on government-authorized sales is also a key part of preventing weapons from entering the black market, where weapons strengthen terrorist, criminal, and drug-trafficking forces.

Under the Clinton administration, the State Department recognized the need to prevent small arms and light weapons from entering zones of conflict, where they often intensify the fighting and undermine efforts to build a lasting peace. Clinton's State Department pledged not to authorize such transfers, especially to war-torn states in Africa. A similar commitment by the Bush administration would demonstrate the U.S. government's renewed interest in seeking peaceful solutions to world's most brutal wars.

In the lead up to the UN Conference on Small Arms, the Organization of American States (OAS) began to consider a proposal for a document on "Responsible Small Arms and Light Weapons Transfers," similar to the Organization of Cooperation and Security in Europe's (OSCE) Small Arms Document. The U.S. government should give its enthusiastic support to this effort. As noted in the UN Program of Action, regional agreements are a critical first step toward building universal recognition of states' duty to ensure their weapons are exported in a responsible manner.

International legal experts have established that when one government knowingly provides arms that are used to violate international law (e.g., targeting civilians in violation of the Geneva Conventions), the exporting state shares responsibility for those breaches of the law. In order to codify this principle, a group of NGOs is proposing a Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers. The draft Convention would prohibit the transfer of weapons where there is a clear risk that they would be used to commit severe violations of the Geneva Conventions, human rights law, or the UN Charter's rules on force and nonintervention. We encourage the U.S. government to consider supporting this treaty as a way to harmonize arms exporting states' norms of transfers along the most basic standards. At a minimum, we suggest that the State Department continue the pursuit of an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers (as required by the 1999 State Department Authorization Act), using the principles of the Framework Convention as a baseline.

For More Information:

Tamar Gabelnick
Director, Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Federation of American Scientists
1717 K St., NW, Suite 209
Washington, DC 20036
Telephone: (202) 454-4694
Fax: (202) 675-1010
Email: [email protected]
Loretta Bondi
Advocacy Director
The Fund for Peace
1701 K St. NW
Washington DC 20006
Telephone: (202) 223-7940 x210
Fax: (202) 223-7947
Email: [email protected]
Rachel Stohl
Senior Analyst
Center for Defense Information
1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Telephone: (202) 797-5283
Fax: (202) 462-4559
Email: [email protected]

The Small Arms Working Group (SAWG) is an alliance of U.S.-based non-governmental organizations working together to promote change in U.S. policies on small arms. SAWG members believe that small arms proliferation must be countered by more responsible policies on legal sales and international cooperation to reduce illicit trafficking.