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UN Conventional Arms Register Falters

Jeff Abramson

A group of governmental experts examining a UN list of imports and exports of major conventional weapons has failed to agree to add an official category for small arms and light weapons to that annual record, sources familiar with the discussions said. The setback likely means that the UN Register of Conventional Arms will not see significant improvements in participation until after the next triennial meeting of experts in 2012.

Beginning in 1992, the United Nations has urged countries to report their previous year’s exports and imports of major conventional weapons. Many countries, especially those in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean have participated in the register inconsistently because it did not include a category for small arms and light weapons. Those weapons are much more relevant to such countries’ security concerns than the arms covered by the register’s seven official categories: tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers.

The experts group held three sessions this year but at the final meeting in July could not agree to add small arms and light weapons as an eighth category. Instead, they recommended that the UN General Assembly seek views from member states on reporting about the weapons. While some sources familiar with the discussions said that one country was primarily responsible for holding up the creation of an eighth category, another source stressed that many countries lack the capacity to report on this category and that questions remain on the definition of small arms.

In 2003 the experts group recommended supplemental reporting on small arms and light weapons and, in 2006, agreed to a standardized form for such reports, although still not as an official category. (See ACT, November 2003; October 2006.) Since then, the number of countries submitting information on those weapons has dramatically increased, but the total number of countries filing reports has declined, in part due to a decrease in “nil” reporting. (See ACT, October 2008.) Because it is an official submission, a “nil” report, indicating no transactions, is typically a sign of support for the register.

In an Aug. 24 interview, a source close to the experts group said the failure to include a new official category for the weapons means that participation will be “negatively affected.” In 2001, 126 countries filed reports for transfers, but only 113 submitted them for 2006, and 91 for 2007. As of last month, just 68 had submitted reports for 2008, according to the register’s online database. It is not uncommon for countries to submit reports after the deadline, which is May 31 of the next year, but many experts are predicting that fewer than 100 countries will ultimately report on last year’s transfers.

Daniël Prins, head of the conventional arms branch of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, which oversees the register, said in an Aug. 24 interview that he, “like many others, was disappointed” by the content of the consensus-based group’s report. He emphasized that the decrease in participation is another sign that “the register is not in very good health.”

Some other proposals that the group took up also failed. These included calls for reporting on force multipliers, such as combat support vehicles; clarity on inclusion of unmanned aerial combat vehicles; and changes in the range of torpedoes covered by the register.

Nonetheless, Prins did say the register maintains “great potential” because it is the internationally agreed-on mechanism for “authoritative provision of arms import and export data and related information.” He highlighted two steps that he said the UN will take to improve the register. He said he hopes to convert the now unwieldy register into a truly searchable database and to offer more regional workshops on using the record.