UN Conventional Arms Register Shows Export Decrease in 1999

November 2000

By Wade Boese

Made public in early October, the 1999 UN Register of Conventional Arms revealed the lowest annual export total ever reported in the register's eight years of operation. Despite a continued lack of participation by more than half the countries in the world, the register provides a fairly comprehensive picture of the global heavy weapons trade in 1999 because most major arms exporters, excluding Russia and China, made submissions. The United States was again the leading individual weapons exporter, though European countries together accounted for more than 60 percent of the reported arms shipments.

Established in 1992, the register calls on countries to voluntarily report their annual exports and imports of battle tanks, armored combat vehicles (ACVs), large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. Countries may also report on military holdings. By promoting transparency in the arms trade, the register is intended to help prevent destabilizing accumulations of offensive conventional arms.

Led by 18 European countries, the 23 states reporting exports shipped a total of 5,396 weapons. With 1,839 deliveries, the United States accounted for more than a third of this tally. Bulgaria ranked second with exports totaling 1,431, and Ukraine placed a distant third with 649 transfers.

According to the exporter data, nearly 60 percent of the exports went to Europe. Unusually, Africa was the second leading destination, accounting for 854 of the reported exports, more than two-thirds of which came from Bulgaria and Ukraine. Angola, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, which have been embroiled in armed conflict in recent years, all appeared on exporter rolls.

Typically a leading weapons importer, the Near East slipped below Asia in 1999 arms receipts, according to the exporter data. Exporters reported that Asian nations, not including South Asia, received 569 weapons deliveries, half of which were missiles, while 10 Near East states accounted for 317 of the reported exports. The reduced level of Near East arms shipments reflects the winding down of delivery contracts for major arms buys in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and a slowing in new buys, attributable, in part, to low oil prices and the process of integrating previously purchased weaponry into the region's armed forces.

Forty countries reported importing 4,378 arms in 1999. Almost half the reported imports were claimed by 25 European countries, though South Korea led all importers with 1,204 weapons receipts, almost all of which were missiles and missile launchers from the United States. Switzerland ranked second with 500 imports, all of which were U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles without warheads.

As in previous years, significant discrepancies existed between reported imports and exports. For instance, the United States reported shipping only 4 AIM-120 missiles to Switzerland and no TOW missiles. An August report by a group of governmental experts charged with reviewing the register's operation suggested that the differences could stem from "the lack of a common definition of a transfer." Finding a common definition, according to the experts, is "complicated by differing national practices" for arms exports and imports.

Register participation in 1999 increased from the previous year, rising to 84 initial reports from 74, but country submissions still fell short of the more than 90 that were made in every year before 1998. European countries accounted for half of the 1999 submissions, while just five African states and only one Near East state, Israel, volunteered information. Thirty-five of the participating countries submitted "nil" reports for both exports and imports.

The group of governmental experts reported that during the register's brief history "almost all the significant suppliers and recipients…[have] submitted reports regularly" and that 149 governments have participated at least once. In 1997, the last time a group of governmental experts reviewed the register, the figure stood at 138.

Arab states have generally boycotted the register, arguing for a category for weapons of mass destruction in order to have Israel report on its nuclear weapons program. China ceased its participation indefinitely in 1998 to protest the United States including arms transfers to Taiwan in the U.S. submission.