"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
Wassenaar Members Adopt Small Arms Initiative

Wade Boese

Meeting in Vienna December 11-12, the 33-member Wassenaar Arrangement approved a document setting out nonbinding guidelines for exporting small arms and light weapons but failed to agree on other initiatives largely due to Russian opposition.

Comprised of most of the world’s leading arms exporters—except for Belarus, Brazil, China, and Israel—the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement is a voluntary regime whose members seek to prevent “destabilizing accumulations” of arms around the globe by exchanging information and consulting on their weapons deals with non-Wassenaar members. Members hold a plenary at the end of each year to discuss the arrangement and their arms trade.

The arrangement calls upon members to subject small arms and light weapons to national export controls, but previously there were no guidelines to help exporters judge whether they should make a sale. At their latest plenary, the 33 countries approved a British proposal to identify “best practices” for exporting small arms and light weapons. These best practices, which are voluntary measures, specified criteria to be used when assessing a possible sale and situations in which exports should be refused.

For instance, when considering a possible export, Wassenaar members are encouraged to weigh the importing country’s compliance record with arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Other considerations include whether the potential buyer can afford the weaponry, whether it has a legitimate need for such arms, and how well it respects human rights.

Exports should be avoided if Wassenaar members believe a risk exists that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists or organized crime. Members should also forego exports if the arms could prolong or aggravate an ongoing conflict or if they could be diverted to another country.

Members further agreed that weapons recipients should inform the original exporter before re-exporting any imported small arms or light weapons and that exported small arms should be individually marked so they can be traced. How the arms are marked is left up to each country, but the mark should indicate the weapon’s origin and year of production.

Wassenaar members, however, could not reach agreement to exchange information annually on their small arms and light weapons exports because of Russian opposition. The regime operates by consensus, so a single country can block initiatives with which it disagrees.

Currently, members report on exports—and in some cases export denials—of dual-use goods and technologies, which can be used for both military and civilian purposes, and seven categories of conventional weapons: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, military aircraft/unmanned aerial vehicles, military and attack helicopters, warships, and missiles or missile systems.

In the warships category, members agreed to report on a wider range of ships and submarines. Previously, members only reported on exports of vessels that had a displacement equaling or exceeding 750 tons, but now the reporting standard will be 150 tons or any ship if it is armed with torpedoes or missiles with ranges of at least 25 kilometers.

As they do every year, members also tweaked the extensive list of dual-use goods and technologies that they are supposed to subject to export controls. Licensing requirements were relaxed on digital computers and general-purpose microprocessors, while controls on radiation hardened integrated circuits were strengthened.

Wassenaar members also agreed to revisit existing policy on exporting man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), such as shoulder-fired air-to-ground missiles, in light of the recent attempt to shoot down a civilian aircraft in Kenya. No formal proposals were made at the plenary, but members pledged to look into the issue over the coming year.

In addition to blocking reporting on small arms and light weapons exports, Russia stood alone in opposing the adoption of a “catch-all” provision. Catch-all provisions require countries to vet exports that would normally not require government authorization if those exports are going to be used for military purposes in certain destinations. For Wassenaar, the proposed catch-all would have applied to exports to countries currently under a UN arms embargo.

Russia also frustrated an effort to establish a process by which a country would notify another member if it is reviewing the possibility of making an export that the other denied. The aim would be to get the two countries to discuss the deal and why one refused to make it, but nothing would prohibit a country from making a sale because another one turned it down.

Before their next plenary in December 2003, Wassenaar members are planning to continue discussing the proposals they failed to reach agreement on and to consider possible measures for a policy on regulating arms brokers. They will also conduct their second official review of the arrangement’s operation.