"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
UN Register Reveals Small Arms Trade

Jeff Abramson

The number of countries voluntarily providing data to the United Nations on their small arms and light weapons trade has jumped substantially this year, shedding new light on the pervasiveness and complexity of this often murky commerce.

As of early October, 30 states had declared their small arms and light weapons trade for 2006 to the voluntary UN Register of Conventional Arms, accounting for more than 535,000 weapons exported and 105,000 weapons imported. Some major arms-trading countries, such as Russia and the United States, have not provided information about their small arms commerce.

The UN register grew out of a 1991 agreement seeking to add transparency to the global arms trade, calling on all countries to report annually on their previous year’s exports and imports. Historically, declarations have focused on heavy equipment such as tanks, combat aircraft, warships, large-caliber artillery, and missiles and missile systems. (See ACT, September 2007.) Until this year, small arms and light weapons exports and imports, although much more numerous, were rarely included in countries’ reports. For example, only a half-dozen countries had filed declarations at this time last year.

Of the 30 detailed declarations, most come from countries that are European, Western allies, and/or from the Western Hemisphere, skewing the findings to these states and their partners.

The United Kingdom provided the longest small arms and light weapons report and ranks as by far the biggest exporter to file a declaration, with 359,444 of the 535,522 total reported weapons exported. The United Kingdom has filed small arms reports for the past four years and is a leader in the call for a global arms trade treaty.

Countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact account for three of the next four largest declared weapons exporters. Hungary claims 52,208 weapons exported, the Czech Republic 40,082 weapons exported, and Poland 25,591 weapons exported. Germany reports 29,179 weapons exported, ranking it fourth on the list.

Eastern European states are also major small arms importers. Georgia ranks first with 21,962 of the 105,317 total reported imported weapons. The Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina rank second and third with 16,514 and 14,470 weapons imported, respectively. Germany is fourth with 13,298 weapons imported. Canada is fifth with 10,877 weapons imported and Japan sixth with 6,605 weapons imported.

The data in the register also reveals trade by eastern European countries that did not themselves make small arms declarations. Austria did not include small arms in its register report, but 11 states claim to import small arms from the country. Similarly, Ukraine did not declare small arms, but Georgia reports the importation of 21,700 assault rifles from Ukraine.

To be sure, the reach of the register remains limited, and many experts recommend caution before drawing expansive conclusions. More than 70 countries have filed “nil” or not included small arms in their register declaration. There is almost no data regarding Africa. China’s and Russia’s declarations include heavier weapons but not smaller arms. Italy, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Spain rank among the top five importers or exporters of revolvers and pistols in 2006 by trade value according to the UN’s Commodity Trade Statistics Database, but do not emerge as significant in the register.

Data does show that the United States is a key player in the small arms and light weapons trade even though it has not filed a detailed declaration. Twelve countries report exporting to the United States, and 14 claim to be receiving U.S. imports. The United Kingdom claims that it exported more than 330,000 weapons to the United States, making the British-U.S. trade relationship the single largest in the register.

Still, absent a U.S. filing, small arms and light weapons numbers remain low in countries where the U.S. military is active. In the register, exports to Afghanistan come from Hungary, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom but account for less than seven percent of total weapons exported. Exports to Iraq come from Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and account for less than one percent of total weapons exported.

A U.S. official told Arms Control Today in September that the United States does intend to file a small arms report this year. The complexity of compiling records from various sources has slowed U.S. participation in this portion of the register, the official claimed. The United States has already filed for heavier weapons.

In addition to being more numerous, the declarations this year are more detailed, perhaps due to an agreement reached last year to use a standard form comprised of six categories of small arms and seven of light weapons. The first two categories of small arms, consisting of revolvers and self-loading pistols, and rifles and carbines, account for more than 75 percent of total reported exports and imports. Additional small arms categories include assault rifles, sub- and light machine guns, and others.

Light weapons, which account for less than four percent of total claimed transfers, are defined as heavy machine guns, recoilless rifles, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, mortars of calibers less than 75 millimeters, portable anti-tank guns, missile launchers and rocket systems, and others. The register encourages reporting of civilian and military arms transfers, but not all countries appear to use the same standards.