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former IAEA Director-General

UN Register Captures Expanded Small Arms Trade
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Jeff Abramson

Since a new standard form for submitting small arms and light weapons transfer data was agreed to in 2006, a UN register for such information has seen increases in the number of countries filing voluntary reports and the volume of weapons they detail. The latest submissions provide insight into the movement of more than 2.3 million weapons in 2007.

As of Sept. 24, 36 countries had provided detailed information on their small arms and light weapons trade to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, accounting for nearly 2.1 million exported weapons and more than 280,000 imported weapons. This is a dramatic increase compared to last year’s entries, which by late October included 30 countries and more than 535,000 exported weapons and 105,000 imported weapons. (See ACT, November 2007.) In both years, a handful of other countries submitted reports claiming no trade in the weapons or that specific numbers were confidential.

Whether the increase marks a global uptick in trade of these easily portable weapons is difficult to ascertain. As with last year’s data, the majority of participating countries are members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), skewing the findings to these states and their partners. Much of the increase is due to submissions of Croatia, Italy, and Ukraine, which did not provide detailed information in the previous year.

Export Data Touches More Than 100 Countries

Twenty-five of the 36 participating countries claimed to export small arms and light weapons in 2007. Together, they listed more than 140 recipient countries, thereby revealing information about many countries that provided no data.

The single largest exporter, Croatia, claimed the transfer of more than 650,000 weapons, comprised primarily of 528,766 revolvers and self-loading pistols and 120,300 rifles and carbines to the United States. Although submitting information on major conventional weapons transfers, such as tanks, the United States did not provide small arms and light weapons data.

Italy exported more than 460,000 small arms to 81 different countries. As with Croatia, Italy claimed its main recipient country to be the United States, accounting for 331,347 weapons. Also significant, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Thailand each imported more than 10,000 weapons, according to the Italian submission.

The third-largest exporter, the United Kingdom, claimed the transfer of more than 250,000 weapons. The United States accounted for 234,685 and Afganistan 11,232 of the weapons. In the previous year’s report, the United Kingdom was the largest exporter filing a submission, documenting nearly 360,000 weapons exported.

Ukraine, disclosing its small arms and light weapons transfers for the first time, claimed more than 160,000 weapons exported, making it the fourth-largest reporter. All countries listed in Ukraine’s report are OSCE members. In 2000, OSCE members agreed to intergovernmental exchanges of information on small arms and light weapons. Ukraine’s submission may signify a trend of OSCE countries sharing these reports with the UN register.

Although not filing a report on small arms and light weapons, the United States emerged as the primary importer of the weapons, as it did in last year’s accounting. All told, 18 different countries claimed to export nearly 1,550,000 weapons to the United States, almost 75 percent of all reported exports. Greece listed more than 115,000 of these as returns of M1 rifles, suggesting that some of the U.S. import trade is comprised of weapons re-exported to the United States.

Submissions to the UN register also show transfers to Iraq and Afghanistan, although certainly painting an incomplete picture because neither country nor the United States filed their own reports. Nonetheless, four countries claimed to export nearly 100,000 weapons to Iraq, with Slovakia accounting for 51,200 and Romania 43,233 of the weapons.

Afghanistan received a total of more than 30,000 weapons from eight countries. Romania and the United Kingdom each provided more than 10,000 weapons to the country, which is currently being supported by NATO troops.

Import Data Highlights Complexity of Transfers

Although claimed imports only accounted for 290,000 weapons in 2007, the data from 32 filing countries reveal that additional countries are involved in the trade of small arms and light weapons.

The top five countries claiming imports were Mexico (48,678 weapons), France (43,667 weapons), Slovakia (30,268 weapons), Georgia (28,769 weapons), and Italy (26,311 weapons). Although the UN register counts items, not their monetary value, these import figures align to a certain degree with that available in the UN’s Commodity Trade Statistics Database, which measures trade value. For revolvers and pistols, Mexico and Italy were among the top five importers in that database.

Together, the countries filing import information to the UN register claim to be receiving weapons from 47 countries, led by Germany (57,810 weapons), the United States (39,270 weapons), and Belgium (38,181 weapons). Germany and the United States also emerge as top-three exporters in the commodity database.

Still, the UN register is limited. Import and export data nearly never matches, making it difficult to verify trade information. For example, the United Kingdom, a consistent filer of detailed information and promoter of greater transparency in the global arms trade, listed no imports. Yet, countries claim to have exported more than 60,000 small arms and light weapons to the United Kingdom. These discrepancies are due in part to differences in when transactions are counted and how they are classified.

The UN register orginated from 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. In December 2003, the UN General Assembly invited members also to submit small arms and light weapons data. A standardized reporting form was introduced in 2006.

That form is 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 80 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 1 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.

Posted: October 6, 2008