PRIO Network

Transparency in the Legal Small Arms Trade

Prepared by Lora Lumpe
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo/NISAT
For the Swiss Government Workshop on Small Arms
Geneva, 18-20 February 1999

In the past few years governments and civil society have devoted increasing levels of attention to the long-neglected humanitarian danger posed by the proliferation and misuse of military style small arms around the world. To date, however, concerned parties have not come to broad agreement as to the main problem.

Is the major threat posed by existing stocks of "illicit" weaponry in circulation in zones of conflict? Or are on-going legal transfers also of concern?(1)  If it is the former, how does one define the term, given that the licit trade and the illicit traffic in small arms are inextricably linked? For example, arms that are originally exported legally, but are not properly tracked or secured, often fall into illegal circulation, as theft or capture of state security forces’ weapons is a major source of black-market supply around the world. And what about legally transferred weapons that are used in an illegal manner (e.g., by repressive government forces to carry out human rights abuses)?

Currently there is very little hard data available about the principal sources of small arms supply and trafficking. As a result, the relative importance of the legal versus the illegal trade in arming combatants and criminals around the globe is unknown. In the absence of basic information about the magnitude and destinations of state-sanctioned small arms supply, well-intentioned policymakers might be prioritizing complicated and perhaps costly policy options related to the illicit trade that would have less impact than would relatively simple and straightforward measures relating to accountability in the legal trade.

One of the most important initiatives that governments concerned about the humanitarian and criminal impact of small arms proliferation could undertake is to provide greater transparency around the small arms exports they are authorizing.

Approximately seventy states produce small arms and/or ammunition.(2)  Some small arms production enterprises are state-owned (usually military armories), and some are privately-owned companies. Researching what the major small arms producing states manufacture is not difficult; there are several standard sources of information. Determining production quantities (or output) is much more difficult, and knowing where weapons are being exported is nearly impossible. The standard sources of data on the international arms trade—SIPRI, the UN Register of conventional Arms, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers—do not include information on small arms shipments. Few governments provide information to their public or parliaments on major weapons exports they have approved (like tanks and jets), and even fewer provide information on this low-end sector of the trade.

The US government is the most notable exception to the prevailing pattern of secrecy. Since 1996, except for covert arms supply operations, the United States openly reports in a disaggregated manner its small arms shipments and export license approvals.(3)  The Canadian government provides less detailed, but fairly specific information about its small arms exports, and the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden provide aggregated data on their exports, as well.

Fuller information about the magnitude and destination of current and future small arms shipments is a necessary prerequisite for development of sound policy recommendations. Transparency would also facilitate and improve the ability of governments to ensure end-use verification of weapons exports they are authorizing. If such information were made public, increased transparency would allow the non-governmental community, as well as national legislatures, to play an important role in aiding governments’ efforts to curb diversion of these arms by providing oversight through research, questioning and reporting.

Such information is also important to aid and relief workers, who might be working in a region where a sudden influx of guns has occurred or is anticipated. Transparency around planned arms shipments (that is, timely information exchange about license approvals granted) could prove to be an early warning indicator of pending violence and instability. While individual states might not be granting unusually large numbers of export licenses to a particular destination, when placed side by side with other suppliers’ export approvals, disturbing trends might become apparent.

Greater governmental transparency would also help evaluate the real impact of small arms on people and societies. Although widely assumed to be a significant factor, there has been no scientific investigation of the impact of small arms supply in terms of outbreak, sustainment or escalation of civil warfare. The dearth of data on arms transfers currently hinders the ability of researchers to conduct such studies.

On a more positive note, increased openness about weapons shipments could serve as a confidence-building measure among forces within a state, or states in a region, potentially heading off some purchases spurred on by "fear of the unknown." Finally, such information would greatly facilitate disarmament, whether through peacekeeping or other initiatives, by providing some baseline information about arms supply in the state or region.

Increased transparency is possible at the global, regional and national levels. The United Nations and regional security organizations can help facilitate the former two, but such initiatives are, of course, predicated on a willingness by governments to engage in greater openness. Policy analysts continually promote expansion of the UN Register of Conventional Arms to include small arms and light weapons as a desirable goal, but an expert panel reviewing the Register in 1997 decided against doing so, largely because the rationale for the Register is to indicate destabilizing build-ups of major weapons systems.

Meanwhile, with no elaboration, US Secretary of State Albright called in September 1998 for the creation of an "international center" for exchange of information on small arms transfers. There has been no further elaboration of this idea. The already extant Wassenaar Arrangement might prove a particularly suitable forum for regular (perhaps quarterly) information exchange by its members on potential small arms shipments licensed for export—if traditional resistance in this regard by some members can be overcome.

The research community could help lay out a realistic template for governmental transparency, identifying and rebutting obstacles to openness. What must be revealed by exporters (and importers)? What would be nice to know, but could be omitted in an effort to protect business confidentiality? Given the difficulty of persuading all countries (most importantly, supplier countries) to participate in a transparency regime, what would the value be of partial participation in such an effort?

Concerned states need not wait for some complicated global agreement. They can and should become transparent unilaterally, as did the United States and Canada. Small arms are not strategic weapons. Openness about production and shipment of such weapons will not jeopardize national security, although it might compromise business interests of a firm trying to make a sale, if the buyer wants the deal to remain cloaked in secrecy. But the need on the part of the buyer for secrecy should be examined, and the business interests of the arms firm must be weighed against other interests of the exporting state.


(1) Recent field research by Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission of Inquiry has shown that newly-manufactured weapons continue to enter combat zones in Central Africa and elsewhere. And US government reports demonstrate that American-made weaponry was cleared for export in 1996 and 1997 to some states engaged in civil conflicts, including Turkey and Colombia.

(2) The most prominent manufacturers are Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States.

(3)  According to annual reports now required by the Commerce, State and Defense Departments, in 1996 the State and Commerce Departments approved more than $590 million of small arms and light weapons exports, and the Department of Defense gave away 74,000 assault rifles and over 5,000 grenade launchers. Thousands more were sold by the Pentagon. Because other supplier governments are not open about their light weapons sales and shipments, it is not possible to rank the United States’ place in the global small arms trade.