Global Principles for Controlling Small Arms Exports

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2006 Volume 27 Issue 2

In late June 2006 United Nations member states will gather in New York for the Review Conference of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA). At the two-week conference states will have the opportunity to assess the efficacy of the national, regional, and global initiatives of the PoA approved in 2001 to address the worldwide proliferation and misuse of small arms.

The conference will also provide the occasion to address necessary PoA improvements. For Project Ploughshares and other civil society groups that support the international “Control Arms” campaign, as well as for a growing number of states, there is no more pressing arms control challenge than the irresponsible transfer of weapons across borders and the concomitant need for strict, universal transfer controls.

Weapons transfers are governed by states, and inconsistencies and weaknesses in national export standards contribute to the widespread availability and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Variations in national controls invite unscrupulous traders to find and exploit the weakest regulations while more mainstream political and industry pressure is exerted on governments to relax controls to the lowest standards. Lax controls on the legal trade in weapons ease leakage to the illegal trade. Although the Programme of Action calls for “strict national regulations” to govern small arms exports, no common criteria or guidelines have been identified to hold all states to the same standards. As stated in the PoA, UN members should draw on “the existing responsibilities of states under relevant international law” for such criteria, and a group of Nobel Peace Laureates, assisted by the Control Arms network of nongovernmental organizations, has usefully proposed such a set of global standards as the core principles of an international Arms Trade Treaty. The challenge for the international community is to ensure that these global principles are inserted into the UN Programme of Action in June.

In cooperation with partners in the Americas (the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in Costa Rica, the Women’s Institute for Alternative Development [WINAD] in Trinidad and Tobago, and Viva Rio in Brazil), and with funding from the Human Security Program of Foreign Affairs Canada, Project Ploughshares completed a project during 2005-2006 to build regional commitment to global principles for the transfer of small arms. The project commissioned research on arms trade legislation and arms trade flows in four subregions in the Western hemisphere (North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Mercosur region of Latin America) as a basis for engagement of civil society groups, parliamentarians, and government officials across the hemisphere. The project partners sponsored, hosted, or participated in a wide range of seminars, conferences, and meetings that brought attention to the need for, and the proposed nature of, common principles for the control of arms transfers.

The research papers reflect different social, political, and even state-of-research contexts as well as the key arms transfer issues of the states and subregions they discuss. Even so, all the papers provide evidence of the pressing need for strict global transfer principles.

The papers on US and Canadian small arms export practice and policy explore the dynamics of two countries with mature arms transfer experience – the first as the world’s largest arms supplier and the second as a “major” supplier of small arms. Each state also has well developed (and comparatively transparent) arms transfer policies and is party to multilateral instruments that commit it to most of the global principles of the proposed Arms Trade Treaty.

The research papers on Mexico (“The Regulation of Arms Transfers in Mexico” by Héctor Guerra) and the Caribbean subregion (“Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Caribbean” by WINAD) recognize the early state of research on arms flows and weapons trade policies in both areas. Each paper breaks new research ground and points to areas where additional research is needed. The papers also address areas of hesitant government policy regarding small arms transfers—in the case of Mexico in the disconnect between its domestic policy and multilateral commitments, and in the case of the Caribbean in the reluctance of governments in the subregion to recognize the development implications of licit and illicit arms transfers. The Mexican paper is available in Spanish as well as English.

The research paper from Viva Rio (“Watching the Neighborhood: An Assessment of Small Arms and Ammunition ‘Grey Transactions’ in the Borders between Brazil and Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina” by Pablo Dreyfus and Antonio Rangel Bandeira) includes primary, field-level research that explores the illicit trafficking in small arms and ammunition across border areas between Brazil and four of its neighbour countries. By visiting several border regions, the researchers obtained first-hand information on illicit transfers of weapons and ammunition. The paper calls for support for global transfer principles as well as joint subregional arms transfer controls. It is available in English and Spanish.

Finally, the Arias Foundation commissioned research papers for a book (The Arms Trade Treaty [ATT] and Central American Existing Law) published in English, French, and Spanish. The comparative research reviewed the domestic laws and international commitments related to the transfer of weapons in the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. The papers also analyzed the prospects and necessary steps for each state to meet and adopt the Arms Trade Treaty principles advocated for the UN Programme of Action. The 240-page product is a thorough overview of the state of the legal control of weapons transfers in Central America.

Spread the Word