Human Rights WatchWorld Report ContentsDownloadPrintOrderHRW Homepage

World map Arms



Europe and Central Asia

Middle East and North Africa

Special Issues and Campaigns

United States


Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Mechanisms of Arms Control

United Nations

The member states of the United Nations, as well as the U.N. Secretariat, focused greater attention on international transfers of small arms and light weapons in 2000. These weapons were a particular source of concern because of the enormous humanitarian impact of their widespread availability and misuse. In areas of violent conflict in particular, well-armed, unaccountable actors often used small arms to carry out attacks on civilians.

Following the recommendation of U.N. experts, the U.N. General Assembly agreed in December 1999 to hold in mid-2001 the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects. As of October 2000, planning for the event had proceeded slowly. An initial meeting of the preparatory committee for the conference, held in February/March 2000, yielded few results. The venue and date remained undecided, and decisions on the scope of the conference, the desired outcome, and the participation of NGOs likewise remained unclear. Further preparatory meetings were scheduled for January and March 2001. In the interim, several regional conferences and initiatives on small arms allowed governments to develop and refine policy positions and build momentum for the 2001 U.N. conference. For example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a small arms seminar in April 2000 and worked to negotiate an OSCE text on small arms to be adopted later in the year.

At U.N. headquarters, Secretary-General Kofi Annan continued broadbased consultations with governments and some NGOs to identify the magnitude and scope of illicit trafficking in small arms, measures to combat such trafficking, and possible U.N. contributions to information-sharing on small arms. He released reports on these consultations in September 1999 and August 2000, for review in advance of the 2001 conference. The U.N. group of experts on small arms also worked throughout the year to prepare a background study and recommendations for consideration at the conference, with special attention to the feasibility of limiting the manufacture and trade in small arms. Only a handfulof states had responded to a request by the secretary-general request for comments on the recommendations provided in earlier expert reports on small arms. These replies were included in a July report to which future responses could be added. The goal of curbing the small arms trade was noted repeatedly in different U.N. fora, including at the Millennium Summit of world leaders in September.

In 2000 the United Nations compiled information on weapons transfers for the eighth year. The U.N. Register of Conventional Arms was established in 1992 as a transparency and confidence-building mechanism relying on data submitted voluntarily by states. In 1999 eighty states supplied information to the register, a marked decline from ninety-seven responses the previous year. As in the past, many states furnished incomplete information or supplied it late, while others declined to participate. The 2000 register, which contained composite information regarding 1999 transfers, was issued in August and included information from eight-four states at that time. Responding to a request by the General Assembly, a U.N. group of experts met in 2000 to consider the further development of the register, as well as mechanisms to increase transparency related to weapons of mass destruction, and their conclusions were described in a separate August report. Government comments regarding the proposed expansion of the U.N. register were appended to the register itself.

In December 1999 the General Assembly requested states to furnish information about their military expenditures annually. The first composite report with the resulting thirty-two responses was issued in July 2000. The secretary-general also responded, in an August report, to a General Assembly request for information on international assistance to curb illicit arms trafficking and provide assistance with weapons collection programs.

Under U.N. auspices, negotiations continued on an International Convention Against Transnational Crime, to be supplemented by three protocols. The General Assembly requested an ad hoc committee to prepare a draft Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, as well as two protocols on other topics, for approval by the General Assembly before the end of 2000. The ad hoc committee approved a draft of the convention itself in July, but had not finalized the draft firearms proposal as of October 2000, when another negotiating session was scheduled to take place.

European Union

The European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports entered its second year in 2000. Under the non-binding code, states agreed, among other provisions, not to authorize arms exports to human rights abusers, areas of violent conflict, or countries that might retransfer the weapons to unauthorized third parties. The E.U. member states claimed the code was a success, but the lack of transparency about its implementation made it impossible to verify that the code had led to a convergence of arms export practices. The first report on the implementation of the code was published under pressure from the European Parliament, NGOs, and others. It was disappointingly short on information. It was not clear at this writing whether the E.U. Council of Ministers would publish the second report, due before the end of the year. There were few indications that it would include information on the weapons sold or identify arms recipients, as urged by NGOs.

The E.U. Code, already subscribed to by more than a dozen non-E.U. countries, further extended its reach when the United States endorsed the code in December 1999. The E.U. hesitated to use this commitment to influence arms export policies of the countries in question, in particular the candidate countries for E.U. membership. E.U. member states also were reluctant to strengthen the code by making it legally binding, improving end-user control, and introducing rules for brokering and licensed production. The E.U. achieved agreement in 2000 on control lists for military goods and dual-use goods under the code.

At the national level, the German cabinet in January 2000 adopted guidelines to bring its arms export controls in line with the E.U. Code, and Germany joined France in issuing its first national report on arms exports in 2000. This brought the number of member states that publish annual arms exports reports to eight (Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and U.K. being the others). In the U.K., the ruling Labor Party announced in September that it would introduce a system of licensing for arms brokering and trafficking, as strongly advocated by NGOs.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which had been slow to recognize the dangers small arms proliferation posed to human rights and the security interests of the alliance, made strides in 2000 to begin work in this area. In February 2000 NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), which brings together NATO allies and former Warsaw Pact countries, incorporated a chapter on small arms into the work program of NATO's Partnership for Peace. This move created new training and assistance programs to destroy surplus small arms and improve the management and security of weapons stockpiles in partner countries. As of October 2000, few countries had taken up the offer of help. Under an initiative sponsored by the U.S., Germany, and Norway and announced in September 2000, Albania was to destroy 130,000 small arms by the end of 2000. A small arms destruction team traveled to Bulgaria in October for an assessment visit, but it was unclear at this writing whether the discussions would result in agreement to undertake a small arms destruction program.

The EAPC's working group on small arms, which spurred creation of the new programs, as well as a series of seminars on various small arms topics, could not agree to take up concrete action on more politically sensitive topics, such as transparency in the arms trade and arms export controls. A planned November seminar was expected to identify practical assistance needs related to export controls that could be met through partnership-sponsored assistance programs, such as the provision of software and equipment. There was little expectation that a consensus would emerge to move forward on harmonization of such controls.

For the first time NATO aspirants were required in 2000 to report on participation in major arms control agreements in an appendix to their annual Membership Action Plans. NATO, however, did not ask aspirant countries to report on compliance with key policy commitments, such as the E.U. Code of Conduct, that explicitly addressed the human rights implications of conventional arms transfers.

At a Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council ministerial meeting in May 2000, Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy linked NATO membership to responsible arms trading practices. He stated that national parliaments would be unlikely to approve NATO enlargement unless candidates did their best to halt irresponsible flows of surplus weapons, echoing a warning that NATO officials said was communicated privately to aspirant countries. Human Rights Watch had repeatedly called on the alliance and individual member states to use such leverage to press for reform of aspirant countries' arms trade behavior.

Military modernization efforts in Central and Eastern Europe, linked to NATO enlargement, continued to result in vast quantities of surplus small arms, as well as heavy weapons, being offered for sale. NATO member states made assistance available to partners to destroy surplus small arms, as noted, but did not adopt a broader approach. Human Rights Watch called for NATO states to provide incentives for the disposalof excess weapons, including heavy military equipment, that otherwise risked being sold to human rights abusers. To stem the dumping of Soviet-standard weapons into the marketplace, Human Rights Watch further called for the provision of newer, NATO-standard equipment to candidate countries and new allies to be made contingent on their responsible disposal of quantities of surplus arms.

Other Regional Mechanisms

The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls entered its fifth year of operation and the thirty-five participating states concluded the first overall assessment of its functioning in 2000. Participants agreed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the General Information Exchange on non-participating states, and to improve transparency in the exchange of information on arms deliveries. States also affirmed that: "there should be strong, effective, transparent and national law-based enforcement of export controls. The elements of export control enforcement include a preventive programme, an investigatory process, penalties for violations, and international cooperation." Members also discussed for the first time including small arms and light weapons in the regime, as well as the possibility of also developing common export guidelines for man-portable surface-to-air missiles, a proposal heavily favored by the U.S. The U.S. also proposed expanding the list of seven reporting categories for weapons to seventeen, and that member countries report all arms transfers to areas of armed conflict. In addition, the U.S. publicly encouraged Wassenaar states to enhance the transparency of arms exports through the publication of annual reports.

In November 1999, members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact agreed to update the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty to impose national, rather than bloc-to-bloc, ceilings on holdings of certain heavy weapons. The adapted treaty will take effect once thirty states ratify it.

Also in November 1999, on the occasion of an OSCE summit in Turkey, the participants in the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe issued a declaration on small arms and light weapons. They agreed to combat illicit arms trafficking and to destroy surplus and seized weapons.

Within the Organization of American States (OAS), at this writing the United States Senate had not acted to provide its advice and consent for ratification of either the 1997 Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Material or the 1999 Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions. Only one state, Canada, had ratified the Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions convention, which seeks to increase transparency and build confidence and security among American states. At this writing, there were ten states party to the OAS illicit arms trafficking convention.

At the December 1999 summit in Togo of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) the sixteen member states adopted an action plan to complement the three-year moratorium on the import, export, and manufacture of light weapons announced in 1998. The action plan included a code of conduct outlining the procedures and requirements for obtaining a waiver, and the creation of a prototype arms register and weapons database for the West Africa region promoted as a forerunner for an Africa-wide register. Although the small arms moratorium had great symbolic value, ECOWAS lacked the financial resources to provide for substantial monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to prevent highly abusive forces, including rebels in Sierra Leone, from receiving further weapons. The moratorium therefore achieved little success in curbing the flow of small arms in West Africa, as arms continued to flow to member states such as Liberia and Sierra Leone and make their way into the hands of human rights abusers. ECOWAS received some international assistance, including a grant from the United States to assess individual states' ability to control the flow of small arms, as well as the support of NGOs who sought to strengthen the moratorium.

In Southern Africa, the states of the Southern African Development Community negotiated a draft of a Firearms Protocol to combat the illicit manufacturing, trafficking, possession, or use of firearms. At this writing, the text had not been finalized and adopted.

Arms Embargoes

There were important developments with regard to mandatory U.N. arms embargoes in 2000, including a groundbreaking U.N. report released in March detailing how a highly abusive rebel group in Angola breached a 1993 arms embargo. The report was prepared by an expert panel overseen by the chair of the Security Council Angola sanctions committee, then Canadian ambassador to the U.N. Robert Fowler. The "Fowler report" was remarkable for naming the individuals (including heads of state), companies, and countries implicated in sanctions-busting and also for calling for their punishment. That call went unanswered, with the Security Council deferring action until a further investigation could be completed, anticipated for October 2000. The government of Bulgaria and the presidents of Burkina Faso and Togo, for example, rejected charges that they helped Angola's UNITA rebels breach international sanctions.

As was the case with a previous ad hoc U.N. arms inquiry on Rwanda, Human Rights Watch's efforts to document violations of embargoes imposed on human rights abusers helped pave the way for the U.N.'s investigation. In addition, Human Rights Watch offered a sympathetic critique of the Angola panel's work, highlighting lessons that would later inform the creation of a dual arms/diamonds inquiry for Sierra Leone. The Security Council mandated the Sierra Leone inquiry in July 2000, two months after Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels overran U.N. peacekeepers and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, proposed this and other measures to prevent the RUF from rearming to continue an unspeakably brutal war. At the same time, to cut off the RUF's source of financing, the Security Council imposed an embargo on all diamond sales that were not authorized by the government of Sierra Leone. In line with the Fowler report's "naming and shaming" approach, several governments, particularly the U.S. and U.K., publicly chastised Liberia and its president for supporting Sierra Leone's rebels, including by trading arms for diamonds, and named Burkina Faso as a transit point for illegal arms shipments. These statements were repeated at a U.N. Sierra Leone sanctions committee hearing on the diamond and arms trades in Sierra Leone, at which Security Council members and others, including a Human Rights Watch representative, made statements. The U.N.'s Sierra Leone investigative panel was due to prepare a report by the end of October. At this writing, the Security Council had not taken needed steps to ensure effective enforcement of the neglected arms embargoes on Sierra Leone and Liberia, for example the deployment of well-equipped U.N. forces to monitor borders (especially with Liberia), roads, and airstrips bordering on rebel-controlled areas and halt any weapons shipments they detect.

As of October 2000, embargoes remained in place against grossly abusive non-state groups in Angola, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, as well as against Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The 1992 embargo on Libya was suspended in 1999. A new mandatory arms embargo was imposed on Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 2000 in response to derailed peace talks and continued fighting, but was limited to a twelve-month time frame. This move reflected an ongoing debate about reform of U.N. sanctions regimes. The Security Council convened a special debate on sanctions in April 2000, and a Security Council working group subsequently began studying sanctions in orderto propose measures to enhance their effectiveness. This debate was informed by several initiatives both within and outside the U.N. to analyze weaknesses in U.N. sanctions regimes and develop recommendations for action. A proposal, advanced by Human Right Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, to create a permanent U.N. embargoes unit appeared to gain support in 2000.

Tackling Small Arms Proliferation

Small arms and light weapons continued to be the weapons of choice in wars around the world. Plentiful, highly portable, easy to maintain, and relatively inexpensive, these weapons were often turned against civilians. A 1999 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that even by very conservative estimates drawing on the ICRC's database of treated weapons injuries, more than a third of all victims of armed attacks were civilians. The ICRC argued for legal restraints on the trade in small arms based on respect for international humanitarian law.

With the U.N. conference on small arms planned for 2001, NGOs geared up for the event. The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which counted well over two hundred participants, including Human Rights Watch, pressed for the conference to address the legal trade in arms, as well as illicit trafficking; to result in concrete actions rather than mere rhetoric; and to be inclusive of the views of civil society. The formation of an Eminent Persons Group on Small Arms brought several high-profile figures to the global campaign.

Although IANSA participants recognized that supply-side measures alone could not fully address the impact of arms flows on civilians, reining in weapons exporters and arms brokers continued to be an important element of the small arms campaign. For example, tons of surplus arms sold cheaply by former Warsaw Pact countries that were new or aspiring members of NATO contributed to the widespread availability of small arms and their low price. These countries, as well as several former Soviet republics and China, had much greater need for hard currency than for large stockpiles of aging Soviet-standard military equipment. As with small arms originating in countries with lax controls, surplus heavy weapons were often sold without consideration for the dangers posed by arms sales to areas of conflict marked by gross human rights abuses.

Bulgaria in particular was scrutinized for its record of arms transfers, with several governments and organizations joining Human Rights Watch in criticizing the country's poor controls. U.S. President Bill Clinton raised arms trade concerns with the Bulgarian prime minister during a November 1999 visit, and NATO officials also stated that the topic had been discussed at high levels with Bulgarian officials. These efforts were reinforced by the U.N.'s Angola panel, which named Bulgaria as the UNITA rebels' main arms supplier in March 2000 and called for NATO to weigh Bulgaria's membership bid with this behavior in mind. The head of the panel also explicitly linked Bulgaria's pending accession to the European Union with efforts to clean up its arms export practices.

These efforts began to bear modest fruit as the Bulgarian government, feeling the pressure, promised to tighten controls. It undertook to restrict the use of falsified arms trade documents by working with other southeast European countries to develop standardized and hard-to-forge alternatives, moved to create an independent oversight agency for the arms trade, asked for help destroying surplus small arms stocks, and promised to push for adoption of reforms to the national arms trade law. Still, much remained to be done. Proposed legal changes were insufficient to close important loopholes, and neglected to incorporate into law human rights criteria for arms exports. Bulgaria also repeatedly reneged on its pledge to adhere to the non-binding E.U. Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, while implementation and enforcement of the country's existing arms trade law remained a serious problem.

South Africa, another arms exporter, has disappointed human rights and arms control advocates with some of its sales. While its arms control policy was in principle quite strong, Pretoria had furnished weapons to clients such as Algeria which did not meet South Africa's code of conduct criteria on human rights and conflict. Further, a long-awaited bill intended to formalize the remarkable arms control reforms made since 1994 (the end of the apartheid era) fell seriously short of expectations. Among other shortcomings, the bill presented to parliament in July 2000 left out the human rights criteria at the core of South Africa's ethical arms export policy. After strong protest from NGOs, the bill was withdrawn for redrafting.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

Current Events

The Latest News - Archive



Copyright © 2001
Human RIghts Watch