The upcoming state visit to Bulgaria by U.S. President Bill Clinton, scheduled for November 21-23, presents an important opportunity to press Bulgarian officials on the urgent need for arms trade reforms. Human Rights Watch pointed out that it would be negligent for Clinton to visit Bulgaria without addressing the country's long history of supplying weapons to human rights abusers.

In a letter to Clinton made public today, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. to take the lead in pressing Bulgaria to reform. "We are hopeful that Bulgaria intends to change its practices," wrote Joost Hiltermann, Executive Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, "but additional prodding may be needed to help Bulgaria overcome the legacy of decades of irresponsible weapons dealing." Ongoing problems with Bulgaria's arms trade include troubling arms deals approved by the government and others that take place via illicit channels, he said.

According to Hiltermann, Bulgaria's current government has pledged to uphold rigorous international standards for arms trading, but since taking office in 1997 it has repeatedly flouted its commitments not to sell weapons to human rights abusers or areas of violent conflict. For example, Ugandan forces received tanks from Bulgaria earlier this year, despite serious concerns about where the tanks might be deployed. In addition, both sides in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict bought Bulgarian weapons to sustain a conflict that has displaced large numbers of civilians.

In its bid to join NATO, Bulgaria is downsizing its armed forces and shedding surplus Soviet-era weapons in favor of NATO-standard equipment. Bulgaria's military modernization drive is expected to contribute to a cascade of cheap surplus weapons from eastern Europe into the hands of abusive military forces in Africa and elsewhere.

Bulgarian authorities are currently drafting new arms trade legislation and are expected to present a draft law to parliament during Clinton's visit. Human Rights Watch asks that Clinton encourage Bulgarian authorities to make important changes to the existing law governing authorized arms transfers. The international monitoring organization added that legal changes alone would be insufficient to reign in the country's arms dealing and called on Clinton to highlight the need for strict implementation and enforcement of Bulgaria's arms trade controls.