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Your Excellency:

The forthcoming meeting of the European Conference in Brussels, Belgium, will bring together European Union member states, aspirant E.U. members, and other invited delegations to discuss terrorism. We hope that as you work together to combat terrorism, you will also remain vigilant to the grave security risks posed by irresponsible arms trading practices in central and eastern Europe. We further hope that you incorporate measures to improve arms trade controls across Europe into the E.U.'s anti-terrorism strategy and assess arms trade practices, together with other political and security issues, when evaluating the progress of candidate countries toward E.U. accession.

It would be a mistake not to do so. Uncontrolled arms flows contribute to lawlessness and insecurity in both supplier and recipient countries, as well as enabling violence against civilians. Weak arms trade controls permit weapons to flow freely to areas of tension and violent conflict where they fuel violence and generate further instability. Governmental forces and non-state actors who show no respect for civilian life readily obtain weapons with which to further terrorize innocent populations. Moreover, the activities of illicit arms traffickers, allowed to act with impunity, undermine customs and border controls, fuel corruption and cross-border smuggling, and help finance criminal networks. An international weapons trade that permits anyone, anywhere to obtain arms-irrespective of the risks those weapons will be misused-is one that potentially poses a threat to everyone, everywhere.

In this light, it is deeply troubling that arms trade controls in a number E.U. aspirant countries are inadequate, poorly implemented, and rarely enforced. There has been some momentum toward reform, in part the result of international pressure; however, the problem remains a serious one.

A few recent cases illustrate arms transfers from central and eastern Europe and identify systematic weaknesses in legal controls. Although focused on arms flows to Africa, they point to a problem that has dangerous implications for other regions and indeed for global security.

Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government has made some progress in curbing the illegal arms trade and disposing responsibly of surplus small arms, but more remains to be done to consolidate gains and halt irresponsible arms supplies. Promised legislation institutionalizing arms reforms continues to languish, and there is no indication the legal changes will incorporate human rights criteria. Allegations of the involvement of organized criminal networks in arms trafficking persist.

Moreover, Bulgaria continues to sell off huge stocks of surplus, Soviet-era weapons. Past practice, including confirmed sales of tanks in recent years to Angola, Ethiopia, and Uganda, suggested Bulgaria will not live up to its promises to restrain its arms trade when seeking clients for surplus weapons.

Czech Republic. In 2000 the Czech Republic delivered surplus tanks sold to Yemen despite concerns that they might be illegally diverted, as had happened a year earlier with tanks from Poland. The Polish tanks disappeared en route and were reportedly delivered to Sudan, which is under an E.U. embargo. In 2001 the Czech government initiated negotiations for further arms sales to Yemen.

There have also been allegations of illegal arms transfers, including an April 2001 case in which a Ukrainian plane carrying Czech weapons was halted at Bulgaria's Burgas airport on suspicion that the weapons were to be delivered to Eritrea, under a U.N. embargo at the time. Following an investigation, the cargo was released for delivery to Georgia, the authorized destination, although no explanation was given for reported discrepancies between the actual weapons cargo and that authorized for sale.

Romania. A U.N. investigative panel determined in 2000 that Romania was a source of weapons illegally supplied to embargoed rebel forces in Angola from 1996 to 1999. It noted that reforms were needed to improve controls, as the weapons were authorized for sale on the basis of falsified documents listing other countries as the intended recipients.
After initiating prosecution in 2000 against an arms dealer accused of illegal arms sales, Romanian authorities unexpectedly released him in 2001 and he left the country. The dealer, who maintained he was innocent, has implicated former Romanian officials in the trade.

Slovakia. Arms brokers and shipping agents have taken advantage of loose controls in Slovakia, including a legal loophole that permits weapons to transit through the country for up to seven days without a government license. Last month, a weapons shipment from Iran was impounded at Bratislava airport because the cargo was misdeclared on customs documents. It was apparently destined for Angola, with which Slovakia also engages in a direct arms trade despite that government's dismal human rights record.

In the case of direct exports, the Bratislava government maintains that it has halted all suspicious arms transactions and regularly checks the authenticity of the documents provided, but admits that it does not have the capacity to check whether weapons are in fact delivered to the authorized destinations.

We urge you to take these problems into consideration as you discuss jointly with the countries of central and eastern Europe what measure to take in the fight against terrorism. Many of the weaknesses that help make irresponsible arms deals possible-such as poor customs and border controls-also mar efforts to combat terrorism. As noted, without strict controls on the flow of weapons, arms can be made available to individuals and groups who are likely to misuse them. In this respect, efforts taken in the fight against terrorism and those designed to enhance controls over arms flows could be mutually reinforcing. For example, initiatives to improve border controls and increase intelligence exchanges could help prevent irresponsible weapons transfers; improved policing of weapons transfers and arms brokers could stem arms flows that risk falling into the wrong hands.

We would like to note that the leverage afforded by the process of E.U. enlargement, as well as the actions of the E.U. and individual member states to enhance transparency and restraint in the international arms trade and encourage needed reforms in central and eastern Europe, has been an important factor explaining the recognition by several of these countries that they must tighten arms trade controls. Relenting now in favor of a single-minded focus on terrorism that ignores the threats to security posed by uncontrolled arms transfers would send an unfortunate signal that efforts to rein in the arms trade may be abandoned, a casualty of the fight against terrorism.

Given the importance of strict arms trade controls, both in their own right and in relation to anti-terrorism efforts, we would like to suggest ways in which the E.U. can promote needed changes. In particular, we urge E.U. member states to take up action in three priority areas:

  • Promote the harmonization of arms trade controls within the E.U. to the highest possible standard and actively encourage candidate countries to undertake needed reforms to meet those standards. Provide technical, legal, and other assistance, as appropriate, to support national arms trade reform efforts by aspirant E.U. members. Continue to support the improvement of customs, border and other controls that have a bearing on arms trafficking in central and southeastern Europe.
  • Provide incentives, including financial assistance, for the responsible disposal (e.g., through destruction) of surplus military equipment held by candidate countries. Target heavy conventional weapons systems, as well as small arms and light weapons.
  • Explicitly identify responsible arms trading practices, including strict arms trade controls and the disposal of surplus weapons in conformity with human rights criteria, as a requirement for E.U. membership. Unambiguously declare that the 1998 E.U. Code of Conduct on Arms Exports forms part of the acquis communautaire, to which aspirant countries must conform.

Thank you very much for your consideration.


Joost R. Hiltermann
Executive Director
Arms Division

Lotte Leicht
Brussels Office

Cc: Permanent Representations to the E.U.

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