New Pending legislation in Slovakia does not go far enough to prevent illicit arms trafficking, Human Rights Watch said today. The Slovak parliament is expected to vote this week on amendments to tighten legal controls on the foreign trade in weapons.
The Slovak government submitted the amendments to parliament in April. If parliament does not act on them before adjourning for summer recess in early July, adoption of reforms will be postponed until after national elections scheduled for September.
"The proposed law has its strengths," said Stephen Goose, acting executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, "but it would still leave the door wide open for illicit arms traffickers."
If adopted without changes, the new law would keep in place a provision allowing weapons shipments to transit through the country for up to seven days without a government license.
"The transit loophole makes it all too easy for weapons to move through Slovakia undetected," said Goose. "It comes as no surprise that Bratislava airport has long been a hub for weapons deliveries to human rights abusers and areas of violent conflict."
Despite the fact that all flights landing and departing from Slovakia are subject to civil aviation and customs regulations, practice has shown that false or misleading documents can be used to conceal the true nature and destination of arms flights.
The legislation includes new controls on arms brokers, who would be required to seek government authorization to take part in the trade and also to request licenses for each individual deal they help arrange.
Under the provision, only Slovakia-based companies and individuals would be eligible to act as authorized brokers. The brokering controls are intended to apply equally to the activities of Slovak brokers both inside and outside Slovakia. Transport agents such as air cargo companies, however, would not be covered.
"Unscrupulous arms brokers take advantage of any opportunity to bypass arms trade rules," said Goose. "This is a good first step to help rein them in."
An October 2001 United Nations report found that an international network of arms traffickers supplied weapons shipped from Slovakia to Liberia, in violation of a U.N. embargo. The case led to the arrest in late 2001 of a Slovak arms broker and passage of emergency legislation to close a legal loophole that exempted arms repair contracts from any licensing requirement.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the legislation now awaiting passage does not enhance transparency in the arms trade or parliamentary oversight. It also does not strengthen penalties for arms trade violations. The organization emphasized that further efforts were needed in Slovakia to improve enforcement of these laws.
"The Slovak government has made important strides in tightening controls over the past year," Goose said, "but the process of bringing Slovakia's arms trade under full control is only beginning."
Human Rights Watch recently investigated Slovakia's arms trade and is preparing a report based on its findings.
Human Rights Watch summarized the key provisions of the legislation proposed by the Slovak government. Among its strengths, the legislation
introduces controls on arms brokers;
gives greater emphasis to compliance with international commitments;
clarifies existing licensing procedures;
improves regulatory controls designed to prevent diversion of weapons shipments to unauthorized destinations;
grants customs authorities greater power to inspect, detain, or send back suspicious shipments.
The main weaknesses identified by Human Rights Watch were that the proposed legislation
leaves in place an exemption for arms transit of seven days or less;
does not regulate the activities of transport companies and shipping agents;
fails to increase penalties;
does not enhance transparency over the arms trade, nor parliamentary oversight.