(New York, July 16, 2002) -- Anticipated legal reforms in Bulgaria mark an important step toward improved control over the arms trade, Human Rights Watch and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee said today. The Bulgarian parliament is expected to vote shortly to adopt changes to the country's law on the foreign trade in weapons.
Passage of the reforms is a key priority for the Bulgarian government, which has acknowledged that failure to adopt the legislation could derail Bulgaria's bid to join NATO and the European Union. NATO is expected to announce invitations to new members at a summit to be held in November.
"The Bulgarian government has recognized that it has to bring its arms trade under control if it wants to be seen as a reliable international partner," said Lisa Misol, researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of a 1999 report on Bulgaria's arms trade. "It has to take responsibility for checking arms deals thoroughly, both before and after the sale, to make sure its weapons don't wind up in the wrong hands."
Human Rights Watch analyzed the key provisions of the pending legislation, as well as the status of Bulgaria's ongoing reform efforts, in a detailed briefing paper circulated to Bulgarian members of parliament earlier this month, in partnership with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
The briefing paper highlighted that the legislation, if adopted without changes, would:
* Give greater emphasis to international standards on arms transfers, providing a tool to promote compliance with agreed minimum export criteria Bulgaria has pledged to follow, such as those contained in the 1998 European Union Code of Conduct. The change would not, however, make those commitments binding on the government.
* Impose new controls on the activities of arms brokers. These would cover both Bulgarian and foreign brokers, as well as transport agents and those involved in financing arms deals, and in the case of Bulgarian brokers would also apply to arms deals arranged outside the country.
* Clarify and strengthen regulatory controls to prevent diversion of weapons shipments to unauthorized destinations.
The briefing paper also said the legislation was incomplete in some respects. It:
* Does not provide for sufficient transparency or parliamentary oversight. The government is to prepare an annual report on implementation of the new law and will share it with parliament, but need not make the report public.
* Does not establish rules tailored to address the trade in surplus weapons. As Bulgaria undertakes military reforms tied to its NATO aspirations, it is dumping aging Soviet-standard weapons it no longer needs. While some surplus small arms and ammunition have begun to be destroyed, the bulk of Bulgaria's surplus weapons continue to be available for export.
* Fails to eliminate conflicts of interest that permit government officials with responsibility over arms licensing decisions to serve on the boards of arms companies. Bulgaria's foreign minister recently stepped down from the board of a major arms manufacturing company in the wake of allegations of illegal arms trafficking by the company.
"Passage of legal reforms is now imminent, but that alone won't guarantee that Bulgaria's arms trade will finally be cleaned up," said Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. "The government also needs to show it's serious about fully implementing the controls and prosecuting violators."
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Watch cited a recent case in which Bulgaria sold a 6-gun battery of 130mm artillery pieces to the government of Chad in 2001. The deal was reported in Bulgaria's submission to the United Nations arms register, which tracks only transfers of heavy weapons. The government of Chad has a poor human rights record and armed conflict in the north waged on for years before a shaky peace settlement was signed in January.
In addition, Chad recently was implicated in suspected illicit arms deliveries to Liberia, which is under a U.N. embargo. A U.N. report issued in April indicates that suspected arms flights to Liberia in February this year were chartered by the government of Chad and departed from that country's capital.
There are also concerns that anticipated oil revenues to the government of Chad could be used to procure more weapons, which would violate the terms of a World Bank agreement financing a new oil pipeline.
Both human rights groups called on Bulgarian authorities to investigate to make sure Bulgarian-supplied weapons were not diverted or misused by the government of Chad. They also said Bulgaria should weigh very carefully any future arms contracts with the country.
"The Bulgarian government has promised repeatedly not to sell weapons to human rights abusers, areas of violent conflict, and recipients who may divert the weapons," said Kanev. "These legal reforms are welcome, but given the long track record of objectionable arms deals, we need to keep a close eye on the country's arms trade."
Human Rights Watch's 1999 report on Bulgaria's arms trading practices is available online at https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/bulgaria/. Copies in Bulgarian can be requested from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.