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(Bratislava) - The government of Slovakia must do more to bring its arms trade under control, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today.

Slovakia adopted some legal reforms in 2001 and 2002, but serious problems remain that allow arms to be exported or illegally trafficked to human rights-abusing countries in Africa and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch said that the country has served as both an exporter and transit hub for arms deals from other countries. Many of the weapons it supplies are surplus weapons the country is shedding as it finalized preparations to enter NATO.

"When Slovakia was trying to get into NATO and the European Union, it took some steps to clean up its arms trade," said Lisa Misol, researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Now that Slovakia is set to join these institutions, it needs to finish the job." Slovakia is due to enter NATO and the European Union in May 2004.

In 2002 and 2003, Human Rights Watch investigated Slovakia's arms trade and reform efforts. Human Rights Watch's new 92-page report, Ripe for Reform: Stemming Slovakia's Arms Trade with Human Rights Abusers, gives detailed case studies of three arms deals that illustrate the main arms-trade challenges for Slovakia and numerous other Central and Eastern European countries: the need to clamp down on illicit trafficking, closely regulate the activities of arms brokers and transport agents, and abide by strong arms-export criteria when authorizing arms deals.

Human Rights Watch's research spotlights three cases:

  • International arms smugglers took advantage of lax controls in Slovakia in 2000 and 2001 to arrange a scheme to repair combat helicopters in Slovakia for illegal export to Liberia, a country under a United Nations embargo.
  • Several hundred Iranian rocket-propelled grenades were seized at Bratislava airport in September 2001 after officials discovered they had been misled about the nature of the shipment. Slovakia has long been a transit hub for illegal arms shipments, thanks in part to a major legal loophole that remains in place. Weapons shipments transiting through Slovakia from other destinations are exempt from government licensing requirements.
  • The export of surplus fighter jets to Angola in 2001 contravened provisions of the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which Slovakia has pledged to follow. The deal was also mired in allegations of corruption and helped reveal conflicts of interest among Slovak arms-licensing officials. This was one of many authorized arms exports to Angola, when war still raged in the African country.

"We recognize that there's been progress in improving Slovakia's legal controls," said Misol. "But there's a long way to go before Slovakia can put to rest its poor arms-trade reputation."

Human Rights Watch made a number of recommendations to the Slovak government, including: adopt binding human rights criteria for arms exports; eliminate licensing loopholes; closely regulate arms brokers; dispose responsibly of surplus weapons; tackle corruption; and enhance transparency.

Human Rights Watch also called on Slovakia's NATO and EU partners to use remaining leverage to promote such reforms.

"The proliferation of small arms and other weapons is fueling conflicts and putting civilians at grave risk around the globe," Misol said. "Slovakia should aim to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

Misol said that current NATO and EU member countries themselves could do more to be a positive example of arms trade behavior by supporting a proposed international arms trade treaty that would prevent arms transfers to human rights abusers and violators of the laws of war.

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