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April 1999
Vol. 11, No. 4 (D)


Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers
Order online

    To the Government of Bulgaria
    To the United Nations Security Council
    To the United Nations Secretary-General
    To the members of NATO
    To the members of the European Union
    To the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
    To the members of the Wassenaar Arrangement
    To Interpol

The 1970s and 1980s: Cold War Arms Sales
The Early 1990s: Arms Industry Crisis and Illicit Exports
1991-1992: Failed Arms Trade Reform Effort
Mid-to-Late 1990s: Undiscriminating Arms Exports
Late 1990s: Continued Arms Deals, Uncertain Future

Arms Production and Incentives for Export
The Trade in Surplus Weapons
Arms Trading Companies
Transport Companies and Transshipment
Arms Brokers
Illegally Obtained Weapons

National Arms Trade Controls
International Arms Trade Controls
Policy Gaps
    Lack of Attention to Human Rights and Humanitarian Considerations
    Poor Adherence to International Commitments
    Narrow Focus Ignores Unauthorized Retransfers
Problems of Enforcement
    Accountability for Violations
    Confusion over Responsibilities

Steps Toward Reform
The Prospect of Joining NATO

Sierra Leone



Bulgaria has earned a reputation as an anything-goes weapons bazaar where Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars, antitank mines, ammunition, explosives and other items are available for a price—no matter who the buyers are or how they might use the deadly wares. In the 1990s Bulgaria has been a weapons source for armed forces in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Angola, and Rwanda, among other countries. It has been implicated repeatedly in weapons sales to regions of armed conflict, countries under international or regional arms embargoes, and armed forces known to commit gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Bulgaria is an important source of small arms and light weapons, but it has also sold a considerable amount of surplus heavy weapons from its arsenal.

A new government elected in April 1997, eager to polish Bulgaria’s poor image as an arms bazaar in the hopes of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (E.U.), pledged to adhere to international arms trade control standards and improve regulatory controls. Bulgaria, however, has a legacy of arms dealing that is not easily shaken. During the cold war, Bulgaria supplied weapons to communist-backed governments and rebel groups on several continents. The end of the cold war hit Bulgaria’s economy—including its state-owned arms industry—hard, and Bulgaria aggressively promoted arms exports in response. Income from arms deals—when it was not lining the pockets of corrupt government officials or arms industry representatives—helped keep the economy afloat by bringing in hard currency. It also provided jobs to tens of thousands of workers and kept alive an industry that was viewed as vital to national security. Arms were sold not only to legitimate buyers, but to practically any buyers, including countries under international embargoes. In the early 1990s, the state arms trading company, Kintex, arranged to sell weapons to Iraq, and reportedly to Libya and the former Yugoslavia, in violation of U.N.-imposed arms embargoes. Building on its cold war arms dealing contacts, Kintex circumvented the arms trade controls instituted by a short-lived reform-minded government that served from 1991 to 1992.

Later governments, which after 1994 were formed by the successor to the communist party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, also failed to restrict the arms trade. The mid-to-late 1990s saw a flurry of arms sales, predominantly to areas of armed conflict in Africa, where the weapons were used by abusive forces. Some arms deals were not in violation of international arms embargoes or domestic Bulgarian law, and were therefore legal, but nevertheless represented irresponsible sales to governments known to violate international humanitarian law, while other deals violated international arms embargoes. For example, both sides in Angola’s long-running civil war have obtained weapons from Bulgaria, at least since 1993, when the rebels were made subject to a U.N. embargo. Sales to abusive government forces were not covered by the embargo. The forces responsible for Rwanda’s genocide—who have been under an international embargo since 1994—have since their flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire) maintained a longstanding arms trade relationship with Bulgaria, including a deal Kintex arranged in 1995.

Bulgaria’s current government, formed by a coalition led by the right-of-center Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) party, was elected after an economic crisis forced the prior government to step down in February 1997. The newly-elected government announced its intention to reform the economy, clean up rampant corruption, and integrate Bulgaria into western European institutions such as NATO and the E.U. As part of this broad agenda—and under considerable pressure from Western governments—the UDF government voiced its firm intention to implement a responsible arms trade policy. It clearly recognized that Bulgaria’s longstanding reputation as an indiscriminate supplier of weapons could stand between it and membership in NATO and the E.U.

The government has responded to international scrutiny by stating that it would carefully review proposed arms transactions, following procedures outlined in existing legislation, and that it would strictly observe international arms embargoes. It announced in late 1998 that it would seek to tighten arms trade controls through draft legislation proposed by its cabinet, the Council of Ministers. Bulgaria also has made some important international commitments related to the arms trade, including a promise to adhere to the principles outlined in the nonbinding 1998 E.U. Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

Despite the government’s pledges to clean up the arms trade, the country has continued to be linked to deeply troubling weapons deals involving abusive armed forces. A February 1998 arms shipment from Bulgaria to Sierra Leone, arranged by the British Sandline company, apparently breached a U.N. embargo. In addition, both sides in Burundi’s bloody civil war have obtained arms via Bulgaria, as reportedly have rebels in Congo. Bulgaria has also continued to be an arms source to Angolan rebels, and a U.N. commission investigating arms flows to Rwanda’s génocidaires since 1995 noted in its final report in November 1998 that it had received credible reports of illegal arms flights to those forces by Bulgarian airlines. Arms sales to Ethiopia and Uganda and arms flights to Eritrea have raised concerns that such weapons may fuel regional armed conflicts. (Ethiopia and Eritrea fought briefly in June 1998, and again in early 1999. Uganda sent its forces into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, and has supported rebel forces in Sudan and Angola.)

If Bulgaria’s UDF government has a strong interest in changing the country’s image as an irresponsible arms supplier, how does one explain the continuing flow of weapons from Bulgaria into the hands of abusive forces? In part, the explanation lies in arms trade policies. By law the country’s arms trade is subject to official controls, which include licensing requirements for arms trading firms and for individual arms transactions. Bulgarian law sets out guidelines for the review of arms license applications, but these guidelines do not incorporate Bulgaria’s international commitments. For example, some of Bulgaria’s arms deals directly contravene provisions of the E.U. Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, to which it subscribed as a non-E.U. member. The code limits weapons sales to regions of armed conflict and to governments or armed groups engaged in gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, but those restrictions are not binding. Bulgarian authorities have therefore approved arms deals that, while not forbidden by international embargoes or domestic law, are nevertheless irresponsible and contrary to Bulgaria’s international commitment to exercise restraint in its arms exports. Absent domestic legislation implementing into law the international arms trade control commitments it has declared, Bulgaria is all but free to supply arms that embolden and enable abusive actors, and thereby encourage and facilitate grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Bulgaria’s continued involvement in questionable arms deals, some of which have violated binding U.N. embargoes, also is rooted in poor regulatory enforcement. Arms brokers—some operating outside Bulgaria—have employed sophisticated methods to circumvent legal restrictions on the arms trade, such as the falsification of documents and transshipment of weapons through third countries. As in other arms exporting countries, such techniques repeatedly have been employed in Bulgaria to provide a cover of legitimacy for illegal weapons transfers to abusive armed forces, including by Bulgarian transport firms. Bulgarian authorities have failed to ensure that the arms approved for export or transport out of Bulgaria are not diverted to unauthorized end users. While it can be challenging for a relatively small country such as Bulgaria with few resources dedicated to arms trade enforcement to monitor arms deals, there also appears to be little will to track where weapons go after they leave Bulgaria. Top officials have repeatedly denied that the government is responsible for what happens to weapons once they leave Bulgarian soil. Officials stated that Bulgaria has not prosecuted anyone for violating arms trade laws, and that they had never denied an arms trading license to a petitioning company, but they pointed to a successful effort to stop a suspicious arms transaction in 1998.

Arms dealing in Bulgaria is reinforced by at least five key factors that drive the impulse to sell. First, the country’s struggling state-owned arms manufacturing and trading firms have an overriding commercial interest in promoting sales, as do the few private firms that have been authorized to trade in arms. Similarly, the country’s struggling military stands to earn much-needed funds through the sale of surplus weapons from its stocks. Third, many of the individuals involved in the arms trade have a personal financial stake in arms exports, as they stand to benefit from commissions, bribes, and kickbacks in exchange for facilitating arms deals. Fourth, some arms industry insiders and their supporters are additionally motivated to aggressively promote exports as a means to sustain the domestic arms industry and thereby protect Bulgaria from perceived national security threats. Finally, there is considerable domestic political pressure in Bulgaria—a country recovering from an acute economic crisis—to increase revenue and protect jobs in the arms industry, including through increased arms exports. The government is sensitive to criticism that itsmoves to enhance arms trade controls, as well as its announced plan to privatize the country’s state-owned arms industry, will result in devastating losses of hard currency and jobs and may lead to civil discontent.

Meaningful arms trade reform will require overcoming difficult challenges: Bulgaria’s arms trade practices are entrenched, incentives to export are strong, regulatory control is weak, enforcement is poor, and corruption is widespread. In this context, two new developments may only make matters worse. First, the planned privatization of the arms industry—if not closely monitored—could further weaken regulatory control and reduce government accountability. In addition, Bulgaria’s aspirations to join NATO may spur new weapons purchases and increase the temptation to export surplus older weapons and those that are not NATO-compatible in exchange for badly needed hard currency, providing a potential source of weapons to abusive armed forces.

This report provides an analysis of the Bulgarian arms industry and presents examples that highlight the pattern of Bulgaria’s exports to conflict-ridden regions and abusive armed forces, including rebel groups. It draws from the findings of Human Rights Watch field investigations in a number of countries, as well as publications by other nongovernmental organizations and accounts published by the international media. The report has benefited from interviews with Bulgarian government officials in Washington, D.C. and Sofia, as well as with diplomats, journalists, academic experts, and others familiar with Bulgaria’s arms trade.

Human Rights Watch does not take a position against the production of arms, nor does it object in principle to the export, transport, or transshipment of weapons intended to meet legitimate defense needs. Rather, it holds that governments must ensure that they engage in the international arms trade responsibly and that they not provide military support to armed forces that commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, irrespective of whether these forces represent governments or rebel groups. It is morally unconscionable for states to continue to arm forces that have a record of abuse. Moreover, a continuous flow of weapons and other forms of military support encourages further abuses, as it provides the recipients not only with military materiel with which to wage war but also, importantly, a sense that the international community condones their activities, and thus a sense of impunity.

Human Rights Watch urges all countries engaged in the international arms trade—not only Bulgaria—to take firm action to ensure that their weapons are not made available to abusive armed forces. Human Rights Watch also believes that members of the international community must seek to enhance international arms trade controls. In this regard, multilateral institutions such as NATO and the European Union have a responsibility to define adequate arms trade norms for members. They also should view the membership bids of prospective new members, including Bulgaria, as an important opportunity to help those countries define and meet minimum arms trade control standards. If they fail to do so, these institutions risk being associated with future arms flows to forces that have a record of committing gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Bulgaria has begun to take important steps to improve its arms trade controls, but the improvements it has announced fall well short of what is needed. If Bulgaria is to take responsibility for the enforcement of its arms trade policy and overcome the stigma of being known as an weapons supplier to some of the world’s most abusive armed forces, it must make significant change on four fronts.

First, it must improve its arms control policy to take into account the human rights and humanitarian impact of Bulgaria’s arms trade. Second, it must address the weaknesses in its regulatory system, including corruption and a low capacity for monitoring, that permit shady arms deals to receive authorization and to bypass controls. Third, it must undertake to hold responsible those who engage in arms trade activities that violate Bulgarian law or Bulgaria’s international commitments. Finally, it must improve transparency with regard to the arms trade in order to enhance oversight. The following recommendations are designed to help Bulgaria fully address the problems with its arms export control regime.

To the Government of Bulgaria

Introduce human rights considerations into arms trade law
· Enact legislation to bar arms transactions destined to armed forces that have a record of committing gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as those destined to countries that are suspected of reexporting weapons in violation of end-user agreements.

· Explicitly incorporate international arms control commitments into national law, including the otherwise nonbinding provisions of the E.U. Code of Conduct.

Improve regulatory controls
· Create an independent government agency with oversight responsibility for the arms trade, and permit it access to all relevant information.

· Bar government officials with responsibility over arms trade controls from serving on the boards of directors or supervisory boards of arms trading companies.

· Introduce standards by which arms trade officials are prohibited from assuming positions in the arms industry for a period of at least three years after ending their regulatory responsibilities.

· Supplement case-by-case reviews of arms trade permit applications by: preparing and updating at regular intervals a list of companies, individual brokers, and/or countries with which Bulgarian firms are barred from engaging in arms transactions; disseminating it to all licensed arms trading companies and all government bodies with oversight responsibility for arms transactions; and publishing the list in the state gazette.

· Clarify lines of authority and improve coordination among government bodies responsible for implementing arms trade licensing and enforcement procedures.

· Build the capacity of arms licensing bodies to conduct thorough investigations before issuing arms trading licenses or individual arms transaction permits, including by providing technical resources and training.

· Increase training and technical support for customs officials, border police, and other authorities responsible for controlling arms transactions, including through exchanges, information-sharing, and training with foreign governments.

· Address the related problems of corruption, organized crime, and judicial reform, particularly as these relate to the arms trade.

· Improve safeguards on weapons stocks by requiring arms manufacturing companies and the Bulgarian armed forces to maintain inventory lists and submit these to authorities at regular intervals.

· Require Bulgarian arms transport firms to submit to arms trade control authorities flight plans and other documentation related to all arms deliveries, not merely those that pass through Bulgarian territory.

Improve legal accountability
· Declare arms transactions that violate international arms embargoes illegal, as proposed in the draft amendments passed by the Council of Ministers.

· Define arms brokering activities in law, as proposed by the Council of Ministers, and explicitly apply the arms trade laws, including penalties for violations, to individuals and entities that engage in arms brokering activities in Bulgaria.

· Extend Bulgaria’s arms trade laws extraterritorially to control the activities of Bulgarian arms brokers, be they individuals or entities, operating outside Bulgaria.

· Define the witting use of falsified documents, including the use of false end-user certificates, shipping documents, cargo manifests, and flight plans, as a crime of conspiracy to violate arms trade controls, and make it subject to stiff penalty.

· Rigorously investigate and prosecute violations of arms trade controls, including those that involve diversion of authorized arms shipments.

Increase transparency
· Repeal laws that define information about arms negotiations and completed deals as commercial and state secrets.

· Create a role for parliament to consider pending applications for arms transaction permits, in particular by: formally notifying it in advance of such applications, allowing for information exchanges about proposed arms transactions, and creating a mechanism by which parliament may veto pending applications.

· Prepare an annual report on all authorized arms exports and arms transport deals, including pending transactions, to parliament.

· Make public a descriptive annual summary of completed arms sales, including sales of weapons systems, artillery, and ammunition not included in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.

· Publish the list of authorized arms trading companies.

· Continue to report regularly to the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.

· Make public the results of all investigations into abuses of arms trade controls, including past investigations.

Dispose of surplus stocks in a responsible fashion
· Agree to sell surplus stocks of arms only once strict export controls have been put in place.

· Convert surplus stocks of arms to nonmilitary use whenever possible.

· Destroy stocks of arms that cannot be responsibly sold or converted.

The Bulgarian government retains primary responsibility for its own trade in arms, but problems with its arms trade are linked to international conditions, including the challenges of verifying arms destinations, the lack of harmonization of arms trade controls, and the absence of effective implementation of international arms embargoes. The international community has a responsibility to act to improve international arms trade standards and to enhance controls over the range of actors involved in the flow of weapons to abusive armed forces.

To the United Nations Security Council
Ensure that the scope of international arms embargoes imposed by the U.N. Security Council is clearly defined and, furthermore, that member states enforce the embargoes.

To the United Nations Secretary-General
· Instruct the U.N. Department of Disarmament Affairs to create and maintain an international registry of officials authorized by each government to sign end-user certificates, and make this registry available to all member states.

· Instruct the U.N. Department of Disarmament Affairs to develop a uniform end-user certificate, ensuring that it will be difficult to forge.

· Ask that all member states adopt the uniform end-user certificate as a requirement for arms trade transactions.

· Encourage member states to negotiate and ratify a convention on arms trafficking.

· Ask the Department of Disarmament Affairs to compile and publish information regarding violations of end-user certificate provisions, including the names of companies, countries, and individuals involved in the unauthorized retransfer of weapons to third parties.

To the members of NATO
· Review the arms trade control record of Bulgaria and other prospective new members, consider arms trade controls as an express criterion for membership, and identify clear minimum standards expected of new members.

· Provide incentives for aspirant members to dispose responsibly of surplus weapons, including those expected to be generated by military modernization and new procurement.

· Provide funds for the conversion or destruction of those stocks that cannot be sold responsibly.

· Work toward harmonization of arms trade control standards within the alliance, as well as with NATO’s partners in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, particularly with those who participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.

· Provide training as well as customs, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation to improve the arms trade controls of Bulgaria and other PfP countries that have been involved in questionable arms exports, or through which arms destined to abusive forces or diverted to unauthorized recipients have passed in transit.

· Increase information-sharing regarding unauthorized retransfers of weapons sold by NATO member states, and encourage NATO aspirants to take part in such information-sharing activities.

· Institute a requirement by which weapons transferred by NATO members to partners of the alliance be matched by the destruction of an equal number of surplus weapons from the stocks of the recipient country.

To the members of the European Union
· Review the arms trade control record of Bulgaria and other prospective new members, consider arms trade controls as an express criterion for membership, and identify clear minimum standards expected of new members.

· Make clear to those non-E.U. members who have agreed in principle to adopt the E.U. Code of Conduct that they are expected to fully implement its criteria, and monitor their compliance.

· Raise concerns about weapons flows that contravene the E.U. Code of Conduct at periodic meetings with associated countries, as has been agreed.

· Encourage associated countries that have agreed to adopt the principles of the E.U. Code of Conduct to abide fully by its operative provisions, including the requirements to submit annual reports, issue notifications of arms license denials based on the criteria of the code, and consult with any E.U. partners that have issued such denials before taking part in an arms transaction that they have rejected.

· Improve information-sharing regarding unauthorized retransfers of weapons sold by E.U. member states, and encourage E.U. aspirants to take part in such information-sharing activities.

· Make public any denials of arms export applications based on the criteria defined by the E.U. Code of Conduct.

· Publicize information about arms brokers involved in illegal activities.

To the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
· Make public the results of the OSCE survey on arms trade controls, including the names of member countries that have not replied.

· Encourage the harmonization of arms trade controls among member countries.

To the members of the Wassenaar Arrangement
· Make public the list of countries to which arms exports are prohibited under the Arrangement.

· Improve information-sharing mechanisms, particularly with regard to suspected or known violations of end-use agreements.

To Interpol
· Improve information-sharing mechanisms, particularly with regard to suspected or known violations of end-use agreements.

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