Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 01/2009

Transparency in transfers of small arms and light weapons

paul holtom

July 2008

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute


Intergovernmental and public transparency in international transfers of small arms and light weapons (SALW) lags behind transparency levels for other conventional weapons. In recent years, intergovernmental organizations, export control regimes and states have worked to provide more information to other states and the public on SALW transfers. In December 2003 the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to provide information on SALW transfers to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA). Since UNROCA’s establishment, groups of governmental experts (GGEs) tasked with considering its continuing operation and development have debated the merits of reporting SALW transfers to the Register. Their discussions reveal three options for reporting SALW transfers to UNROCA: (a) expand the seven existing categories; (b) invite states to submit background information on SALW transfers; or (c) establish an eighth category for reporting SALW. In 2003 the General Assembly adopted the GGE’s recommendations to request reports on transfers of some light weapons to categories III and VII of UNROCA and to invite the submission of background information on transfers of SALW. In December 2006 the General Assembly invited states to submit background information on SALW transfers on a standardized reporting form. This created a ‘virtual eighth category’ for reporting SALW to UNROCA. For the years 2003–2006, 50 UN member states reported information on international transfers of light weapons to UNROCA categories III and VII or on SALW transfers as background information. Of these 50 states, 28 are from Europe (including 18 members of the European Union), 9 from the Americas, 5 from Africa, 4 from Asia, 2 from the Middle East and 2 from Oceania. Overall, the international transfer of almost 1 million SALW units was reported to UNROCA for 2003–2006, citing 40 exporters and 128 importers. Other sources show that this represents only a fraction of the volume of international transfers of SALW for this period. Major exporters such as China, Russia and the USA did not participate, while several states (e.g. Norway, Spain and Ukraine) that have made information on their SALW transfers publicly available also failed to report to UNROCA.