Arms Transfers: States Love Secrets, But We Want the Facts

July 12, 2011

By Alaphia Zoyab, an Online Communications Officer from Amnesty’s International Secretariat.

All governments say they want to stop the flow of illicit arms, but listening to many of them at the UN today, it became clear that not many are willing to do anything about it.

This is because it will involve much greater transparency on how they report on arms transfers and this immediately makes governments uncomfortable.

Amnesty International’s findings show that the biggest source of illegal arms is through diversions from legal stockpiles and authorised trade. However, because current reporting by governments on imports, exports and arms transfers is so poor, it is near impossible to establish where and how deadly weapons are getting diverted.

So if States want to be able to find out how this is happening and put a stop to it, then they have to commit to greater overall transparency by reporting publicly. States can’t claim “confidentiality” due to security needs on the one hand and miraculously expect illegal arms transfers to stop on the other. It’s not a one way street.

But another reason Amnesty International wants to see public reporting on arms transfers in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is so that people like us can actually see what our governments are doing – who are they giving arms to and are they taking enough care to ensure these arms don’t end up in the hands of human rights violators?

Some people think such extensive public reporting will lead to excessive bureaucracy but the fact is all the largest arms producers and exporters – China, Russia, France, Germany, the UK and the US – are already gathering this information and reporting it under different UN mechanisms. All States should now do it uniformly under the ATT.

Dozens of governments also agree that the arms trade cannot continue to operate in the dark. Norway rightly said today, “Reporting cannot be a matter of convenience.” Norway and other countries should do their best to influence the others not to dilute the transparency mechanisms in the ATT which will allow public and legislative scrutiny of arms transfers.

Since 1989 nearly 250,000 people have died every year as a result of armed conflict. Another 300,000 die outside of conflict annually. Despite this, the arms trade continues to operate in the shadows. Transparency will be a key pillar of a Treaty that will hopefully stop these irresponsible arms transfers and therefore bring down these deadly numbers.

Read more about Amnesty’s recommendations on the transparency mechanisms for the Arms Trade Treaty. Follow the negotiations at the UN this week on the Arms Trade Treaty by following @amnestyonline.