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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 19, October 1997

Developing the UN Register: Challenges and Setbacks
Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene


The idea of an international register of conventional arms transfers can be traced at least as far back as the end of World War I, and there were several attempts to carry the proposal forward in the 1960's and 1970's. It was not until the Cold War ended, and the Gulf War had vividly demonstrated the consequences of uncontrolled arms transfers, however, that international political conditions allowed the UN Register of Arms to be established, by resolution of the General Assembly, in December 1991.

The Register was initially established as a register of arms transfers, in the expectation that it would subsequently be expanded to cover procurement from national production and military holdings. Every year, all member States are asked to report to the UN their imports and exports during the previous year for seven categories of major conventional arms: main battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems (100mm+), combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships (750 tonnes and above), and missiles and missile launchers (range 25 km or more). States are asked to use a standardised reporting form, detailing the numbers of weapons in each category that they have imported or exported, and specifying the country of origin or destination. In addition, States are invited, on a voluntary basis, to provide further qualitative information on the transfers, together with 'available background information' on national procurement and military holdings.

The Register After Five Years

By 14 November 1993, 82 States had submitted Register replies relating to 1992. Since then, the number of participants has increased each year: to 84 in 1994, 87 in 1995, and 92 in 1996.(1) Because of this continuing 'turnover' in participation, a total of 137 States have now participated in the Register at least once. Brunei, Guatemala, Honduras and Macedonia reported for the first time in 1997, and several 'lapsed' participants returned with a submission (including Ecuador and Paraguay). On the other hand, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, Moldova, Nepal and the Philippines had not reported by mid-October for the Register's fifth year, even though all reported in both 1995 and 1996.

Although the number reporting to the Register in any one year accounts for rather less than half the total UN membership, all but two (North Korea and Uzbekistan) of the top 20 arms exporters are now regular participants.(2) 20 of the top 25 arms importers for 1992-1996 also provide regular reports.(3) The exceptions are Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Taiwan, which is not a UN member and is not asked to provide data.

While the basic requirements for Register participation have not changed, the number of States willing to provide additional type and model details of their weapons transfers has steadily increased. In 1996, France provided qualitative information on its exports for the first time, and the UK did so in April 1997. China provided types data on its imports for the first time in 1997 (22 Su-27 combat aircraft from Russia), though not on its exports. Yet some of the major players in the international arms trade still refuse to supply any qualitative data. In the Register's fifth year, four of the 26 countries reporting exports to the Register (China, Kazakhstan, Russia and the US), together with four of the 38 countries providing data on imports (India, Iran, Japan and the US), were still declining to include qualitative data.

Where both importer and exporter participate, the Register enables their returns to be checked against each other. In too many cases, however, these returns are not consistent. For example, Hungary reports the import of 100 T-72M1 tanks from Belarus during 1996; but Belarus has not reported any exports to Hungary, either this year or previously. A certain level of discrepancies is probably healthy, since consistently perfect matches can sometimes be a result of prior collusion in 'fixing' a Register reply at the expense of accurate reporting. At the same time, the level of discrepancies in national reports is still unacceptably high. In 1997, 152 separate transfers were reported by exporting States, of which 96 were to other Register participants. But only 40 of these reports matched information given by an importing State: a 'matching rate' of only 42%. These discrepancies have been a result of a wide variety of factors, including bureaucratic mistakes, differences in interpretation of the seven UN categories, and different national definitions of when a transfer takes place.

As the world's biggest exporter, the US must bear a significant share of the responsibility for the slow pace of improvement in both the provision of qualitative data and in the level of discrepancies. The US has often been seen as more willing than other States to make detailed information on its arms exports available for parliamentary scrutiny (though this reputation is now coming under challenge from the growing number of European States issuing detailed annual reports to Parliament). It has also been a strong advocate of more detailed information exchange (on a confidential basis) in the Wassenaar Arrangement. In contrast, however, it has often appeared sceptical on the value of the Register. The initial impetus in establishing the Register came from the European Union (EU) and Japan, and had to overcome a certain degree of US suspicion. Subsequently, supporters of the Register within the US government have been unable to overcome the internal bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of providing full and accurate information. As a result , the US is now the only Western State not to provide types data on its exports. This year, only 18% of the US's reported exports matched those of its customers: as in previous years, a 'match rate' lower than those of other significant exporters. An improvement in the US performance in these two areas would do much to improve the Register's credibility and to increase the pressure on other States (such as China and Russia) to improve the quality of their own replies.

Regional Participation

One of the key aims of the UN Register is to provide a basis for the development of regional confidence-building measures. It is therefore important to note that there are significant variations in participation rates between regions.

  • All Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) States regularly provide reports, as do almost all other European States (with the notable exceptions of Bosnia and Yugoslavia). 23 of the OECD's 29 members also provided details of their national procurement and/or military holdings, although Australia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and South Korea did not.(4)
  • Participation rates in South and East Asia are relatively high. India and Pakistan have reported every year, and all other South Asian countries now usually participate with the exception of Bangladesh and Afghanistan. All Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) States now submit reports, although ASEAN's three candidate members (Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) do not. China, Japan and South Korea take part on a regular basis, but North Korea does not. Although Taiwan is not asked to report, the US has reported exports to Taiwan in both 1996 and 1997. This practice brought a fierce riposte from China this year, noting that 'arms transfers from the US to Taiwan are neither legitimate nor transfers between sovereign States' and asking that such entries be deleted from future annual reports.
  • The recent expansion of participation amongst the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) has been particularly important, as has been the continuing involvement of Russia, one of the leading exporters. Whereas only 6 out of the 15 FSU countries reported in the first year, 11 out of 15 have so far reported in 1997.(5) Armenia and Azerbaijan have provided details of their military holdings. Turkmenistan reported the export of 530 battle tanks, 543 armoured combat vehicles, 54 artillery systems, 134 combat aircraft, and 10 attack helicopters to Russia during 1996. Since Russia has not reported receiving any of these systems, however, it is possible that this may actually be an inventory of military holdings.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, 15 out of 33 States have so far provided reports for the fifth year. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru have reported every year, with Argentina, Brazil and Mexico also providing information on military holdings. At the other extreme, Costa Rica, Haiti, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela have never participated. Otherwise there is a high 'turnover' in participation from Latin American and Caribbean States. Many of the occasional participants are not significantly involved in the arms trade, and may not see the point of repeatedly submitting 'nil returns'.
  • The Middle East and North Africa is the area of biggest disappointment for the Register. It is the biggest market for exports of major conventional arms, constituting around 40% of international arms deliveries in recent years. Yet members of the Arab League (including Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE) do not participate, citing dissatisfaction with the scope of the UN Register (particularly the fact that it does not cover nuclear warheads). As a result, the only countries in the region to participate regularly in the Register are Israel and Iran. Nevertheless, the major suppliers of arms to this region do participate in the Register, making it possible to build up a reasonably accurate picture of the pattern of its imports. In 1997 alone, exports of 484 battle tanks, 1463 armoured combat vehicles, and 28 combat aircraft to the region were reported.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 10 of the 48 States in the region typically report. Only South Africa and Tanzania have provided a report for each of the last three years, though Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius and Namibia have participated in both 1996 and 1997. It is frequently suggested that the major conventional arms covered by the Register are of little significance for most African States, for whom light weapons are a more pressing problem: an observation that appears to be confirmed by the fact that no Sub-Saharan State has ever reported the import of any major conventional arms to the UN Register. Yet this lack of data does not reflect a non-existent arms trade. Rather, it is a result of the lack of reports from African States when they would have something to report. In 1997 alone, for example, exporting States have reported transfers of major conventional arms to Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Eritrea, Rwanda and Sudan. But these States did not participate in the Register themselves, and therefore could not confirm these reports.

Issues for the 1997 Review

Although the existing UN Register has significant achievements, it is far from reaching its full potential. Accordingly, the 1997 Group of Governmental Experts, representing 25 countries, was established to review the operations of the Register and to seek agreement on ways in which it should be further developed. The Group held three formal meetings at the UN in New York, from 3 - 7 March, 16 - 27 June, and 4 - 15 August. In addition, members of the Group also participated in an informal workshop on 12 - 14 May in Tokyo, jointly organised by the present authors (University of Bradford) and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This informal workshop provided a forum in which the Group of Experts could discuss the issues in depth with a number of non-governmental experts, as well as a one day closed meeting of the Group itself.

In the event, it proved impossible to agree more than a few minor improvements. At early stage it appeared possible that agreement could be reached to extend existing categories: lowering the threshold for inclusion in 'large calibre artillery systems' from 100mm to 75 mm, lowering the tonnage of 'warships' included from 750 tonnes to 400 tonnes, and lowering the range of missiles from 25 km to 10 km. Furthermore, most States were keen to revise the unsatisfactory 'missiles and missile launchers' category, disaggregating missiles from missile launchers and including ground to air missiles.

Such a potential agreement was, however, blocked, largely because some States decided to link progress on this issue with agreement to include new categories of weapons. Egypt in particular blocked agreement unless the Register was also expanded to include weapons of mass destruction. But most States were opposed: either because they opposed the principle of establishing a nuclear weapons register or because they feared the Register would be hopelessly bogged down if it became enmeshed in nuclear weapon issues. In this context, South Africa and others decided also to link progress with agreement to include light weapons as an additional category: a proposal that was unacceptable to those countries who doubted that it was useful or practical to require States to monitor and report on transfers of light weapons such as semi-automatic rifles according to established rules of the Register.

Nor could the Group of Experts agree on steps towards including military holdings and procurement from national production. So it decided to maintain the status quo on 'background information', pending a future review, except that all such information should henceforth be published alongside transfers data in the annual report of the UN Secretary-General. The Group also recommended that the UN Secretariat play an enhanced role in promoting awareness of the Register and procedures of reporting, and in improving governmental and public access to the data in the Register through electronic and other means of communication.(6) To facilitate efficient reporting and clarification, it recommended that governments nominate a national point of contact on matters related to the Register. The annual due date for reporting was changed from 30 April to 31 May. In addition, the Group welcomed the trend towards providing qualitative information on weapons types, but did not strengthen the obligations to include such data. It encouraged States to consult to prevent or resolve discrepancies in their reports of transfers, and to specify the definitions they use on their standardised reporting forms.

These were modest recommendations indeed. Once again, the expansion of the Register to include military holdings and procurement from national production was deferred pending a further review. However, the changes are not worthless. The publication of submitted background information in the annual report on the Register provides some opportunities to promote the reporting on holdings and procurement as an informal norm. The enhanced role of the Secretariat and the nomination of national contact points should help to enhance the operation of the Register.

It was particularly frustrating that negotiable and useful revisions to existing weapons categories should be blocked in the final stages of the Group of Experts' review through linkage with the expansion of the Register to cover nuclear warheads and light weapons. It is noteworthy that Egypt has not even participated in the existing Register after its first year of operation. For some members of the Group of Experts at least, the loss of the agreement on revisions of existing categories was the price they needed to pay to encourage Egypt to participate once again in the transparency regime. However, it is not at all clear that Egypt will actually do so, and thus whether the price was worth paying.

During the autumn, the report of the 1997 Group of Experts will be considered by the First Committee and the General Assembly at the UN in New York. The modest recommendations contained in the report appear assured of overwhelming support. The main outstanding questions are whether there will be any attempt to strengthen the recommendations in the General Assembly resolution, and the date of the next review of the Register. Those looking for an early opportunity to try once again to develop the Register argue for a review in 2000. Others, noting the failures of the 1994 and 1997 reviews, argue that it would be better to delay the review until 2001 or 2002.

Priorities for the Further Development of Arms Transparency

There is no doubt that the results of the 1997 Group of Experts are a setback to those wishing to further develop the UN Register in particular and conventional arms transparency in general. It is time to take stock, and identify priorities for the immediate future.

The most immediate concern is to ensure that the UN Register itself is not undermined by the disappointing outcome of the 1997 review. If its development is widely perceived to have stalled indefinitely, there is a risk that political support will be lost and that even the existing transparency regime will be weakened. Fortunately, the Register now appears to be quite well-established, and reporting has become part of the routine annual practice of some 75 - 80 States. Moreover, parliaments and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) are likely to resist attempts by their governments to pull back from providing the annual public data associated with the Register. Nevertheless, opportunities need to be taken to strengthen the Register further within existing global guidelines.

Much remains to be done to widen participation. A number of significant non-participants, such as North Korea, Nigeria and some Middle Eastern States, probably cannot be expected to participate unless there are substantial changes in the orientation of their national policy. However, there are many UN members that are widely seen as 'norm-abiding', 'responsible' States, but have not yet participated in the Register, or have allowed their participation to lapse. Efforts to persuade them to participate are important. Although many of them are not heavily engaged in trading major weapon systems, the submission of a 'nil report' itself conveys significant information. It also provides an important indication of active political support for the Register.

Regional workshops to promote awareness and training will contribute in this context. Beyond this, a key way in which participation can be consolidated and made more valuable is to embed the Register in national or regional processes of importance to the countries concerned. In East Asia, for example, Register participation has been discussed in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and has provided a useful symbol of commitment to regional confidence-building and a basis for further regional transparency and confidence-building measures.(7) This has increased national and regional pressures on States in ARF to join the transparency regime. Similarly, the relatively high levels of participation in South and North-East Asia and amongst Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) offer opportunities to use the Register as a basis for the further development of regional security dialogues. There are also opportunities to use the Register to build on recent progress on security cooperation and transparency in the Organization of American States (OAS).(8)

In some regions, such as Europe and Latin America, it may be possible to develop regional transparency arrangements that go beyond the existing guidelines for the global Register. Many of the countries in these regions are already providing qualitative data and information on military holdings and national procurement. There are opportunities for these countries to consolidate and extend such good practice. Such transparency initiatives should be co-ordinated and open, so that they reinforce each other and are open to participation by like-minded countries from other regions sharing similar goals. In this way, a 'fast track' coalition of States may be formed, committed to implementing Register-related enhanced transparency measures in advance of international consensus. These States could also promote the regular review and assessment of information provided to the Register, so that these take place in the UN and regional bodies, as well as in supplier regimes such as the Wassenaar Arrangement. The Register can then be used more effectively as a stimulus and guide to action.

Beyond this, it is important to develop transparency arrangements for light weapons and for nuclear arms. There is a strong case for keeping these in specially designed transparency regimes, distinct from the existing Register. Such arrangements can bring their own security benefits, and at the same time prevent concerns about light or nuclear weapons from unnecessarily blocking the development of the UN Register, as appears to have happened in the 1997 review.

There is scope to develop the proposals for a Nuclear Weapons Register suggested by Germany and Argentina in 1993/94, probably initially within a P-5 forum or the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process. The core concept of such a Register is that each declared nuclear-weapon State should be asked to provide regular reports on its holdings of nuclear weapons, which would then be compiled and published. However, many aspects of the design of the Register, and the degree of transparency it would involve, remain open for debate. It could begin relatively modestly and develop over time. For example, it could begin with the nuclear-weapon States providing aggregate data on their total holdings of nuclear warheads. This could be supplemented with information on the numbers of warheads they had dismantled or withdrawn from service during the previous year. In later years the levels of detail reported could be increased, within the constraints of protecting national security and avoiding releases of information that could undermine non-proliferation efforts.

The challenges of developing cooperative security arrangements to tackle light weapons proliferation are rather different. Although the existing UN Register could usefully be extended to cover 'heavier' light weapons such as light mortars or heavy machine guns, it is not at all clear that transparency arrangements for most light weapons should focus on reporting numerical aggregate information on annual transfers. Instead, they could include regional or global information exchanges on: national legislation and regulations relating to controls on light arms; national lists of registered arms producers or traders; stocks of light weapons that had been destroyed; confiscated or seized weapons. In some regions, systems for pre-notification of arms exports could be considered, similar to proposals in the OAS. In this way, transparency arrangements for light arms might be more closely linked with international efforts to control or remove illicit or 'surplus' arms in a region of concern.

Conclusion: The Achievements of the Register So Far

Considerable potential for developing and improving the UN Register remains. Even in its present form, however, the Register has already made a significant contribution. Its first, and central, achievement has been to establish, on a global scale, a norm of transparency relating to conventional arms. Although participation remains far from universal, most major arms importers and exporters regularly participate. The Register has thus significantly strengthened the principle that States' right to procure arms for their defence must be accompanied by a responsibility to exercise that right with restraint, taking due account of the concerns of others.

Second, over 90% of the international trade in major conventional arms has probably been reported to the Register each year, together with further information on weapon types, military holdings and procurement from national production. Against the expectations of some sceptics, the Register has revealed much information that was not previously available in the public domain. For example, in recent years the Register has included over 50 separate transactions each year that were not included in the SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) Yearbook.(9) In this context, the UN Register has particularly provided new information on transfers of land-based systems such as tanks, artillery, and armoured personnel carriers, which are less easily monitored than ships or aircraft.

Third, the UN Register provides official information on arms transfers. In contrast with unofficial sources, it provides politically legitimate information on which intergovernmental security dialogues and regional confidence-building processes can be developed. This has already proved useful in East Asia, where participation in the Register has been an important dimension of the development of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Even in its present form, it could similarly provide an useful basis for confidence and security building dialogues and further transparency measures in Latin America, the Former USSR, South and North East Asia, and elsewhere.

Fourth, the data submitted for the Register is publicly available. It can be scrutinised by members of national legislatures, research institutes, journalists and interested members of the public. In this respect, the Register is an important advance on the practice of confidential inter-governmental information exchanges in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) or the Wassenaar Arrangement, facilitating public debate and democratic accountability as well as inter-governmental discussions. It has provided leverage in a number of countries for civil authorities and parliamentarians to increase disclosure of military procurement. Before the Register was established, few countries published quantitative information on their annual arms transfers. In many countries, such matters were not even regarded to be a matter for legitimate public questioning. The Register is helping to change this situation.

Fifth, and finally, the requirement to provide international reports to the Register has stimulated many governments to establish proper systems for monitoring their own arms transfers. Before they participated in the Register, many governments (including those of major developed countries) did not have such systems even for their own purposes.

Although recent progress in its development has been disappointingly slow, the UN Register is here to stay. The challenge in the years ahead will be to build on its initial achievement and to give new political momentum to its consolidation and development.


1. UN Register of Conventional Arms: Report of the UN Secretary-General, General Assembly documents A/52/312 (28 August 1997) & A/52/312 Add.1 (17 October 1997). As of 17 October 1997, 90 States had submitted data relating to 1996. For further discussion of the replies in the Register's first four years, see Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene, The UN Register in its Fourth Year, Bradford Arms Register Studies Working Paper 2, November 1996.

2. SIPRI Yearbook 1997, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 268. Figures for 1992-1996 used.

3. Ibid, p. 272.

4. For full details of all the 'background information' on national procurement and military holdings provided to the UN, see Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene, In the Background: Reporting national procurement and military holdings to the UN Register 1993-1996, Bradford Arms Register Studies Working Paper 3, March 1997.

5. By 17 October, Kyrgystan, Moldova and Tajikistan had yet to provide reports for 1996, although they had made submissions in previous years. Uzbekistan has never provided a report.

6. See, for example, Amitav Acharya, 'Confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific: their relevance to the UN Register of Conventional Arms', in Malcolm Chalmers, Mitsuro Donowaki and Owen Greene (eds), Developing arms transparency: the future of the UN Register, Bradford Arms Register Studies Number 7, Bradford University, 1997, pp 163 - 177.

7. See, for example, Ricardo Rodriguez, 'Arms Transparency in the Inter-American Security System' (pp 177 - 190) and Alexander Nikitin, 'The Arms Trade and Security-Building in Russia and the CIS' (pp 191 - 202), in Ibid.

8. This is not to imply any criticism of the annual SIPRI register, which has played a key unofficial role in promoting transparency. Some of the omissions in the SIPRI register are a result of caution about including unconfirmed reports of transfers, and SIPRI includes details and transfers that are not found in the UN Register.

Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene are Senior Lecturers in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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