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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 22, January 1998

Guest Analysis

Enhancing the Value of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms
By Onno Kervers

1. Introduction

Now in existence for over five years, the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms has been the subject of much attention in military, scientific, academic, non-governmental, diplomatic and political circles. This attention is certainly deserved, given the innovative nature of the Register and its potential to increase the understanding of, and enhance the possibilities for solving problems in, an area of security which at the global level is only beginning to be addressed: conventional arms control.

This article intends to supply an overview of the performance of the Register so far, to discuss its value as a confidence-building measure, and to consider how that value could and should be increased. The analysis will focus particularly on the reasons why it has not yet been possible to enhance the Register by developing and expanding it, and on prospects for achieving a breakthrough in that direction. In doing so, relatively little attention will be given to the 'hardware' aspects of the Register, such as the preferred scope of each of its seven categories, or the ideal definition of an arms transfer. This is not to underestimate the value of these aspects for the broader notion of transparency as will be explained, in some cases more technical details have their relevance in that respect. However, preceding publications have dealt with these aspects more professionally and profoundly than this article could ever hope to achieve (1). From the point of view of a diplomat - and a governmental expert in the 1997 Group which addressed the continuing operation and further development of the Register - first and foremost a number of important conceptual and political obstacles will have to be removed before the Register can come to full fruition.

1.1. Disarmament and Conventional Weapons

Multilateral disarmament regulation to date has focused almost exclusively on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is the case with treaties aiming to outlaw completely and universally a certain category of weapons (2), treaties limiting the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons (3), treaties for the disarmament or demilitarisation of certain environments (4), and regional arms control agreements (5). Some of these agreements contain provisions related to conventional weapons, but regulation related to these weapons is mostly of a humanitarian nature and limited to the objective of constraining the use of certain kinds of weapons considered to be 'inhumane' (6).

Given important UN principles, such as the right to self-defence as embodied in the Charter and the right of self-determination, experience has shown that, beyond establishing certain humanitarian rules, it is extremely difficult to tackle the problem of conventional arms control globally or even regionally (7). However, the excessive accumulation of conventional arms, to a point beyond the satisfaction of legitimate security concerns, can be destabilising. Regional conventional arms control and disarmament treaties dealing with these problems, such as the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, do not yet exist at the global level. Conventional arms are hardly ever subject to legal regimes completely prohibiting their development, production, stockpiling and use. Since December 1997 anti-personnel landmines are, fortunately, a notable exception. This is not the place to elaborate on the question of whether the Ottawa Treaty is predominantly a humanitarian or a disarmament measure, but it obviously contains elements of both.

1.2. Confidence-Building Measures and the Creation of the UN Register of Conventional Arms

In the absence of 'real' arms control or disarmament measures, confidence-building measures (CBMs) related to conventional weapons can be of value in enhancing peace and stability. Concrete measures providing for more openness can correct misguided perceptions about a nation's military strength and intentions, which without correction could lead to destabilising accumulations of conventional arms. In the words of the 1975 Helsinki Document, the rationale for CBMs is "to contribute to reducing the dangers of armed conflict and of misunderstanding or miscalculation of military activities which could give rise to apprehension, particularly in a situation when the participating States lack clear and timely information about the nature of such activities". By providing an early-warning mechanism which might point to destabilising accumulations of conventional weapons, CBMs could also act to place a restraint on exports of conventional weapons to areas of tension. The 1990-1 Gulf War showed clearly the consequences of uncontrolled exports of conventional arms. The underlying principle, therefore, is that CBMs promote international security and stability, rather than compromising the security of States.

The establishment of the UN Register of Conventional Arms in 1991 was a significant step forward in reducing such misperceptions. The Register enhances transparency in armaments by providing data on international transfers of those categories of conventional arms that can be used specifically for offensive purposes, and which could therefore produce the most destabilising effect (8). The main innovation of this confidence-building measure lies in the fact that for the first time governments, rather than private research institutions, are supplying official data, accessible to all, on exports and imports of arms. Even if nations neither import nor export conventional arms, it is important to report that this is the case. The reporting of such a 'nil return' not only increases transparency, it also demonstrates that no destabilising accumulations are taking place. By reporting to the Register, moreover, States can signal their preparedness to enter into dialogue with other States on this aspect of their security policy.

The Register is not an arms control measure aimed at curbing directly the export and import of certain categories of conventional weapons. It is a relatively modest and straightforward contribution to creating confidence between States. Enhanced confidence contributes to greater stability, meaning that in turn States might recognise the possibility and desirability of meeting their security needs at a lower level of conventional armaments. All States should be able to participate in this straightforward CBM, which does not jeopardise their security interests.

2. The Operation of the Register, 1992-96: The Assessment of the 1997 Group of Experts

The Register was established in 1991 by UNGA resolution 46/36L, which called upon UN Member States to provide data on the relevant arms transfers to it annually, with effect from 1 January 1992 (9). In the five years of its operation, the Register has gradually been consolidated. This is not only reflected in the improvement of the quantity and quality of reporting, but also by the fact of its unarguable acceptance as a useful CBM by States, within governments (notably military establishments), parliaments and - of no little importance - non-governmental organizations.

It is important to stress the significance of the review of the Register's continuing operation by the 1994 and 1997 Groups of Governmental Experts in helping to confirm the value of the Register as a concrete and politically important CBM. This is often forgotten because of the tendency of critics to emphasise the lack of consensus in 1994 and modest - although consensual - recommendations of the 1997 Group. Over the years, the value of the Register has been attested to by political, academic ad scientific commentators. As with the data contained in the Register itself (which derives its main value from the fact that it concerns 'government-to-government' information), it is important that governments themselves also recognise and acknowledge its success (10). v The 1997 Group had the advantage of reviewing the total five years of operation of the Register, thereby enabling it to analyse trends in participation over a relatively long period. The main findings of the Group were (11):

  • the Group was encouraged by the trend in participation (consistently by over 90 governments)
  • it considered that the information provided by both exporters and importers covered the bulk of the trade in the seven categories of the Register
  • universality of participation would greatly enhance the value of the Register as a CBM
  • the submission of a 'nil report' was confirmed as very useful
  • the increased voluntary reporting of designations, models or types, added qualitatively to the information in the Register (thereby increasing transparency: the difference in military capacity between for instance the import of used F-104 fighters and new F-18 jets is obvious)
  • reporting of background information (on military holdings and procurement through national production) has increased this can be seen as an indication that support for expanding the Register with such data is growing.
The Group's main criticism related to the level of participation, both in terms of the number of UN Member States providing returns each year and the low percentage of participation in certain regions, especially the Middle East and Africa. Some experts voiced concerns that this problem was not addressed adequately. At one point it was even suggested that a separate group of experts be established to investigate the reasons for non-participation. However, the 1997 Group itself was able to identify various reasons for non-participation. These might be political and/or bureaucratic, caused by the existence of armed conflict, severe political crises, a lack of resources, or even a lack of awareness of the operation of the Register. Also, States might not be convinced that the Register, or the weapons covered by it, was relevant to their security needs.

To remedy this situation, understanding of the Register should be promoted in different ways: within the UN by individual States within regional contexts and by the UN Secretariat (12). In all these cases, the confidence-building nature of the Register should be stressed, as some States still seem to consider reporting to it as being detrimental to their security.

Looking back at the 1997 review it can be said that, although there is still room for improvement of the Register in its present form - especially as far as the level of participation is concerned - the Register is generally considered to be a politically relevant and useful CBM, and the support for it is solid.

3. The Case for Development of the Register

In discussing the development of the Register, three different dimensions are normally distinguished:

  • expansion of the scope of the Register
  • adjusting the existing categories
  • adding new categories and types of weapons.
After introducing each of these dimensions, their consideration by the 1997 Group will be analysed.

3.1. Expansion of the Scope of the Register to Include National Procurement and Holdings

Even at the time of its inception, it was clear that a Register focusing exclusively on arms transfers would not give a full picture, providing transparency principally only in relation to States depending on imports of arms. No openness would be created vis-&agrave-vis States solely reliant on arms procurement from domestic industries, unless they chose to provide this information voluntarily. It should be added that such States might still participate in the Register in the capacity of an exporter. However, without data on national procurement, no insight would be gained into possibly destabilising accumulations of weapons by those States: national procurement is the equivalent of imports in the sense that both show 'military build-up'. The picture would of course only be really complete (or transparent!) if, in addition to data on national procurement, military holdings were brought into the equation. The three types of data (holdings, transfers and national procurement) would give a clear indication about the military strength of nations and, over the years, the accumulation of arms in both absolute and relative terms.

When the Register was founded in 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, the focus was on arms transfers. This was understandable - in the case of Iraq, the destabilising accumulation of arms had been almost entirely due to unbridled arms exports to that country. Attempts were made to include national procurement and holdings in the scope of the Register, but these met with resistance from most of the major arms producers.

In the course of the years, however, the cause of such expansion gained considerable support. This was shown by the increase in the number of States giving such data as voluntary background information, and also by the fact that during the 1994 Session of the Conference on Disarmament most Western delegations - including the major Western arms exporters - supported a proposal to that effect (13). Unfortunately, the 1994 Group of Experts, while supporting the principle of early expansion, could not agree to include data on national procurement and holdings in the Register on the same basis as transfers. Experts from a number of countries rejected expansion, mainly because they feared it would compromise their security concerns. On the other hand, some Western delegations were not prepared to support compromise solutions: they preferred leaving open the possibility of 'full' expansion to a watered-down compromise which would be difficult to develop later on. The issue was therefore referred to the 1997 Group of Experts (14).

3.2. Adjusting the Existing Categories

The Register was intended as a CBM contributing to efforts to prevent destabilising accumulations of major conventional weapons which could, first and foremost, be used for a surprise attack. On the basis of experience with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the seven categories were selected with that aim in mind, and any adjustment of those categories should seek to further that same objective. As it has become clear that the scope of the seven categories was not always equally relevant to all regions of the world, adjusting them should also be judged in terms of the potential for such a measure to increase the Register's overall relevance.

In the 1994 and 1997 Groups, four proposals were discussed at great length: lowering the minimum calibre for large artillery systems from 100 mm to 75 mm lowering the tonnage for warships from 750 to 400 tonnes disaggregating missiles and missile launchers, and lowering the range of missiles from 25 km to 10 km and the inclusion of ground-to-air missiles. In particular, the proposal for the lowering of the calibre of artillery received significant support in the 1997 Group on the grounds that it would make the Register appreciably more relevant to certain regions, primarily Africa, where the calibre of most artillery systems is between 75 mm and 100 mm. Although no expert really opposed this proposal on substantive grounds, it fell victim to the insistence of some experts to link all the proposals to the issue of including WMD.

3.3. New Weapon Categories for the Register

As in the case of adjusting existing categories, new weapon categories should also serve the purpose of enhancing the Register's goals and/or increasing its overall relevance. As experience has shown, however, internal developments can also influence the consideration of proposals for new categories.

During the Register's existence, three types of weapon have repeatedly been suggested for inclusion: anti-personnel landmines (APL), small arms, and WMD.

As to APL, the 1994 Group observed that the Register was not the appropriate mechanism for dealing with this problem. Although there probably is no such thing as a purely defensive weapon, inclusion of APL would not seem likely to enhance the Register's aim of providing insight into build-up of armaments which could be used in a surprise attack. International developments aimed at outlawing these weapons also argued against their inclusion in an instrument which seeks to create transparency in relation to lawful activities.

The increasing suffering caused by small arms is to an important extent due to illegal trafficking in such weapons. Inclusion in a Register incorporating legal State-to-State transactions would not seem to be a very promising approach: it is hard to see how registration in a global CBM such as the Register would seriously address the problem of trafficking.

A number of similar arguments can also be deployed against proposals - made most recently by Egypt in the 1997 Group - for the inclusion of WMD. These weapons are to a large extent covered by existing regimes: biological and chemical weapons are outlawed, as is the transfer of nuclear weapons. The Register aims at maximising transparency at the conventional level, a goal which will not be brought nearer by bringing nuclear weapons into the equation. On top of this, some experts in the 1997 Group argued that international efforts aimed at outlawing nuclear weapons would not be assisted by their inclusion in the Register, as it would run the risk of granting them a certain kind of legitimacy.

3.4. The Failure of the Attempt to Expand the Register in 1997

Although support for expanding the scope of the Register to include data on military holdings and national procurement has increased significantly since 1994 - it now receives support from Member States in each of the five UN regional groups - the 1997 Group of Experts was unable to reach agreement on this issue (15). Opposition was twofold:

  • Experts from a number of countries opposed expansion on the grounds that providing data on holdings and national procurement could jeopardise national security interests. During discussions on the issue, a fundamental - conceptual - difference of opinion emerged: the countries concerned question the underlying thought of the Register that transparency enhances confidence and security. If expansion is ever to take place, these States need first to be convinced of the idea that transparency and confidence-building can actually promote international security, as the European experience, for instance, has demonstrated. They also clearly need to be persuaded that, given the relatively limited amount of information which would need to be provided to the Register, the data involved would in no way undermine their security.
  • Some experts supported the Egyptian proposal - the inclusion of an 8th category, on stockpiles of WMD - and endorsed Egypt's view that expansion of the Register's scope be made conditional on the acceptance of that proposal. No ground was given on the issue of linkage, despite the many - largely unchallenged - arguments presented in the Group against both an all-or-nothing approach and the merits of including WMD. The underlying reasons for the proposal to include WMD were probably mainly political. In particular, Egypt and Iran maintained that participation in the Register was low in their region because of the suspected presence of WMD: thus, only more transparency with relation to WMD could increase participation. This argument was not, of course, accepted, because it goes against the very essence of the Register, namely to enhance peace and security by building confidence related to conventional arms as a separate issue. Linking conventional and nuclear weapons, in terms of either transparency or disarmament, will be detrimental to progress in either field. Even if this fundamental objection could be overridden, proponents of the WMD proposal cannot really expect that the inclusion of nuclear weapons in the Register would yield significant concrete results in terms of transparency, given the political realities in their region.
Despite the strain of this conceptual and political discord, the report of the Group did give some recognition to concerns related to WMD an approach which enabled consensus in the Group to be maintained (16).

In order to overcome the more principled opposition against expansion of the scope of the Register, based on security concerns, some experts in the 1997 Group proposed various compromises. Apart from the original proposal to include data on holdings and national procurement, tabled by Italy, proposals were put forward by Poland (limiting expansion to procurement through national production), Australia (giving States a certain leeway in the detail of the information to be provided on both holdings and procurement), and Japan (maintaining the voluntary nature of this 'background information', but providing for its submission on s standardised reporting form). All these proposals continued to meet resistance based on alleged security concerns, mainly raised by experts of the non-Western nuclear-weapon States, and of countries belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement.

Agreement also proved elusive on technical adjustments and adjustments to categories. Proposals in these regards became entangled in the issue of WMD-linkage, and some proposals also met with substantive opposition (17). As already indicated, it was certainly unfortunate that the proposal to lower the calibre of artillery from 100 mm to 75 mm was not accepted. As with any other proposal for developing the Register, it did not survive the linkage which dominated the Group's discussions during its final meetings.

4. Conclusion: The Way Ahead

The present Register is limited to data on transfers of conventional weapons. It therefore does not provide a full insight into possibly destabilising accumulations. Nevertheless, States have recognised that this innovative global confidence-building measure is, even in its present form, a practical contribution to dialogue, greater trust, and confidence between UN Member States. Despite its incompleteness, and the two failed attempts thus far to improve its effectiveness, the level of participation in the Register, and the support it generally receives from all sides - governmental (18) and non-governmental - shows that it is firmly established. The challenge for the near future is to consolidate its success and to try to build political momentum behind its development.

In order to succeed in this, it is in the first place important that all States be convinced that transparency enhances confidence, which in turn can lead to greater security, and that a Register with greater scope would not jeopardise their security interests. The fact that data should be given on seven specific types of weapons, combined with the kind of data to be provided (at present, aggregate numbers, and no types or models), should make it possible for every State to provide at least data on procurement through national production without endangering their security. The result would be a more complete picture of any unwarranted accumulation of conventional arms.

Similarly, States intent on linking conventional transparency to transparency related to WMD should be reassured that building confidence in the conventional field as a separate issue, can also promote broader trust and stability. Because the 1997 Group achieved consensus on the issue of WMD, it was expected that this consensus could act as the basis for future constructive work on expansion of the scope of the Register on its own merits. Unfortunately, during the 52nd UNGA, a resolution was tabled revisiting linkage with WMD. The reasons for not including WMD in the Register are widely subscribed to, and the political motivation for seeking this linkage will have to be overcome one way or the other on the road to a Register of greater scope and effectiveness.

This road will not be an easy one to travel, but there remains considerable time before the next review, in the year 2000, to make sure - by action in the UN, in regional fora, and preferable also the Conference on Disarmament - that the UN Register of Conventional Arms can come to full fruition.

Notes and references

1. For example, Malcolm Chalmers & Owen Greene, 'Developing the UN Register: Challenges and Setbacks,' Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 19, October 1997, pp. 11-17.
2. E.g. the 1972 Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
3. E.g. the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
4. E.g. the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the 1976 Outer Space Treaty and the 1971 Sea-Bed Treaty.
5. E.g. the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone treaties of Tlatelolco (Latin America), Rarotonga (South Pacific - also establishing a nuclear-free zone), Bangkok (South-East Asia) and Pelindaba (Africa).
6. E.g. the declarations of St. Petersburg and The Hague and the 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). It should be noted that the amended CCW Protocol II on landmines now contains some disarmament aspects, such as a prohibition on non-detectable mines and a ban on transfers.
7. The issue of small arms has demonstrated this again and again see most recently the discussions on the Japanese UNGA resolution on the subject (52/38J).
8. The seven categories are: main battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems (100 mm or more), combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships (of at least 750 tonnes), and missiles and their launchers with a range of 25 km or more.
9. States are asked to provide the data on a standardised reporting form, developed by the 1992 Panel of Governmental Technical Experts together with other technical procedures for the operation of the Register. States are furthermore invited, on a "voluntary basis", to provide qualitative information (such as types and/or models of the weapons concerned) and information on military holdings and procurement through national production.
10. In the 1997 Group, all but one or two experts qualified the Register as "a success."
11. For details and analysis of the Group's work, see its report to the UN General Assembly (A/52/316), and Chalmers & Greene, op.cit. As far as the latter is concerned, the present author is somewhat more positive about the attitude of the world's biggest arms exporter, the US, to the Register. US support for expansion in 1997 has been very constructive, and as from reporting year 1997 the US will provide full data on types and models of the categories concerned.
12. The Group made nine recommendations designed to enhance the Secretariat's contribution to improving participation.
13. CD/1259 (also issued as CD/TIA/WP.26).
14. UNGA resolution 49/75C, 15 December 1994.
15. Proposals for the inclusion of data on military holdings and procurement through national production were explicitly - and unconditionally - supported by the experts of Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Gabon, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, South Africa, the UK, and the US. Argentina (Chairman of the Group) did not express itself in the Group, but is known to support expansion of the Register's scope. 16. Paragraphs 8 and 38. Paragraph 40 recognises in a general way that "measures related to weapons and equipment not covered by the...Register had particular importance in certain regions in ensuring that the whole spectrum of security concerns was taken into account..."
17. There were substantive objections to the proposals to include data on models and types, to disaggregate missiles and their launchers, to lower the range of missiles, and to include ground-to-air missiles.
18. The 1997 UNGA transparency resolution (52/38R) received the largest degree of support in 4 years: 155 in favour, none against and 11 abstentions.

Onno Kervers is Deputy Head of the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and was a member of the 1997 Group of Experts. This article reflects his personal views, which do not necessarily correspond to those of his Government.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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