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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 35, March 1999

The UN Register of Conventional Arms: A Progress Report
By Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene

Introduction The UN Register of Conventional Arms is nearing the end of its sixth year of operation. Launched in 1992 amidst some scepticism about its prospects or value, it has become established as an important international transparency and confidence-building measure. Indeed, it remains the only global co-operative regime relating to holdings and transfers of conventional arms. Some 143 States have participated in the regime at least once, with a core group of about 80 States (including almost all major exporters and most major importers) that participate regularly. (1)

This article examines the current stage of development of the UN Register by reviewing its operation in its sixth year and assessing the new and continuing challenges that it faces. In the year 2000, the UN is due to carry out a major review of the implementation and further development of the Register, providing an important opportunity to strengthen and extend this new transparency regime. We briefly discuss the opportunities and priorities for further developing the Register that this review will provide.

The UN Register

Each year, all UN member States (together with observers such as Switzerland) are asked to report to the UN their imports and exports of major conventional weapons during the previous year. Information is requested on transfers of seven categories of such weapons: main battle tanks; armoured combat vehicles; large calibre artillery systems (over 100 mm); combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships (above 750 tonnes); and missiles and missile launchers (range above 25 km). For each category, States are requested to provide the numbers of weapons that they have imported or exported for each country of origin or destination, using a standardised reporting form. They are also invited, on a voluntary basis, to provide further qualitative information on these transfers, such as the types and models of weapons involved and the purposes of the transfer. Participating States are similarly invited by the UN to provide 'available background information' on their national procurement and military holdings.

Information on transfers during the previous calendar year is supposed to be sent to the UN by the end of May. In September or October each year, these reports are compiled and published as an annual report from the UN Secretary-General. However, the Register for each year remains open. Late submissions or revisions are published as addenda or corrigenda to the Secretary-General's annual report. Since 1995, this information has also been available at the UN website. (2)

Participation in the Register in its Sixth Year

The sixth annual report of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, dated 2 September 1998, contained data supplied by 93 member States relating to 1997: significantly more than in any previous year. (3) Two more (Madagascar and Mexico) provided reports by mid-November, giving a total of 95 replies by that time. This total is the highest so far recorded at this stage in the annual Register cycle: up from 90 in 1997 and 82 in the Register's first year. Two further replies relating to 1997 were received in the following months (from Croatia and Trinidad and Tobago).

Each year, there are new participants. In 1998 there were five such countries: Kiribati, Micronesia, Niue, San Marino, and Venezuela. The decision of Venezuela to join is particularly significant, given that country's previous problems with participation. (4) The other new participants do not maintain substantial armed forces, and all reported 'nil' returns for both imports and exports. These five new participants bring the total number of States that have participated in the Register at least once to 143. This is a high participation rate, relative to other global agreements requiring regular national reports.

There is, however, a continuing 'turn-over' amongst participants in the Register. Thirteen of this year's participants (Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, Bhutan, Cameroon, Jamaica, Jordan, Libya, Nepal, Niger, Philippines, Qatar, Solomon Islands, and Tajikistan) did not report last year even though they had done so in a previous year. Offsetting these were 11 'drop-outs': countries that participated in 1997 but not (by March 1999) in the Register's sixth year. These 'drop-outs' were China, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Grenada, Honduras, Iran, Latvia, Marshall Islands, Namibia, and Saint Lucia. The decision by China not to participate this year is especially disappointing, and is discussed further below.

Improvements in the 'Quality' of Reports

Since the first replies to the Register were submitted in early 1993, a growing number of States have been willing to provide detailed information on the type and model of the weapons that are being exported and imported. Of the major exporters, France provided such data for the first time in 1996, and the UK in 1997. This year, the US fell into line. The US's decision has been of particular importance, resulting in a dramatic improvement in the transparency of its Register reply. It is by far the largest exporter of major conventional arms, so this enhanced transparency illuminates the character of many of its arms transfers and also clarifies the sources of many discrepancies between US reports on its exports and those provided by importers. This leaves Russia as the only one of the 26 exporters of major weapons systems taking part in the Register that did not provide types data for its exports. Amongst the non-OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries providing such detail in 1998 were Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, South Africa, Israel and Singapore.

Moreover, the inclusion of qualitative data on weapon types has also become nearly universal amongst participating arms importers. This year, of the 41 countries reporting imports, only three - India, Macedonia and Qatar - did not report the types of weapons imported. (5) Taking exporters and importers together, therefore, the number of States failing to provide qualitative data on transfers has fallen from 13 in the Register's first year to only four this year. Russia, China and India are now the main obstacles to establishing a universal norm of providing such data in all reports on transfers. (6) Reluctance to provide data on exports and imports of category VII (missiles and missile launchers) remains more widespread than for the first six Register categories. Trade in missiles is confined to a smaller group of countries. Nevertheless, two exporters (Ukraine and the UK) and three importers (Canada, Pakistan and Ukraine) decided against providing qualitative data for this category despite doing so for all other transfers. On the other hand, both France and the US now include type details for transfers in all seven Register categories. Thus, for example, the US reports that it exported 40 AIM-7, 190 AIM-120, 66 AGM-88, 42 AGM/RGM/UGM84, 2 MK-48 and 4 Shipboard Launchers to South Korea in 1997. The UK, by contrast, simply states that it exported 338 missiles and missile launchers (of unspecified type) to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the same year.

States are invited to report on their military holdings and procurement through national production by providing 'available background information'. The number of States providing such numerical information grew substantially during the mid-1990s, and recently the data has increasingly included qualitative information. In a useful innovation recommended by the 1997 UN Group of Experts, such 'available background information' is now published in the annual Register report, and posted at the UN website. (7) In the past, this information has only been available in a filing cabinet at the UN Headquarters in New York, though it was also regularly published in full in the Bradford Arms Register Studies (BARS) series. (8) But the recognition of this data by publication in the Register itself is still a useful step forward, not least for those few unfortunate souls who are not on the BARS circulation list. (9)

This year, 36 States provided 'background information', of which 32 provided data on their military holdings (compared with 35 and 31 respectively in 1997). Most OECD countries now regularly provide such data (Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and South Korea remain the exceptions), together with a number of South American and Central European States. Australia, Tajikistan and new Register participant Venezuela provided data on their military holdings for the first time in 1998, but this was offset by the fact that Argentina, Macedonia and Slovakia did not include such data this year, although they did in 1997.

While the overall number of countries providing military holdings data remained steady, this year has seen a major change in the level of detail provided by key participants. For the first time, both Britain and Germany provided types data for their military holdings in the first six Register categories (i.e. except missiles and missile launchers), joining Canada, Japan and the Netherlands in doing so. As a consequence, almost half of the countries providing information on military holdings to the Register now include types data in their reports. Past experience of incremental improvement in the quality of reports for the Register indicates that the countries (such as France, Italy and the USA) that still omit information on weapons types in their background information may move towards greater transparency over time, at least in relation to holdings of the first six Register categories of weapons. States remain reluctant to reveal any but the most global figures for holdings of missiles and missile launchers.

Regional Participation

As in previous years, there were substantial variations in participation rates between regions this year. This reflects varying degrees of interest in the Register, capacity to participate in it, and acceptance of its underlying norms. The rate of participation in a region clearly affects the extent to which the UN Register can provide a basis for regional confidence-building processes.

Participation rates amongst members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have been consistently high throughout the lifetime of the Register, and remained so this year. Similarly, most other European States are also regular participants. The only significant exceptions are three of the States in the Balkans - Albania, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia - which did not participate either this or last year.

Participation rates amongst the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) increased substantially in the mid-1990s, and are now consistently high. Eleven out of 15 such countries provided data to the Register this year, including the three leading exporters Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The failure of Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Moldova to report this year is frustrating, but probably reflects inattention during their transition period: each has reported at least once before. Only Uzbekistan has not so far participated in the Register in any year, which is unfortunate in view of its active participation in the arms transfers market (for example, Russia reported exports of 120 armoured combat vehicles this year to Uzbekistan).

In the Americas, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the US report every year, and have done so again this year. In a significant advance, Venezuela also reported this year, providing 'nil' returns for exports and imports as well as a listing of its military holdings. However, there continues to be a high level of turnover in participation amongst medium and small States of the region. The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, and Saint Lucia failed (by March 1999) to provide data this year, having done so last year. But both Antigua & Barbuda and Jamaica provided information this year, having not done so for some time. Most of these smaller countries do not have significant involvement in the trade in major conventional weapons, and may therefore not give priority to regular Register replies. However, the effect is that the participation rate of American States consistently hovers around the 1998 rate of 16 out of 35, even though a substantial majority are periodic participants.

In South Asia, participation rates remain reasonably good. The two largest powers (India and Pakistan) reported in 1998, as they do every year. Given China's decision not to reply this year, Pakistan's report is especially welcome, revealing imports from China of 8 missiles and missile launchers. Bhutan and Nepal have also replied. Sri Lanka (a participant in past years) has yet to do so, but has frequently provided information late in past years and may do so again this time. Bangladesh is the only South Asian country never to have provided information to the Register.

In South-East Asia and Oceania, the practice of providing information to the Register is now well established. As in previous years, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have all provided full reports. (Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar continue to refuse to do so). Australia reported its military holdings for the first time, joining New Zealand as one of only two countries in this region to do so. (10) However, for some reason, Australia has not included its four submarines in its report on warship holdings, although they clearly fall within the Register definition.

In North-East Asia, the Register suffered a major setback this year. Participation in this sub-region has been relatively good for several years, with China, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia participating each year, and only North Korea declining to do so (Taiwan is not a UN member, and has not been requested to submit data to the Register). This year, China decided not to provide information, despite having done so consistently for the first five years of the regime.

The Middle East and North Africa has historically been a region of very low rates of Register participation, with only Israel and Iran making reports on a regular basis, with Jordan irregularly providing ('nil') reports. Members of the Arab League, led by Egypt, have refused to participate in recent years, citing dissatisfaction with the fact that the Register does not encompass weapons of mass destruction. This low rate of participation is a particular concern because the region is the world's largest market for arms exports.

This may now be beginning to change. For the first time since 1993, two Arab League States (Jordan and Qatar) reported imports of conventional arms to the Register. In a further sign that at least some Arab States may be warming to the Register, the year Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia and UAE voted in support of the annual Resolution in support of the Register in the UN First Committee and UN General Assembly. (11) Nevertheless, Egypt, Algeria and other Arab countries remain unhappy with the Register, and indicated this by abstaining on this General Assembly resolution.

By March 1999, no reply had yet been received by Iran, which has provided information for every one of the Register's first five years. Iran has often been very late in providing a reply in the past. Moreover, its replies have so far always exactly matched those previously submitted by its suppliers, amongst which China has been prominent. It would not be seen as coincidental if Iran decided to stop providing information in the same year as China also did so.

Participation rates amongst the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have regularly been dismal. This year proved no exception. Only nine reported, of which five have participated regularly over the last three years: Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, South Africa and Tanzania. This year Cameroon became the first State in sub-Saharan Africa apart from South Africa in the history of the Register to report a transfer (six ground support Impala combat aircraft imported from South Africa). All other replies have been 'nil' reports. Unfortunately, the lack of data on arms imports reported by sub-Saharan Africa does not reflect reality. Last year, exporting States reported transfers of major conventional arms to Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Eritrea, Rwanda and Sudan during 1996. This year, exporters reported further transfers to Botswana, Cameroon, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Togo during 1997.

In contrast to Latin America, therefore, where participation in the Register tends to be positively correlated with participation in the arms trade, the relationship in sub-Saharan Africa is unfortunately a strongly negative one. With the exception of South Africa, and now Cameroon, sub-Saharan African countries that import arms do not take part in the Register.

China's Withdrawal from the Register

The government of the People's Republic of China has generally been cautious, if not reluctant, in its participation in international transparency measures, including the UN Register. In the early years of the Register's operation, China regularly argued that the regime's transparency requirements bordered on being too burdensome, and even a potential threat to China's national security. It is therefore very important to note that China's decision to withdraw from the Register this year is not due to dissatisfaction with the Register's transparency requirements, but rather due to linkage with disputes relating to Taiwan.

In 1997, China had noted that 'arms transfers from the US to Taiwan are neither legitimate nor transfers between sovereign States' and asked that such entries be deleted from future annual reports to the Register. Despite this protest, however, the US included in its report to the Register a footnote detailing its exports to Taiwan during 1997, consisting of 30 M-60 battle tanks, 60 F-16 combat aircraft, 9 AH-1 attack helicopters, and 248 AIM-7 missiles: the second year in which it has provided such data to the UN. Anxious to avoid being drawn into this dispute, the UN made clear that:

'The documents have been reproduced as received. The designations employed do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Secretariat of the United Nations concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area, or of its authorities.' (12)

Nevertheless, by the end of 1998 China had declined to provide a reply to this year's Register. It made it clear that this was deliberate, and was a protest against the inclusion of exports to Taiwan in the USA's submission. If sustained, China's defection from the Register will be the most serious since the Register's formation. As both a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a major arms exporter, China's participation in the Register has been one of the transparency regime's key strengths. Some diplomatic solution to the problem needs to be found in the near future, so that China will return to the Register.

By including its exports to Taiwan as a footnote rather than in the body of its standardised reply, the US has already made clear that it regards exports to Taiwan as having a special character. No other exporter State reports its transfers to Taiwan in its Register reply. France, for example, is estimated to have delivered 24 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft, associated air-to-air missiles and three LaFayette class frigates to Taiwan during 1997: 62% of total French arms exports during that year. (13) Yet these exports are not mentioned in France's Register reply.

Clearly, a strong case can be made for reporting transfers to Taiwan. Tensions across the Taiwan Straits are one of the main flashpoints for possible armed conflict, and a major source of concern for international security. Thus, arms accumulations relating to the Taiwan Straits, including transfers of major weapons systems to Taiwan, are of substantial international interest. In principle, excluding such transfers from the Register would appear to be contrary to the Register's aims.

In practice, however, entangling the UN Register in wider political and symbolic disputes about Taiwan's status now threatens to undermine the Register. Having chosen to make an issue about reports that include information on transfers to Taiwan, China is unlikely to back down in the broader interests of sustaining the UN Register. The only global co-operative transparency regime dealing with major conventional arms may thus be seriously weakened, and without making any substantive contribution to promoting security across the Taiwan Straits.

On balance, therefore, the US, France and other suppliers should now review how they report on their arms transfers to Taiwan. In the interests of wider transparency, accountability and consultation, such suppliers should include information on their arms transfers to all 'political entities', including Taiwan, in their published reports to their national legislatures, and in information exchanges established within the EU or the Wassenaar Arrangement, for example. However, if they are forced to choose between including such information in their returns to the UN Register and China's participation in the Register, they should choose the latter at this stage.

Examining the Transfers Data

From the beginning, the participation rate amongst the major exporters of arms has been very high. In spite of China's withdrawal, this continues to be the case. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the total value of exports of major conventional arms during 1997 was $25.2 billion (at 1990 prices and trend-indicator values). The trade was relatively highly concentrated, with only fifteen countries exporting conventional arms worth more than $100 million during 1997. Thirteen of these fifteen States reported information to the Register on their transfers for that year. The only two exceptions were China (estimated exports of $170 million) and Moldova ($392 million). Together these exceptions account for less than 3% of total exports during the year, as estimated by SIPRI. (14) These and other exceptions remain significant and disconcerting. Yet the Register's overall coverage of exports of major conventional arms remains impressive.

The Register's coverage of major importers is less comprehensive, with 38 countries importing major conventional arms worth more than $100 million (at 1990 prices) during 1997, (15) of which 28 have so far provided information to the Register this year. The single largest importer during 1997, according to SIPRI figures, was Taiwan, which is not a UN member and has not been asked to provide data to the Register. Other Register non-participants amongst the top importers are China, Colombia, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Of the top ten importing States in 1997 (according to SIPRI), only five were Register participants.

As in previous years, the Register for 1997 shows the dominant role of the United States' in the world arms market. Accounting for around half of reported global exports, the US's biggest customers (in volume terms) this year were in the Middle East (Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), East Asia (Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan), and South-East Europe (Greece, Turkey and Bosnia). Similarly, the UK reported deliveries of 20 Hawk 65A and 36 Tornado IDS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, its biggest customer for arms sales, together with substantial arms exports to Indonesia, Kuwait, Brazil and the UAE. France did not report its most lucrative arms sale during 1997: its export of frigates and aircraft to Taiwan. However, its position as a leading exporter is confirmed by its report of major arms deliveries to UAE, Belgium, Indonesia, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Qatar. Germany and the Netherlands continue to export large quantities of surplus Cold War-era equipment, to Sweden, Austria and the UAE (Germany also reports the export of 468 MLRS AT-2 rockets to Norway).

Russia has retained its position as the leading non-NATO exporter, with significant exports to Cyprus (14 battle tanks); South Korea, UAE, Hungary and Uzbekistan (respectively 10, 69, 190 and 120 armoured combat vehicles); India (8 combat aircraft, one warship and 68 missiles and missile launchers); Vietnam (2 combat aircraft); Egypt and Colombia (respectively 20 and 10 attack helicopters); and China (one warship; probably an additional Kilo class submarine). Exports from Belarus, whose arms industries remain closely interdependent with Russia's, were dominated by 28 combat aircraft to Peru. Similarly, Ukraine reported substantial arms deliveries to Pakistan, India and Indonesia.

By contrast, the role as arms exporters of former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland and Romania, continues to diminish. Outside Europe, the most significant exporting countries (apart from China) in 1997 were South Africa (armoured combat vehicles to Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and Rwanda, and Impala aircraft to Cameroon) and Israel, which reported 15 T-55 battle tanks to Uruguay, 8 155mm artillery pieces to Slovenia, 4 155mm artillery pieces to Cameroon, and 10 Gabriel missiles to Chile.


Where both importer and exporter participate in the Register, their returns can be checked against each other. This provides a measure of verification. In practice, the data reported by the importer and exporter of a given transfer have often differed. Some level of discrepancies is probably a good sign, since consistently perfect matches may be a sign of prior 'fixing' of replies. A wide variety of factors, including bureaucratic mistakes, differences in national interpretations of Register categories and the definition of when a transfer takes place, and shipment times, mean that full matching is unlikely to be easy to achieve. For example, this year, South Africa initially reported exports of two Impala aircraft to Cameroon, while Cameroon reported six Impala imports. South Africa checked, identified an error in its report, and submitted a correction to the UN, according to established practice.

However, although some level of discrepancies is to be expected, it is worrying that the overall level of discrepancies between reports from importers and exporters has not significantly improved since the Register was established. The 'matching rate' seems stuck at about 40%. As the world's biggest exporter, the report of the US remains a particular source of problems. Only 24% of the US's reported exports matched those of its customers: higher than last year's 18%, but still lower than other significant exporters.

Exports to Regions of Tension

A key aim of the Register is to help the international community to identify and prevent excessive and destabilising accumulations and transfers of conventional arms. As yet, there are no specific UN mechanisms for reviewing and assessing the implications of data provided to the Register. However, the data is available for assessment by all concerned parties, and information exchanges based on the UN Register do now provide a basis for consultations amongst the members of the Wassenaar Arrangement.

This year, as in previous years, the Register provided substantial information on exports to regions of tension or conflict. For example, reported transfers to sub-Saharan Africa include: Congo's acquisition of 18 Mamba armoured personnel carriers from South Africa in January 1997; Rwanda's acquisition of 5 122mm rocket launchers from Slovakia and 4 armoured personnel carriers from South Africa; Cameroon's acquisition of six Impala aircraft from South Africa and four 155 mm artillery pieces from Israel; Eritrea's acquisition of 6 MB-339 training aircraft from Italy; and Botswana's purchase of 13 CF-5 fighters from Canada. None of the four largest exporters (US, UK, France and Russia) reported any exports to sub-Saharan Africa during this year.

Similarly, exports from Ukraine and Belarus of combat aircraft and missiles and missile launchers to Algeria were reported. So were continuing transfers of tanks and artillery from the USA and Romania to Bosnia, and exports of attack helicopters from Ukraine to Yugoslavia. The USA continues to export large numbers of major conventional weapons to both Greece and Turkey, while Cyprus reports receipt of substantial numbers of armoured combat vehicles and tanks from Russia and Greece.

Replies from East Asia showed little sign of the slowdown in arms purchases that took place as a result of the regional economic crisis. In 1997, Indonesia imported 61 armoured combat vehicles from France, UK and the Ukraine, five 155mm howitzers from Singapore, and 4 Hawk aircraft from the UK. Thailand also reported importing 101 M-60 battle tanks, 62 M-113 armoured personnel carriers and 8 combat aircraft from the US, together with an 'offshore patrol helicopter carrier' and 18 combat aircraft from Spain.

A Maturing Transparency Regime?

Although the Register has only been in operation for six years, it now demonstrates many of the characteristics of a mature regime. Implementation of commitments has now become relatively routine for 80 or so 'core' participants, including nearly all of the main exporters and most of the main importers of major conventional arms. 143 States have participated at least once, and overall participation continues to increase gradually. Moreover, there has also been substantial if incremental progress in the quality of the information provided. Whereas many exporters and importers did not initially include data on weapon types and models alongside numerical data on transfers, only four failed to do so this year. There are still too many discrepancies between the figures provided by importers and exporters, but this rarely appears to reflect an intention to mislead. Moreover, the provision of qualitative information by the US this year should makes it easier to identify and hopefully tackle the source of discrepancies in the replies of the world's largest arms exporter more easily. About 30 States, mostly OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) members or from Latin America, now regularly provide annual data on military holdings and procurement through national production. For the first time this year, this information is now published in the UN Register and is available on the internet.

The Register has thus become reasonably well-established. Moreover, it has some significant achievements already to its credit. First, it has established a de facto norm of transparency in conventional arms transfers which, though still weak and contested, all governments must now take into account. Second, it provides quantitative and qualitative information on the great majority of transfers of major conventional arms each year. A significant amount of this information has not previously been available in the public domain.

Third, since its information is provided officially, the Register provides a legitimate basis on which to develop regional and international consultations amongst governments. It has been used to promote security dialogues in East Asia, the Americas and elsewhere. Fourth, it provides publicly-available information, empowering legislatures, citizens and even some civilian branches of government in their efforts to strengthen accountability of the military and political leaders This has proved important in many countries in Latin America, South East and South Asia, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere.

Finally, the requirement to provide annual reports to the Register has stimulated many governments to establish and improve their national systems for monitoring and controlling arms transfers: a key condition for promoting restraint. Before the Register was established, even governments in several major developed arms exporting countries did not compile information on their own annual arms transfers.

Although the Register is becoming well-established, each year provides reminders of the its continuing fragility. This year, by far the greatest challenge is China's decision to suspend participation in the UN Register. In a way, the fact that this is a result of symbolic politics relating to Taiwan rather than unease with the Register's main reporting requirements indicates how far the transparency regime has developed in six years. Nevertheless, there is no question that extended defection from the Register by China could profoundly threaten its global legitimacy. Moreover, it could provide an opportunity for other governments, already unhappy with the expectations of transparency generated by the Register, to undermine and reverse some of the gains made. As discussed above, it is therefore important that the USA and other suppliers find a rapid compromise with China on how to report arms exports to Taiwan in the Register, and if necessary report them outside the UN Register framework.

Conclusion: Developing and Extending the Register

Although the Register in some ways appears to be mature, it remains only a voluntary exchange of information on transfers of seven categories of major arms. When the Register was initially established by the UN General Assembly, it was on the understanding that it would soon be expanded to cover procurement from national production and military holdings on the same basis as arms transfers. However, in spite of two attempts, through UN reviews in 1994 and 1997, it has so far proved impossible to secure sufficiently wide support for such an expansion. (16) Key countries such as China, India and Israel made it clear that they were not ready to accept such an expansion in the scope of the Register. Moreover, it proved impossible in these reviews even to significantly revise or adjust the scope of the seven categories of arms covered by the Register.

Thus, recent improvements in the reporting of qualitative data on transfers, and in the amount of information provided on holdings and procurement, have not come about through a formal strengthening of the Register's reporting guidelines. Rather, they have taken place as participating governments have become more comfortable with publishing such data, and are increasingly expected to do so by their legislatures and publics. The democratisation processes in many parts of the world over the last decade are gradually having their effect in the military sphere. Moreover, many of the governments that support the further development and expansion of the Register to cover holdings and procurement have sought to establish new international norms through a process of mutual example and encouragement.

The Register has been greatly strengthened by these improvements in the 'quality' of participation by many States, and there is much scope for this informal process to continue. Alongside this, there is a continuing need for the UN Secretariat and leading States to encourage wider and more consistent participation, to increase the 'core of regular participants in the Register. Unfortunately, participation rates in Africa and amongst Arab States can only be expected to increase gradually while underlying problems relating to weak States or authoritarian governments are tackled. However, there is great scope for securing high and consistent participation rates in regions such as Latin America, Oceania and the Former Soviet Union.

Such activities would not only be worthwhile in themselves, but would also help to prepare for the next negotiations to develop the UN Register itself. These are likely to take place next year. In December 1998, a widely-supported UN General Assembly resolution re-affirmed a request to the UN Secretary-General to convene a new UN Group of Experts on the Register in the year 2000 to prepare a report on the continuing operation of the Register and its further development. (17)

Even if China resumes participation in the Register, it must be recognised that the prospects are not good for securing consensus in the 2000 UN Group of Experts to expand the Register to include holdings and procurement on the same basis as transfers. Attitudes towards transparency in conventional arms in key countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel and Russia are not improving sufficiently quickly, and in some cases may have hardened since 1997.

However, this need not imply that the planned review will be unproductive. There are a number of worthwhile compromises that could be achieved, including expanding the register to cover procurement from national production (deferring expansion fully to cover military holdings until a future review). (18) Further, it may be possible to usefully revise existing reporting categories and even add additional ones: for example including selected light weapons (such as light mortars and machine guns) and/or force-multipliers (such as aerial re-fuelling or early warning aircraft).

Most importantly, perhaps, such a review could help to focus wide international attention on the Register, to reinforce political commitment and maintain pressure to increase participation and improve the quality of reporting.

In the meantime, the prospect of a forthcoming UN review could be used to stimulate regional organisations such as the EU, OSCE, and OAS to take initiatives in this area. The great majority of members of these three organisations not only support the Register but also support its further development and expansion. They could take steps to improve and consolidate good practice amongst all members, and perhaps establish precedent-setting regional arrangements to provide reports on additional categories of weapons such as certain types of light weapons. In this context, such regional initiatives should be directed at establishing precedents that may be adopted globally.

Notes and References

1. This article draws heavily on A Maturing Regime? The UN Register in its Sixth Year, BARS Working Paper 6, January 1999.
2. The Register is available on the Internet at http://www.un.org/Depts/dda/CAB/register.htm
3. United Nations Register of Conventional Arms: Report of the Secretary-General, General Assembly document A/53/334 of 2 September 1998.
4. R. Rodriguez, 'Arms Transparency in the Inter-American System' in Malcolm Chalmers, Mitsuro Donowaki and Owen Greene (eds), Developing Arms Transparency: the future of the UN Register, Bradford Arms Register Studies Number 7, CPDNP/Bradford University, Bradford, 1997, pp. 177 - 190.
5. Thailand reports types data for all its imports with the exception of 8 combat aircraft from the US and 9 combat aircraft from Spain.
6. China did not provide such data in 1997. Even if it rejoins the Register in the future, it may continue to omit qualitative data in its reports.
7. For reasons that have not been made public, the background information provided by Mexico had not been made available on the official UN web-site as of March 1999.
8. For full details of the 'background information' on national procurement and military holdings provided to the UN, see Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene, Background Briefing: Reporting national procurement and military holdings to the UN Register 1993-1997, Bradford Arms Register Studies Working Paper 5, December 1997.
9. For details of previous publications, contact Bradford Arms Register Studies, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP, UK.
10. Excluding 'nil replies' on military holdings from Kiribati, Micronesia and Niue.
11. UN First Committee, 5 November 1998, and UN General Assembly Resolution UNGA 53.77 V, L.43, December 1998.
12. United Nations Register of Conventional Arms: Report of the Secretary-General, General Assembly document A/53/334 of 2 September 1998.
13. SIPRI Yearbook 1998, p. 296.
14. SIPRI Yearbook 1998, p. 294.
15. Ibid, pp. 300-301.
16. A brief analysis of the results of the 1997 review and its implications are provided in Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene, 'Developing the UN Register: challenges and setbacks', Disarmament Diplomacy, No 19, October 1997, pp 11-17. See also Malcolm Chalmers and Owen Greene, Five Years and Counting: the UN Register in its fifth year, Bradford Arms Register Studies, Working Paper 4, Bradford University, December 1997. For the report of the 1997 Group of Governmental Experts on the UN Register, see United Nations Register of Conventional Arms: Report of the Secretary-General, General Assembly Document A/52/312, 28 August 1997.
17. UN General Assembly, resolution UNGA 53/77/ V, L.43.18. For further elaboration, see the chapters by Chalmers and Greene in Malcolm Chalmers, Mitsuro Donowaki and Owen Greene (eds), Developing Arms Transparency: the future of the UN Register, Bradford Arms Register Studies Number 7, CPDNP/Bradford University, Bradford, 1997.

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

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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