UNITED NATIONS – The UN’s annual arms register, created about 12 years ago to ensure military transparency among member states, continues to be shunned by some of the world’s biggest arms buyers in the Middle East and by key arms exporters such as China.
Of the 191 member states only 60 countries have consistently participated in the register, which records governments’ voluntary submissions on arms imports and exports.
A total of 167 governments have reported at least once, while 108 states have participated at least six times. The latest register issued last week contains data and information on arms transactions from 106 governments.
But absent from the list are declarations from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) four of the largest arms buyers in the Middle East.
But even arms exporters, including the United States, France, Britain, Russia and Germany, are reluctant to reveal their Middle East clients, particularly if there are "non-disclosure" clauses in their military contracts. As a result, these transactions fail to get into the register.
According to the latest figures released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington provided over $74 billion worth of weapons and military training to Middle Eastern nations during 1991-2000.
The updated figure through 2004 would be over $80 billion, according to military analysts monitoring the Middle East.
The largest single arms buyer was Saudi Arabia, accounting for about $33.5 billion dollars worth of U.S. weapons, followed by Israel ($18.8 billion), Egypt ($12.7 billion), Kuwait ($5.5 billion) and the UAE ($1.4 billion).
The weapons delivered included state-of-the-art fighter planes, combat helicopters, warships, sophisticated missile systems, armored personnel carriers and battle tanks.
Although Israel is the only major Middle Eastern arms buyer that is a regular participant in the UN register, it is also the primary political reason why Arab nations boycott the project.
"We have no intentions of participating in the register as long as Israel gets away with its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons," an Arab diplomat told IPS.
The register records arms imports and exports in seven specific categories of conventional weapons: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missiles and missile launchers.
But it excludes both weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and also small arms, the weapons of choice in ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflicts worldwide, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Egypt made its only submission to the register in 1992, the year it was created. Jordan, Qatar, Lebanon and Libya have made occasional declarations, and Oman and Tunisia only once.
As a result, the Middle East, described as the world’s largest single market for conventional arms, does not figure prominently in any of the 12 arms registers released since its creation.
"Transparency in arms possession is a well-established objective in the arms limitation field, although it is not a disarmament measure per se," says Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs.
"Nations are less suspicious of each other if they know the details of each other’s arsenals and this confidence-building measure leads, hopefully, to arms reductions so that we have security at much lower levels of armaments than we do today, consuming a staggering $956 billion on military expenditure in the last year," Dhanapala told IPS.
He pointed out that the register has expanded both "quantitatively and qualitatively" since its inception in 1992.
"Despite the lack of universal participation, the register does cover a substantial area of the arms trade in the seven categories of major conventional weapons," he added.
Asked about the absence of WMD, Dhanapala said that a German proposal for a parallel Nuclear Arms Register and other calls for small arms registers in specific regions "would help to extend the principle of transparency in arms, and encourage fuller participation in the arms register."
China, one of the world’s five major arms exporters, is also conspicuous by its absence. So are most countries on the African continent.
China did declare its arms imports and exports during 1992-1996. But it has boycotted the register since 1997 on the ground that the United States is giving legitimacy to China’s "renegade province" by including Taiwan in its official list of military clients.
Until and unless Taiwan is removed from the U.S. list, China has said it will not be a party to the document.
"The arms register has many of the same strengths and weaknesses now as when it was first implemented more than a decade ago," says Natalie Goldring, executive director of the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Its major strength is that it is the only global document on the weapons trade that consists solely of official government data, she says. In addition, participation in it continues to be strong, with more than 100 countries reporting already, and more submissions expected in the coming weeks.
"Unfortunately, the register still does not meet the needs of those countries in which small arms are taking such a tremendous toll," Goldring told IPS.
She said there is little incentive for countries in Africa to participate, for example, because the small arms and light weapons that are primarily used for killing in those countries are not included in the register.
"As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on the 10th anniversary of the register’s implementation, it could be a tool for early warning of military buildups and potential conflict."
"But to serve as such a tool, the register must be strengthened substantially," said Goldring, who has written more than a dozen monographs, book chapters and articles both on the arms register and on conventional weapons transfers over the last decade.
A group of UN arms experts has already recommended that the register be expanded by lowering the reporting threshold of artillery systems from 100mm to 75mm and by including "man portable" air defense systems (MANPADS) as a sub-category under the existing category of missiles and missile launchers.
Also, according to Goldring, "if the United States showed restraint in its arms transfers, it would be in a markedly better position to encourage other countries to do the same."
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