The annual report on global arms export of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) deals with legal arms exports only. It is the lion share of the world wide trade in weapons. Figures on illegal arms exports, by criminals, companies or countries violating international arms embargos by the UN, EU or OSCE, are not available, for obvious reasons.
The United States, which has and uses the power to actively persecute those who violate U.S. restrictions on trade (see e.g. http://www.exportlawblog.com/) uncovers many illegal arms trasfers. Widely reported was the seizure of the Panama-flagged KLOS C cargo ship (under Dutch flag only two years ago) which was boarded by Israeli special forces in the Red Sea near the Sudanese coast. The ship was suspected to export Syrian made M-302 surface-to-surface missiles to Gaza allegedly coming from Iran. The Sudan Tribune reports that “along with the missiles, some 180 mortar shells and 400,000 rifle rounds were laid out in neat piles on a pier in the port of Eilat” where the ship was brought after being captured. A U.S. spokesman told that: “the interception of this ship was a product of joint cooperation between Washington and Tel Aviv.”
More up north another ship was stopped in the harbour of Hamburg en route to Egypt. This time is was the German customs suspecting the cargo of an unnamed freighter. The ship turned out to transport spare parts for armoured vehicles and naval equipment from Poland, which according to the Germans was a violation of the EU Common Position on arms trade. Because the ship passed Hamburg harbour Germany was entitled to refuse a transit permit. According to a Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman it was a storm in a teacup. According to him, the cargo was only held pending for completion of documents.
These two examples show that a lot is possible in intercepting illegal arms transfers, as long as there is political will. What does not help is that some countries lower their arms export standards. Recently Swiss changed its policy under pressure of a lobby of 70 Swiss arms producers. Under the former regulation, arms exports to countries known for systematic and grave human rights violations were forbidden. Also, arms exports to countries engaged in an internal or international, armed conflict were not permitted. The new policy will be more elastic. Now, permits will be denied if there is “a high risk” in the receiving state that the military equipment will be used for serious human rights abuses, if the country is “illegally” engaged in an international, armed conflict or if an internal, armed conflict prevails. The “high risk” provision especially leaves room for manoeuvre. With this new formulation Switzerland is the first country downgrading its export rules in accordance with the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which is only giving very minimal standards.
Even more alarming is the change in the Japanese constitution, which will make it possible for Tokyo to export arms. This change is primarily introduced because of the cooperation with U.S. on several weapon manufacturing programmes (F-35 fighter and missile defence missiles SM-3 amongst others) for which export demand this change in law. But Japanese analists fear this will make all kinds of arms exports possible which might destabilize East Asia and strengthen the political position of Japanese nationalists and the Japanese armed forces. In the future Japan, the 3th global economy in the world, might also aim for a top position as an arms exporter.
When the supply grows, regulations are important, but even more essential is the political will to stop arms deals. Uncontrolled arms trade is caused by failing politics, not by lacking legal instruments. A positive example is the group of nations (Netherlands, Denmark, U.S., U.K., Canada, Norway, Germany, France and Italy) cooperating as the Gaza Counter-arms smuggling Initiative. The work of the group strongly contrasts the reluctance to stop illegal Libyan arms finding their way into Northwest Africa. The report by the UN-panel on those particular flows of weapons are a must-read for everyone who wants to understand what can go wrong with arms sales.