Who stops the decline of arms export transparency?

In September 2023,the European Union published a Statement on Transparency and Reporting in the context of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It includes the offer to assist nations to develop mechanisms for timely and transparent reporting on arms exports: “The EU stands ready to assist in such efforts by seeking synergies with activities under EU-financed outreach projects.”

Transparency on arms exports was a major issue for the wide range of organisations campaigning against arms trade in the late nineties. Their call to improve reporting did not fall on deaf ears. The Swedish government was first in European government that published a national annual report on the export of arms and military equipment.I This good example was soon followed by others (see here for an extensive but still incomplete list).

Transparency forced by FoI

The Netherlands went a step further after introduction of an annual report, and started to publish monthly spreadsheets showing individual licenses for military and dual use exports and the consents for transit of military items through Dutch harbours and airfields. These spreadsheets were publicly available although hard to read for non-experts. This far-reaching transparency was the result of a common project of Stop Wapenhandel together with Dutch national radio programme Argos, who got information on individual export licenses after a Freedom of Information request (in the the Netherlands Wet Openbaarheid van Bestuur, WOB). The information provided turned out to be far more than given to Dutch members of parliament who were supposed to control the arms export policy of the government. The Parliamentarians were obviously not amused to discover this and demanded a structural and more accessible level of transparency. The spreadsheets became a crucial part of this transparency and soon other EU member states, like Belgium, followed the Dutch example.II

Detailed reporting diminishing

Because reporting differs from one EU country to another the Dutch individual reporting will be briefly explained here. To make it complicated, the Dutch reports on transit, military and duals use licenses each have a different format, because each has its own characteristics. In the table below you will find the heading of the table in the spreadsheet and the most recent entry line from each of them as an example. (text continues under table)

Since the start of the reporting in 2004, thousands of license have been listed in tables (military: 27,396; dual use: 12,548; transit: 24,661) on the website of the Dutch government. The reports were very useful to reveal more specific data on what was delivered to whom. It also laid bare aspects of transparency in the Netherlands which were not very well developed. The most striking omission is in the reporting of components (between 70 and 80 per cent of Dutch licenses) exported often to be assembled into complete weapon systems. The F-16 parts in the table – although here a small license – are a good example. They went to the United States, most probably to be assembled and re-exported to parties unknown to the Dutch government. The further diminishing of component export control through the Trilateral (France, Germany and Spain) Treaty on export control in the military domain (mentioned in a Dutch-French Joint declaration) will make this part of military trade even more intransparent.

How important good information is illustrates the column on numbers and calibres in the transit table. One rifle and a small amount of small calibre bullets is mostly for hunting. In the recent reporting, information on bullet calibres that has been published for decades is now missing. In the past it was easy to distinguish between small calibre (<12.7mm) and ammunition of larger calibre which is military relevant. Small calibre ammunition – especially in large quantities – might ring alarm bells on human rights implications. So let it return into the report!

War in Ukraine no excuse

Support from Brussels to break the walls of secrecy around the export of military products elsewhere in the world is more than welcome. But when member states at the same time break down their own transparency we have a problem. In the Netherlands, transparency on arms export is not a given fact any more. The monthly reports are no longer published regularly. Although the government promised to publish information two months after export licenses are given, this target is missed, as as the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said in December 2022. This was not the first time, but never has it been missed like the past year: reporting stopped almost completely. According to the Minister this is due to: “The heavy burden of the export controls following the war in Ukraine and the sanctions targetting Russia.”

At the bottom of the overdue government reports a line now says: “After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government decided, with a view to (operational) security, to communicate less openly about military goods supplied to Ukraine. During deliveries, the degree of openness that can be observed is always assessed on a case-by-case basis.” That exports to Ukraine are given as ***** in the reporting is understandable, moreover there is separate, more general kind of reporting on this. But it seems the Russian war in Ukraine made an end not only on reporting exports to Kyiv, but to the whole world.

The Dutch minister added in December 2022: “We are catching up concerning the reports.” But only two single months of licences got published – three months later. Only up to December 2022. In September 2023 some new information on transit consents has been provided. Reporting on dual use slowly continues. But instead of catching up the backlog is growing.

What is happening to arms export control?

The system of detailed information, much more useful to the global figures of the annual report to the parliament, made it possible to distinguish between normal and controversial arms exports. This system seems to be on hold at best, at a time that the arms industry and military exports is rapidly growing.

What is happening to arms export control? Are human rights and security in other countries no longer of relevance, now that the EU has clearly chosen to stimulate European arms production? Is this just a Dutch problem or do other European Union member states also erode their information on arms exports? In Germany alarm was raised on the change of control on a range of arms exports which fall since September 1 under a new general export license. With this new rule, arms can be brought into more countries than before without individual case-by-case assessment, and re-exports of German products may be uncontrollableIII, just as with Dutch F-16 parts to the US. Is the horrible war in Ukraine abused as an argument to go back to Cold Ware levels of transparency? Is the Dutch Ministry too understaffed to provide the level of information the public and parliament has been promised? Maybe there is some EU financial outreach support available for the The Hague to overcome this.

Martin Broek October 2023

I The EU itself has an extensive but rudimentary and slowly published annual report on arms exports and a web based search system (2021 included). One of the more important flaws is that not all countries provide all data (especially concerning exports and licenses. Some provide the first others the second, some do both) or use licenses the same way; France e.g. provides far more licenses as the amount of exports). The European Network Against Arms Trade has its own more user friendly version the EU Export Data Browser (currently runs from 2008 to 2020).
II The Dutch example was used by Vredesaktie to lobby the Flemish (arms trade is policy in Belgium is not a federal responsibility but controlled by the Regions) officials on this issue. Since then the reporting in Flanders developed into a somewhat different format. See for current reporting here.
III Pitt von Bebenburg, ‘Rüstungexport ohne Kontrolle’, Frankfurther Rundschau 19 september 2023.