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The Inadequacies of the UN Arms Register

Air Cmde. (Retd.) Prashant Dikshit is the Editor of Salute.
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  • August 24, 2012

    It was certain that the shortcomings of the UN Register of Conventional Arms would resurface in the run up to the failed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This is because the deficiency lay in the type of weapon systems contained in this register and not so much in the spirit of the Treaty. Initiated in 1991, The Arms Register was emerging as the principal database that would contain the declarations of the member states, the signatories to the Treaty. It was conceived on the principle that a voluntary disclosure about weapons holding and acquisitions would go a long way in promoting transparency, and thus build confidence and trust among the members.

    But rhetoric apart, there is no escaping the perception that the ingredients of this register were initially seen only through a partisan prism, essentially as a strategic step against the weapons suppliers of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries. A scholarly view, put forward in 1995 ascribed the fructification of the register to the United Nations (UN) Security Council after the first Gulf War, i.e., Operation Desert Storm.1 The widespread belief in the powerful US-led camp was that “something must be done” to prevent the sort of “destabilizing build up in conventional weapons that had taken place in Iraq in the 1980s.”2 The effort was essentially aimed at stemming the flow of weapons from the freshly emerged state of Russia from the erstwhile USSR.

    At the very outset, the register was never in sync with the conflicts which afflicted the world when the document was being designed. Several invidious logics seem to have been injected into the document during the formative periods and in the course of which the nominations focused only on big weapons of pure military relevance. A voluntary declaration scheme was accordingly devised for the member states as per which they could inform the UN about their military holdings. Eventually, in the years to come, they evolved into broad generic groups, namely, battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. The practice was that a group of selected government experts would periodically examine the weapon systems in the laid-down framework of “weapons of military relevance” and advise the UN Secretary General as to what should go in the register. The UN apparently had abdicated its wisdom to a set of warriors who would advise at the bidding of their masters, sitting in far-flung capitals wearing several strategic interest garbs.

    But whilst these machinations were unfolding in the portals of the Security Council, the minions had shut their eyes to the globally pervasive phenomenon of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) unleashing mayhem in the 1980s throughout most of the world. The continents of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and even Europe, were engulfed. Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Central America (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala), Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan), and Southern Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka), all faced this peril. All but three of the 49 conflicts since 1990 relied on SALW as the only instruments of war; it was only the 1991 Gulf War that was dominated by heavy weapons.

    Memories are short but the events in Somalia, undivided Sudan and Afghanistan remind us of the infamous actions of the gun-running super powers. A civil war had become inevitable in the Somali society when the government fell in 1991—180,000 Somalis were armed with enough ammunition left over from stock-piling to last another 20 years.3 The UN peace keepers had to contend with rival gangs battling each other with assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and mortars. In neighbouring (former) Sudan, according to a UN estimate, over 500,000 people died in civil wars between 1983 and 1989.4 The tragedy of the Afghan War (1979–89) was the power play between the outside powers at its worst, in the course of which a US-led coalition pushed SALW worth over US$ 6 billion into the country.5 In 1990, as many as 16 armed conflicts had claimed 2,632,000 lives.6 People died in wars—mostly civil and intra-state wars where SALW were employed. Despite these inhuman innovations in the phenomenon of armed conflict, it took the UN over a decade (in 2006) to recognise the signs and accept the fact that the SALW needed to be included in the UN arms register.

    The context thus had changed and, mercifully, we were acknowledging that the nature of warfare has undergone a metamorphosis and new variants of weapons systems were acquiring a far potent military significance. From the concept of counter-state wars we had descended to wars against society, especially in fledgling nations. To these, the whole concept of the UN Register appeared as a charade foisted by western powers. This was perhaps the primary reason for a substantial drop in the reports being sent to the UN register. It took civil society advocacy groups several years of persuasion and unrelenting pressure to have SALW included in the register. This hypothesis was seemingly proven when it was discovered that as a sequel to the introduction of the SALW in the register, the reports from Africa improved significantly. It was a strategic shift in the military lexicon. These affected nations had much to do with the inclusion of the SALW in the register.

    This was but one small step in recognizing the appropriate types of weapons which ought to be included in order to make the document holistic and purposeful. The architects of the register, however, were still not able to visualize this adequately. They were truly caught up in the straitjacketed paradigm of military relevance when they glossed over the application of Land Mines and, especially, Anti Personnel Land Mines. Whilst the august body serving the ends of the Register design was not ready to emerge from battle fatigues, their own brethren from the Committee of Disarmament spearheaded the 1997 Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and their destruction. It was being promoted as an international agreement that would ban anti personnel landmines. We now know it as the Ottawa Convention or the Mine Ban Treaty. This syndrome continues to be the strangest paradox till today: it would not allow a weapons system to be listed in the register which was otherwise proposed to be banned by a treaty. The current situation is that the Mines Ban Treaty has not attracted the members of the UN Security Council and it is not being seen as a weapon of military relevance.

    There is a deep belief that for the Treaty to be robust and meaningful, it must be ensured that the weapon systems which will matter in the future are reflected in the very design of the instrument. This would point to threats and situations which the member states are aware of. If the endeavour is to build a consensus, then the Treaty must remain free from biases and prejudices of the past; at the same time, it should acknowledge that armed conflict is not inevitable. It can be avoided.

    The author has been engaged in studies on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and its impact on societies. He is the Editor of Salute magazine.

    • 1. Malcom Chalmers and Owen Greene, “The Development of the United Nations Register of the Conventional Arms-Prospects and Proposals”, The Non Proliferation Review, Spring–Summer 1994.
    • 2. Ibid.
    • 3. Julian Ozanne “Clan feeds Somalia’s curse”, Times of India, August 12 ,1992
    • 4. Report in The Bakhtar News Agency, January 5, 1992
    • 5. World Military and Social Expenditure, 1991, 14th edition
    • 6. Prashant Dikshit, “Proliferation of Small Arms and Minor Weapons”, The Asian Strategic Review 1992-93, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.