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EU reporting on arms transfers: calling for greater transparency

21 March 2014 - Roy Isbister, Kloe Tricot O'Farrell

Saferworld’s newly updated EU arms transfer transparency website highlights that while EU Member States are producing more information on their arms transfers, they still have a way to go before it can be said that they accurately represent their role in the global arms trade. As the entry-into-force of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) rapidly approaches, Roy Isbister and Kloe Tricot O'Farrell say EU Member States must lead by example through their own reporting practice, and provide support to ATT States Parties from other regions that are also looking to produce comprehensive and timely reports.

Publishing comprehensive, clear and regular reports on arms transfers is a fundamental part of a responsible arms transfer control system. In 2010 Saferworld published EU arms transfer data online, accompanied by an explanatory report, to shed light on EU reporting practices and encourage greater transparency. The database, now updated, highlights what should reasonably be contained in Member States’ national reports by listing 151 elements for effective reporting, mostly drawn from EU Member States’ existing reporting practices. It then sets out for each Member State which of those elements they report against.

Our analysis of Member States’ most recent reports (usually covering 2012 but in some cases 2011) shows that they are generally producing relatively extensive information on export licences and, to a lesser extent, on actual exports. However, for the most part they are still demonstrating little inclination to report on the end users of licensed transfers, to detail brokering and transit licences approved and activities carried out, or to provide information on equipment gifted or leased – information which would produce a clearer picture of the role they play in the global arms trade.

Moreover, on the grounds that they provide data for an EU Consolidated Report, some states either fail to report on certain issues that are covered by the EU reports or, despite it being a legal obligation, do not publish national reports at all. The national reports should provide a detailed picture of their arms transfers, from which the summary information for the EU Consolidated Reports can be drawn. In addition, though some countries publish their reports in English, as well as their national language, others are in a format which makes translation very difficult. The user-friendliness of some reports is also undermined by poor structure or by being difficult to find. 

The bright light of transparency

Transparency is fundamental in that it enables external observers to scrutinise states that do not honour their public commitments and obligations made under national and multinational arms control regimes, such as denying export licences where there is reason to believe the arms in question would be used to violate international humanitarian or human rights law. The value of comprehensive reporting that provides a clear understanding of government policy and practice should not be underestimated, as the bright light of transparency can ultimately dissuade states from engaging in irresponsible, or illegal, arms transfers. Moreover, whereas a lack of transparency reduces pressure on governments to address poor practice, high-quality reporting in one state can provide a yardstick against which other states (including beyond the EU) can measure the development of their reporting and ultimately, responsible licencing practices.

Leading by example

The experience of the EU provides an example of how reporting practices can develop over time. In 1998, EU Member States committed, via the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports (EU Code), to circulate among themselves confidential reports on their implementation of the Code and on their defence exports, which would then be compiled into a Consolidated Report for submission to the Council of the EU. The interests of transparency and accountability in EU arms transfer controls were immediately served when the Finnish Presidency decided to publish the first Consolidated Report.  This soon became ‘standard operating procedure’; all subsequent Reports under the EU Code were likewise published. This voluntary practice became a legal obligation once the EU Code was transformed into a Common Position in December 2008, with Member States directed under Article 8 to publish national reports on their exports of military technology and equipment, and to provide information on their implementation of the Common Position. And while the early Consolidated Reports provided very little information on actual arms transfers from the EU, they proved to be indirectly valuable in that they served to encourage Member States to develop and publish national arms export reports.

Sixteen years on, reporting at the EU level has visibly improved, not least in terms of quantity. The first Consolidated Report ran to all of four pages; the most recent, the 15th, comprised 516, with data provided by all Member States except Croatia (which was not an EU Member in 2012, the period covered by the report). In addition, 21 Member States (including Croatia) presently publish national reports. The systems of national reporting are, however, extremely varied. Some Member States give relatively detailed accounts of their licensing and deliveries of strategic material; others give partial or extremely limited information; some do not report at all. As the criteria for Saferworld’s transparency website are drawn from EU Member States’ existing reporting practices, all states should be able to report against all elements and publish reports of similar quality. Member States are therefore encouraged to examine the website data so they can adopt best practice as observed by other States.

With the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) likely to enter into force this year (2014), good practice by EU Member States has the potential to encourage States Parties to the ATT to produce comprehensive reports. Under ATT article 13(3), States Parties are encouraged to submit to the Secretariat annual reports concerning authorised or actual exports and imports of conventional arms covered by the Treaty. EU Member States should thus encourage all States Parties to publish timely and comprehensive reports, and provide capacity-building support toward that end. But to lead by example, Member States’ practices should themselves be exemplary. While EU practices may have encouraged other regional and international organisations or instruments to require States to provide information on their arms transfers – such as the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – many Member States still have some way to go before it can be said that they are themselves properly transparent regarding their role in the arms trade.

Roy Isbister is Team Leader, Small Arms and Transfer Controls at Saferworld.

Kloe Tricot O'Farrell is Saferworld's EU Advocacy Officer.

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EU Member States should encourage all States Parties to publish timely and comprehensive reports.

Roy Isbister