On September 30, 2021, the Forum launched a new resource page for sharing an understanding of law and practices, case studies, potential research avenues and a variety of recommendations related to arms exports that are below Congressional notification thresholds (or simply not required). We welcome additional information, suggestions, and commentary here.
A Worrisome Conundrum: Latin American Defense and Security Forces and Weapons Trafficking
Latin America continues to face internal and transnational security threats that include drug cartels, transnational gangs, insurgent movements, as well as street crime. Naturally, preventing criminals and terrorists from obtaining weapons is an objective for any government. This goal becomes even more complicated when the weapons in question are obtained from the very institutions that are tasked with combating criminal and violent organizations.
Tragically, in recent years there have been a number of incidents in which weapons were taken from military bases and police stations across Latin America; this suggests a lack of adequate security measures in such facilities at best, or collusion between corrupt defense personnel and criminal enterprises at worst. When it comes to preventing violent non-state actors in Latin America from obtaining weapons to commit crimes, step one should be, unsurprisingly, that they do not come from military and police depots.
Recent Cases from Regional Armed Forces
There are a number of recent cases of the theft of weapons from military depots across Latin America. For example, in early January 2016, two rifles were robbed from the Uruguayan Army's battalion “Florida”.[i] One soldier was accused of helping criminals sneak into the facilities to steal the weapons. Unfortunately, these crimes have occurred before in the small South American state: in 2011 the Uruguayan daily El Observador reported that throughout the 2009-2011 period, as many as 19 weapons (15 FAL rifles, two submachine gun, and two Browning 9mm guns) were stolen from the Uruguayan air force and navy. Uruguayan sailors were found to have traded their weapons for recreational drugs.[ii]
Similar thefts have also occurred in Peru: in early April 2017 as many as 130 grenades were stolen from the Peruvian Air Force’s Punta Lobos base.[iii] A year earlier, 18 Galil rifles were reported missing from the arsenal of the 115th ordnance battalion in Loreto region (in the Peruvian Amazon).[iv] The hypothesis was that the weapons were delivered to FARC insurgents in Colombia or Brazilian criminals - the theft likely took place sometime in late 2015 but the weapons were only reported missing in January 2016.[v]
As for Bolivia, a group of Brazilian criminals, in cahoots with a Bolivian citizen, stole equipment from a Bolivian naval base in 2015.[vi] The weapons taken included 11 rifles, five guns as well as ammunition.
One particularly troubling incident occurred in Colombia in 2015, as some 400 weapons (109 rifles, 87 pistols, among others, according to the Colombian media) were stolen from the artillery battalion “San Mateo de Pereira.”[vii] One sergeant and one soldier were reportedly charged for the theft.
Finally, in August 2017 there was a violent incident in Venezuela when a group of individuals (who apparently were anti-government, former military personnel) attempted to steal weapons from the Venezuelan Army’s Paramacay base, where the 41st armored brigade is headquartered.[viii] A firefight that reportedly lasted three hours between the military and the thieves, ensued, with several of the latter killed. It is unclear if any weapons were stolen.
Recent Cases from Regional Police Forces
As for weapons taken from police bases, there have been similar incidents, particularly in Mexico. For example, in October 2016, unidentified individuals entered a police station in Nezahualcóyotl, State of Mexico, overpowering the police officers. According to the local media, the criminals left with three handguns, one carbine and one shotgun.[ix] That same month, 20 long-range and 10 short-range weapons disappeared from a different police station in Morelos region.[x]
Meanwhile, in late October 2017, 28 guns disappeared from a police base in Iquique, Chile.[xi] The media reports on the incident stressed that the weaponry was not part of the local police’s own depot, but rather that they were delivered there for safekeeping. The origin of the weapons aside, such a crime is very problematic.
Other recent thefts have been reported across police stations in Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru.[xii]
It is worth noting that there have been several successes when it comes to stopping these crimes and retrieving the lost weapons. Case in point, Uruguayan authorities foiled an attempt to rob an army base in Chuy in early July 2017 – according to Uruguay’s El Pais, one of the criminals was a former soldier.[xiii]
Additionally, many lost weapons have been retrieved. For example, in 2015, several individuals were detained in Brazil, and security forces retrieved the 11 AK-47 rifles that had been stolen from the aforementioned Bolivian naval base.[xiv] That same year the Chilean police (Policía de Investigaciones de Chile) recovered one Ingram Mac-10 machine pistol and one FN/FAMAE Norinco pistol, which had been stolen from a military base in Arica.[xv] Also in 2015, the Colombian army reported that it had retrieved some 12 weapons out of the 400 that were stolen from a military base in Pereira.[xvi]
An Issue that Hinders An In-depth Analysis
Before we continue with our analysis, one disclaimer is necessary: The author has not been able to find reliable governmental statistics that detail how many weapons are missing from military and police depots. There have been sporadic reports that have tried to keep track of the data. For instance, a March 2015 article in the Argentine daily La Nacion explains that a preliminary report by the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (provincial commission for remembrance) stated that, at that time, in Buenos Aires region alone, some 900 weapons were believed to be missing from local police stations, although that was a conservative estimate.[xvii] Similarly, a 2015 report in Peru’s daily La Republica explains how, at the time, 86 members of the country’s police and military were charged with stealing weapons from their respective units and police bases.[xviii] Colombia’s renowned Semana has also reported on this problem.[xix]
Similarly, research centers such as FLACSO and the Small Arms Survey have drafted occasional case studies about weapons trafficking in different Latin American states (Ecuador and Honduras, respectively).[xx]
Nevertheless this problem requires constant monitoring not only by governmental offices, but also by non-governmental organizations in order to ensure transparency.[xxi]
The objective of this essay is not to imply that Latin American criminals are exclusively obtaining weapons from military or police depots; in reality that number is probably minuscule when compared to other sources – many U.S. media reports consistently point out that most of the weapons Mexican cartels utilize come from the United States.[xxii] Nevertheless, this analysis has demonstrated that this is a recurring issue in the region, with missing weaponry that includes pistols, rifles, and grenades. It is a problem that should be addressed.
In many cases, weapons were taken from military bases or police stations because corrupt police or military personnel willfully cooperated with criminal organizations, begging the question: what convinces a Latin American police or military officer to provide criminals with weapons that will be most likely utilized against security forces?
When it comes to discussing the best practices to combat weapons trafficking, some suggestions are self-evident. Case in point, having a database with the model and serial numbers of missing weapons is necessary, so that when a gun is retrieved from criminal organizations, the authorities can track where said weapon came from. A problem with this proposal is that, as aforementioned, many weapons are smuggled across border lines so that crime syndicate “X” in country “Y” uses a weapon that was taken from country “Z” – as was probably the case for the Galil rifles stolen in Peru. This is a particular problem for Ecuador, which serves as a corridor for weapons smuggled from Peru to Colombia (known as “ant-type smuggling” or tráfico hormiga).[xxiii] Ideally, cooperation initiatives between regional police and armed forces should include greater sharing of information regarding the weapons that are seized from criminals.
There are already several agreements in place to promote record sharing between regional governments, such as the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Material (CIFTA) [xxiv] Additionally there are a number of bilateral agreements among hemispheric governments to combat crimes related to weapons trafficking – for example the governments of Ecuador and the United States signed an agreement to improve cooperation to combat crimes such as drug and weapons trafficking in late April 2018.[xxv]
Furthermore, there is something particularly disappointing about finding out that the individuals tasked with protecting a country and its citizens from criminals and insurgents are precisely those providing the latter with weapons to attack the former. Is there a “best practice” that can be suggested for those specific crimes? Harsher prison sentences for those found guilty is an obvious option. In fact, several military and police personnel have been prosecuted (fairly or unfairly depends on how one interprets the evidence) for some of the aforementioned incidents: as a result of the missing Galil rifles, four army officers were given six-month prison sentences.[xxvi] Similarly, in Chile, four ex police officers have been prosecuted for the missing guns in Iquique.[xxvii]
Another suggestion would simply be, as naive as it may sound, stronger indoctrination courses in military and police academies, so that new recruits do not forget the pledge they are making to protect their country and fellow citizens, and how helping criminals obtain weapons is the polar opposite of said oath. A Latin American military officer interviewed by the author argued in favor of this proposal, arguing that “you can put five more guards, four more security cameras and three more locks at weapons arsenals, but such incidents will continue to occur… you have to train soldiers better, educate them better, pay them better.”[xxviii] On the other hand, another Latin American army officer explained to the author, that such incidents should prompt armed forces to “take security measures of the weapons depots to the extreme.”[xxix] There is certainly no one-stop-solution to address the issue of weaponry theft.
As a final point, it is important to highlight that the theft of weaponry from military bases is not a problem solely relegated to Latin America. In the U.S. “more than $1 million in weapons parts and sensitive military equipment was stolen out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and sold in a vast black market,” according to an August 2017 report by the Associated Press.[xxx] Another theft occurred in the U.S. Army’s facilities in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2016.[xxxi] Without a doubt, “rotten apples” exist in defense and security forces across the world.
Weapons trafficking is a major crime across the world, as it adds the proverbial wood to the destructive fire that is crime and terrorism. Latin America is no exception to this problem as it is not difficult to find at least one incident within the last decade of wicked personnel who have helped criminals obtain weapons from military or police arsenals. To the credit of regional defense forces, several weapons have been successfully retrieved, but the lack of open-source data that shows how many weapons are missing from depots makes it difficult to figure out what quantities we are talking about.
In any organization, including those tasked with security and defense, it is inevitable that there will be bad personnel that will seek to profit by committing criminal acts, which apparently include providing weapons to criminal entities. But while avoiding such incidents may be a utopia, it is important for Latin American police and military forces to constantly come up with new preemptive strategies not only to prevent robberies from happening – like better salaries and stricter security protocols– but, when they do occur, to be able to quickly track them, particularly across borders. Weapons trafficking is a complex and very profitable crime, and Latin American security and defense forces should be combating it, not be involved in it.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues.
The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
[i] “Militar sospechoso de robo de armas en Uruguay,” Ecos – Latinoamerica, Actualidad, January 30, 2016.
[ii] “Militares procesados por robo y tráfico de armas,” El Observador (Uruguay), April 11, 2011
[iii] “Roban 130 granadas de una base de la Fuerza Aérea del Perú,” Perú21, April 6, 2017.
[iv] “Loreto: Roban 18 fusiles de guerra de base militar en Iquitos,” Perú21, January 5, 2016.
[v] “Ministro inspecciona base militar tras robo de 18 fusiles,” RPP Noticias (Peru), January 4, 2016.
[vi] Alonaca, Jesus, “Un imputado por el robo de armas en base militar,” El Deber (Bolivia), December 11, 2015.
[vii] “Capturan a dos militares por robo de armamento en batallón de Pereira,” El Espectador, Judicial, February 2, 2015; “Ejército recupera 12 armas que fueron robadas del batallón San Mateo de Pereira,” El Espectador, Nacional, July 9, 2015.
[viii] “De base militar de Carabobo habrían robado más de 100 fusiles y lanzagranadas,” RCN Noticias, August 7, 2017; “Dos muertos dejó enfrentamiento en la 41 Brigada Blindada del Ejército en Carabobo,” La Patilla, August 6, 2017.
[ix] “Comando irrumpe en cuartel y roba armas de la Policía Estatal en Neza,” Proceso (Mexico), October 18, 2016.
[x] Pedro Tonantzin, “’Madrugan’ a policias, les roban 30 armas en cuartel de Morelos,” Excelsior (Mexico). October 5, 2017.
[xi] “Desaparecieron 28 armas que custodiaba Carabineros en la Primera Comisaría de Iquique,” SoyChile.cl, October 30, 2017.
[xii] “Un policía estaría detrás de robo de armas en Estación de Carabineros,” Noticias RCN (Colombia), December 23, 2014; “Policía sin pistas sobre responsables de robo de armas en Jicaral,” La Nacion (Costa Rica), Crimenes, May 5, 2017; “Policía incautó más de mil armas y municiones en megaoperativo,” El Comercio (Peru). April 27, 2017.
[xiii] “Detuvieron a delincuentes que planeaban asaltar cuartel en Rocha,” Radio Montecarlo, July 7, 2017.
[xiv] “Operativo en Brasil recupera 11 fusiles AK47 robados de un puesto militar boliviano,” La Razon (Bolivia), December 17, 2015.
[xv] “PDI recupera armas robadas al Ejército en Arica,” Ministerio del Interior y Seguridad Publica (Chile). August 28, 2015.
[xvi] “Ejército recupera 12 armas que fueron robadas del batallón San Mateo de Pereira,” El Espectador, Nacional, July 9, 2015.
[xvii] Jesus Cornejo, “Los policías bonaerenses pierden un arma cada 48 horas,” La Nacion (Argentina), March 9, 2015.
[xviii] “86 militares y policías enjuiciados y condenados por robo de armas y granadas,” La Republica (Peru), September 29, 2015.
[xix] “Escándalo: mil armas perdidas en guarniciones militares,” Semana, June 13, 2015.
[xx] Carlos Valdivieso, “Armas de fuego en Ecuador, ”FLACSO (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales), Perfil Criminológico, No.17, July 2015; “Measuring Illicit Arms Flows: Honduras,” Small Arms Survey, Research Notes, No. 62, November 2016.
[xxi] This would also serve to understand better not only how many weapons are lost or stolen, but how many are also found. The author has relied on open-source news articles and reports for this analysis. Sources consulted by the author explained that a person can request ministries and specific government agencies for information regarding the incidents discussed in this analysis, but it would take time for these petitions to be processed.
[xxii] Analyzing weapon sales and weapons trafficking in Mexico is complicated due to its proximity to the United States. For example, see: German Lopez, “Where do Mexican drug cartels get their guns? The US,” VOX, January 14, 2016. Also see: Bill Chappell, “In Mexico, Tens Of Thousands Of Illegal Guns Come From The U.S.,” NPR, International, January 12, 2016. And see: John-Lindsay Poland, “How U.S. Guns Sold to Mexico End Up With Security Forces Accused of Crime and Human Rights Abuses,” The Intercept, April 16, 2018.
[xxiii] “El tráfico de armas permea la frontera norte de Ecuador,” El Comercio (Ecuador), February 19, 2018; “Autoridades ecuatorianas identifican rutas para el tráfico de armas hacia Colombia, Centroamérica y México,” Andes, June 5, 2015.
[xxiv] The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Material (CIFTA), 1997, http://www.weaponslaw.org/instruments/1997-oas-convention-cifta.
[xxv] “Ecuador y EEUU firman convenio de cooperación en lucha contra crimen y drogas.” EFE/El Espectador, April 16, 2018.
[xxvi] “Iquitos: Dictan 6 meses de prisión preventiva para implicados en robo de fusiles | VIDEO,” La Republica (Peru), January 22, 2016.
[xxvii] “Ex carabinero procesado por extravío de armas en Iquique dijo que se matará ‘para que ese fiscal se pudra en la cárcel,’" SoyChile.cl, November 30, 2017; “Nueva polémica en Carabineros: acusan ‘montaje’ del Labocar Temuco por el Caso Armas en Iquique,” Soychile.cl, February 1, 2018.
[xxviii] Telephone conversation between the author and a Latin American military officer, March 2018, off-the-record.
[xxix] Telephone conversation between the author and a Latin American military officer, March 2018, off-the-record.
[xxx] Kristin M. Hall. “'Easy Money' Made Selling Army Weapons Stolen by US Soldiers,” Associated Press, August 31, 2017.
[xxxi] John Vandiver, “Army offering $25K reward in search for weapons stolen from Stuttgart arms room,” Stars and Stripes, January 30, 2018.
U.S. Security Assistance to Non-State Actors: Unintended Consequences and Long-term Instability
Since the Cold War, the United States has been the dominant arms supplier in the world, providing billions per year in arms to well over 160 countries.[i] Most of the time these weapons go to the security forces of a sovereign state, but occasionally the United States has seen it in its interest to provide arms to non-state actors (NSAs), primarily rebel groups not sanctioned by their domestic state to take up arms. Despite the justifications for providing such lethal aid in the short-term, overwhelmingly the aid has not proven successful, resulting in unintended consequences and long-term instability.
There are justified reasons the United States may decide to provide security assistance to non-state actors, including support for counterterrorism operations, the responsibility to protect innocent civilians, pushback against foreign invasion, as well as other possibilities. For example, when the United States began providing the mujahideen with weapons in the 1980s, it not only helped protect innocent Afghans from callous attacks by Soviet forces, it increased the cost of the Soviet invasion until they ultimately withdrew a decade later. At a relatively low financial cost to the United States, it was able to protect lives and weaken its rival superpower.
However, even if we take the most generous view of U.S. intentions when providing security assistance and weapons to NSAs, several unintended consequences can and have occurred. In Afghanistan,[ii] the United States trained and armed fighters who later went on to join al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, which ultimately led the United States to return in 2001 where it is still fighting in a nearly two-decades long war at the cost of trillions of dollars.[iii]
More recently, the United States has been providing more than $2 billion[iv] in weapons and training to Syrian rebels, with an additional $300 million requested for fiscal year 2019.[v] The rebels’ specific task has been to help the U.S. coalition defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), but while Kurdish militias have seen success on the battlefield against ISIS, numerous reports have documented human rights abuses[vi] by U.S.-trained Syrian rebels[vii] and the diversion of U.S. provided weapons.[viii] This has perpetuated the fighting and fostered new grievances among the victims. Yet, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. U.S.-supported Nicaraguan rebels, commonly referred to as the Contras, were frequently accused of human rights abuses,[ix] and trafficking drugs and weapons.[x] But they weren’t the only ones. U.S.-supported UNITA rebels in Angola[xi] and the mujahideen in Afghanistan have also received credible allegations of human rights abuses.[xii]
Much of this comes down to the unavoidable principle-agent problem associated with the provision of arms to other forces. As the principle, the United States only has so much control over the Syrian rebels (the agent) receiving the equipment and training. The agents have different concerns, objectives, and goals, making it near impossible to guarantee arms will not be diverted, power abused, or objectives carried out.[xiii] Yet, US involvement makes it culpable.
In addition, security assistance to non-state actors is an inherently destabilizing activity. The weapons and training provided grant the recipients an extraordinary capacity for violence. Security assistance can be a powerful tool, but it is only as effective as the recipients’ capacity to receive, contain, and direct these resources toward positive ends. States often struggle to fully implement the institutional frameworks required to prevent the misapplication of assistance; the challenge for non-state actors can be even greater.[xiv]
The problem of capacity is compounded by the fact that defense articles and training have a life span that can far exceed the scope of their intended use.[xv] Arms and ammunition linger in the communities that receive them. While U.S. policy, priorities, and interests turn to other areas, the arms and training remain, potentially creating long-term instability. Arms provided to the Contras in Nicaragua have been used by drug traffickers; UNITA rebels in Angola returned to the “battlefield”;[xvi] and many of the mujahideen turned to international terrorism.
In part, this is why relations with neighboring states can be strained when providing NSAs with security assistance. But it is not the only reason. By injecting defense articles outside the pre-existing state structures, the United States undermines the “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.”[xvii] This monopoly provides the foundation for state institutions, and underpins a state’s legitimacy domestically and internationally. Unilaterally arming non-state actors upends domestic and regional security relationships already strained by conflict.
For example, relations with Turkey, a major NATO ally who sees the provision of arms to the Kurds as a direct threat, have been severely damaged by U.S. assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This has led to U.S. allies fighting each other in Syria, detracting from the mission’s original objectives and further destabilizing the region.[xviii] Former-President Obama promised there wouldn’t be mission creep,[xix] but in Syria the United States is providing training and operations support, U.S. equipment to various state and non-state actors involved in the conflict, and has attacked the Syrian regime, Russian mercenaries, and Iranian-supported militias. Now the United States is coming dangerously close to being involved in direct fighting against Turkey. All risking a further conflagration of the region.
Whether U.S. assistance has turned to short-term responses, such as U.S. support for Libyan rebels, or the long-term engagement evidenced by current U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, problems have arisen. In 1984, a Congressional resolution stated that it would be “indefensible to provide the freedom fighters [mujahideen] with only enough aid to fight and die, but not enough to advance their cause of freedom.”[xx] Now, the US is providing the “Vetted Syrian Opposition” with just enough assistance to defeat ISIS and anger nearly every ally and foe alike, but not enough assistance to decisively end the conflict against al-Assad and the Syrian regime. Despite the different policy approaches, security assistance has perpetuated and further complicated the wars, while doing nothing to address the endemic problems at the heart of the conflict.
International attempts to regulate the arming of non-state actors have been restrained by the lack of an international consensus on the definition of a “non-state actor.” The term is broad enough to include a range of groups, including armed rebels, warlords, private security companies, terrorist organizations, and even “semi” recognized states such as Taiwan and Kosovo. In 2001, John Bolton, then U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, rejected an effort to ban military aid to non-state actors defined as “irresponsible end-users of arms” on the grounds that this would “preclude assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government.”[xxi]
While a definition may not determine whether a group is a responsible end-user, it would give states a better idea of their own responsibility in providing weapons, and the risks associated with doing so. The Canadian delegation to the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, argued for a blanket ban on arms transfers to non-state actors, and attempted to include language in the preamble that would have emphasized states’ responsibility in providing arms to non-state actors. However, due to U.S. opposition, neither effort made it into the final document.
One solution could be to forgo any UN consensus, and instead push for regional agreements. The ECOWAS Convention of 2006[xxii] and the Kinshasa Convention of 2010 define non-state actors and prohibit the transfer of small arms and light weapons to them. The ECOWAS Convention defines NSAs as “any actor other than State Actors, mercenaries, armed militias, armed rebel groups and private security companies.” By comparison, the Kinshasa Convention defines “non-state armed groups” as any group that “is not part of the formal military establishment of a state, alliance of states or intergovernmental organization and over which the state in which it operates has no control.”[xxiii] While the definitions vary significantly, they both address the risk of arming NSAs, and contribute to a customary definition for the groups themselves. Regional arms control regimes like these could discourage interstate meddling, in that parties would have a vested interest in preventing proliferation in their neighborhood(s) and could provide a unified voice against outside intervention.
Ultimately, U.S. provision of security assistance to non-state actors carries enormous risk and should only be executed as policy after thorough cost-benefit analysis that weighs short-term benefits against the likely unintended long-term consequences. Mitigation strategies must also be considered to address the inevitable consequences if in fact assistance is initiated. Non-state actors’ lack of institutional capacity, the lifespan of materiel provided, and the general inability of the United States to align its objectives with those of its non-state proxies exposes the tension between security assistance’s long and short-term goals. An internal CIA study reportedly notes that covertly arming and training rebels has rarely worked in the past.[xxiv] America’s recent covert and overt support in Syria hasn’t seemed to fair much better. While these policies have the potential to achieve short term objectives, they create lasting and long-term consequences that have too often failed to achieve peace and stability.
Seth Binder is an independent researcher focused on U.S. security assistance and arms sales. Robert Watson is a member of the Forum on the Arms Trade’s Emerging Expert program.
[i] Arms Transfers Database, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, (accessed April 3, 2018), .
[ii] Jason Burke “Frankenstein the CIA Created,” The Guardian, January 17, 1999.
[iii] Cost of War Project, Brown University’s Watson Institute, November 2017.
[iv] Security Assistance Monitor data on U.S. security aid to Syria, (accessed April 1, 2018).
[v] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense Budget Fiscal Year 2019 (2018, February) Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Train and Equip Fund (CTEF).
[vi] “We Had Nowhere Else to Go: Forced Displacements and Demolitions in Northern Syria,” Amnesty International, October 2015.
[vii] “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, June 19, 2014.
[viii] “US-Allied Syrian Rebel Officer Handed Trucks and Ammunition to al-Qaeda Affiliate,” Associated Press, September 23, 2015.
[ix] Doyle McManus, “Rights Groups Accuse Contras: Atrocities in Nicaragua Against Civilians Charged,” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1985.
[x] “Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy,” Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report, December 1988.
[xi] Edward Girardet, “Angolans Describe Human Rights Abuse During Civil War,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1983.
[xii] Patricia Gossman, “The Forgotten War,” Human Rights Watch, February 1991.
[xiii] Kareem Shaheen, “US-Trained Syrian Rebels Refuse to Fight al-Qaida Group After Kidnappings,” The Guardian, August 6, 2015.
[xiv] An Vranckx, “Containing diversion: arms end-use and post-delivery controls,” GRIP, April 2016.
[xv] Paul Holden, Indefensible: Seven Myths That Sustain the Global Arms Trade, Zed Books, February 2017.
[xvi] “Peace in Angola When Savimbi,” Afrol News, April 11, 2001.
[xvii] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 1918.
[xviii] Carlotta Gall, “72 Turkish Jets Bomb US-Backed Kurdish Militias in Syria,” New York Times, January 20, 2018.
[xix] Micah Zenko, “Your Official Mission Creep Timeline of the US War in Syria,” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2015.
[xx] “Afghan Freedom Fighters: United States Support,” 98 Statute 3499, U.S. Congressional Resolution, October 4, 1984.
[xxi] Paul Holtom, “Prohibiting Arms Transfers to Non-State Actors and the Arms Trade Treaty,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2012.
[xxii] ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunition and Other Related Materials, June 14, 2006.
[xxiii] Central African Convention for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition and all Parts and Components that can be used for their Manufacture, Repair and Assembly, Kinshasa, April 30, 2010.
[xxiv] Mark Mazzetti, “C.I.A. Study of Covert Aid Fueled Skepticism About Helping Syrian Rebels,” October 14, 2014, New York Times.
If you really care about sustainable development, you better think about defense
Opaque, unaccountable defense spending threatens to derail the global development agenda. If the United Nations and its member states are serious about implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, they’re going to have to abandon their exceptional treatment of the defense sector and start asking what countries really spend on their militaries.
Since their official adoption in September 2015, the world has in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals a new roadmap for the fight against poverty, inequality, and injustice. Designed to replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals, which expired at the end of 2015, the SDGs are altogether more ambitious in scope and application – aiming for the first time at all states, not just developing countries.
Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs also recognize the fundamental nexus between development and security. Seeing how a country at war is less likely to provide basic services to its people, to attract vital investments, and to develop its infrastructure – the connection is clear. Relatedly, the OECD changed the scope of “Overseas Development Assistance” in February to include peace and security-related costs, a further testament to how interrelated “development” and “security” have become.
For the UN -- tasked with overseeing the SGDs’ implementation -- the question is how to best address security to make the SDGs more successful than their predecessors. While the causes of internal instability are complicated and varied, there is one major -- straightforward -- thing that ought to be considered: start asking countries what they actually spend on their militaries.
When the public has little knowledge and oversight of how valuable defense money is being spent, it’s more likely that key tax income will be wasted and is therefore unavailable for strategic development initiatives. In some cases, earmarked funding is actually diverted from other sectors, like health and education, and used to buy, at worst, non-functional (which can risk soldiers’ lives) or, at best, unnecessary defense equipment.
In 1999’s infamous “arms deal” between South Africa and a number of European defence companies, the initial cost was estimated to be ZAR9.2 billion (US$1.2 billion). Yet by 2005 this had burgeoned to an estimated ZAR66 billion (US$9.1 billion). This meant that in 2008, for every ZAR spent on providing assistance to South Africa’s AIDS sufferers, an equivalent ZAR7.63 was being spent on financing the arms deal.
Relatedly, in Uganda, an estimated 1700 health centers could have been constructed for the amount of money spent on Russian air superiority fighters – purchased without a plausible end-use or the necessary authorization (or at least knowledge) of Parliament. The government at some point seemed to claim they were needed to fight insurgents in the Great Lakes Region – an oddity considering the fighter jets were designed for air combat and the rebels weren’t flying any planes of their own.
SDG number 16 is calling for “effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels” as a way to promote peace and minimize corruption. Yet the global push for transparency remains highly uneven across sectors leaving defense, arguably one of the most opaque, largely out of view. Arguments regarding “national security” concerns -- while of course sometimes valid -- have been grossly abused to justify keeping critical information out of the public domain.
According to research from Transparency International Defence & Security, 25% of countries do not publish their defense budgets, while 30% of military expenditure is by countries with zero meaningful budget transparency at all. Perhaps most surprisingly, international organisations like the UN and their member states – keen to be promoting “good governance” – have made little issue of states’ partial reporting.
It’s not just the UN and its members of course. As the world’s largest lender, the IMF has also repeatedly acknowledged the consequences of corruption on development and included a series of recommendations for greater transparency. Yet its recent 2016 report – “Corruption: Costs and Mitigating Strategies” -- fails to reference the defense sector even once. One wonders how the IMF can effectively monitor public expenditure if it ignores arguably one of the most secretive and, in some cases, expensive sectors.
Global defense spending is not only rising—up $675 billion since 2005— it is increasing fastest where standards of governance and levels of transparency are lowest. The gap between defense spending and public accountability becomes particularly salient when you combine Stockholm Peace and Research Institute’s (SIPRI) new 2015 Trends in World Military Expenditure and Transparency International’s 2015 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (GI). This crosscheck reveals, among other things:
SIPRI also found that reallocating only around 10% of world military spending would be sufficient to realize some of the main SDG goals. Countries could easily find that money, without even altering their military ambitions, if less money was wasted on and lost through defense corruption.
Yet across the global defense sector, a lack of transparency and accountability pervades. From arms export controls to budgetary planning, citizens are often denied critical information regarding what their governments are doing. If more isn’t done to ensure minimum standards of transparency and accountability in defense, the SDGs will remain a neat list of aspirations in a more militarized, insecure, world.
Tobias Bock is Deputy Director of the International Defence and Security Programme at Transparency International and a Forum on the Arms Trade-listed expert. Hilary Hurd is Research and Advocacy Officer in the Programme.
Improving Transparency and Seeking Control over the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons
This is the fifth blog post in a series on official transparency reporting, where it struggles, and the important role civil society often plays in monitoring and improving global understanding of the trade and use of conventional weapons.
The United Nations is not known for its command of acronyms. So when countries reached agreement on an instrument to control the illicit arms trade, its unwieldy title was, “The United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects.” In this post, I’ll use the shorthand “Programme of Action”, or “PoA’.
The Programme of Action was agreed in 2001 after a great deal of discord and acrimony, and with considerable uncertainty about its prospects. Although it still needs strengthening, fifteen years later, the PoA is a pillar of the nascent regime to exercise better control over the international arms trade. The PoA recommends action on national, regional, and global levels. The assembled governments committed themselves to addressing the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons by developing or strengthening norms to prevent, combat, and eradicate the illicit trade, manufacturing of and trafficking in small arms and light weapons, with a particular emphasis on post-conflict situations and excessive and destabilizing accumulations of small arms and light weapons.
From 6-10 June, governments will gather at the United Nations to discuss progress in implementing the Programme of Action, at the sixth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS6). One key area for improvement is taking advantage of potential points of synergy between the Programme of Action and the Arms Trade Treaty; another is fully integrating ammunition into the Programme of Action.
As part of the implementation of the Programme of Action, States are requested to report on their activities in many substantive and procedural areas. They’re asked, for example, to report on whether small arms and light weapons (SALW) are manufactured in their countries, and if so, what laws, regulations, and administrative procedures regulate SALW manufacture. They are also asked to report on issues such as stockpile security, marking and tracing weapons, and procedures governing brokering, among other issues.
As of 1 June, more than 70 countries have reported on their PoA activities over the last two years, including each of the top ten conventional arms suppliers identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and six of the leading recipients. The country reports provide a useful starting point for discussion during the conference, as do the proposals circulated in advance by several countries and regional organizations, which are available at: www.un.org/disarmament/bms6/
The success of the conference, of course, should not be measured by the papers or the discussions. In the end, what matters is whether States have the political will and the financial and other resources to actually control the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and decrease the enormous toll caused by armed violence.
Dr. Natalie Goldring is a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Full Professor with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She also represents the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy at the United Nations on conventional weapons.
The ATT and Transparency
Increasing transparency and oversight of the international arms trade are at the heart of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Under the ATT, States Parties have three reporting obligations. First, States Parties must provide a one-off report that outlines the measures it has undertaken to implement the Treaty; although this has to be updated if new measures are undertaken. Second, States Parties have to make available an annual report on their authorized or actual exports and imports of conventional arms, which could contain the same information as provided to the UN Register. Third, States Parties are encouraged to report on measures they have taken to address the diversion of arms.
The First Conference of States Parties (CSP1) took note of provisional reporting templates for the initial report on measures to implement the ATT and the annual report on arms exports and imports. However, The ATT does not require States Parties to utilize a standardized reporting form. The ATT requires States Parties to provide useful information on implementation of the ATT with regards to arms transfer control systems and responsible transfer decisions. States, international organizations, and civil society will utilize these reports to monitor ATT implementation and better understand how States Parties interpret and understand the treaty’s provisions and obligations. Reports also provide insights into how States have incorporated the ATT into their national systems. They can highlight best practices, lessons learned, and model legislation that other countries can utilize in the development or enhancement of their own national systems. Additionally, reports provide opportunities to match assistance requests with available resources. In these ways, reporting allows for accurate monitoring and assessment of ATT implementation by States and by civil society – and can provide a greater understanding of the global arms trade overall.
States Parties considered the production of reporting templates a useful endeavor to assist with the provision of information on implementation and transfers. Thirty-five States Parties to-date are known to have used the provisional reporting template for their initial report on measures to implement the ATT. A further six States Parties used their completed ATT-BAP Baseline Assessment Survey and France provided a narrative report.
For the annual report – the first of which is due on 31 May 2016 – States Parties may utilize the provisional reporting template or their submission to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (Register), including the separate form for additional information on transfers of small arms and light weapons. It will be important to encourage States Parties to provide information on authorizations and actual exports and imports for all categories required under the ATT, including the number of units transferred, a description of these items transferred and information on the end-user.
The annual report is crucial for getting a global picture of what types of weapons States are importing and exporting. The annual report will therefore go a long way in helping identify trends in the global arms trade, if the reports are made public and States are comprehensive in the provision of information.
In the very near future – potentially at the Second Conference of States Parties (CSP2) in August – States Parties will need to consider how to best ensure universal reporting. CSP2 will also be asked to decide if the adoption of reporting templates is the best approach for achieving this goal. States Parties also need to consider whether to develop a reporting template for the voluntary report on diversion, which could help to improve accountability and mitigate potentially harmful arms transfers. Comprehensive reporting will lead to increased transparency of the systems governing arms transfers and how the provisions of the Treaty are applied to international arms transfers. In the end, robust reporting has the opportunity to contribute to greater accountability in the global arms trade and encourage States to undertake more transparent and responsible arms transfers.
Rachel Stohl is Senior Associate, Managing Across Boundaries, at the Stimson Center. Paul Holtom is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University (UK). Together, they developed the ATT-Baseline Assessment Project.
Declining transparency in reporting on arms trade and military spending: some observations
This is the third blog post in a series on official transparency reporting, where it struggles, and the important role civil society often plays in monitoring and improving global understanding of the trade and use of conventional weapons.
In the first week of May, the US State Department started to add data on US arms exports in 2015 to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA). Though still in the process of being completed the report reveals that 36 M-ATV armoured vehicles were delivered to Saudi Arabia. That is useful to know considering that these vehicles are used in the forceful Saudi intervention in Yemen. However, closer examination of other sources suggests that many more M-ATVs must have been delivered to Saudi Arabia in 2015 or 2014. Why are they not reported? We don’t know, but this is a recent example of how incomplete government reporting continues to hinder well informed discussions on arms trade and military expenditure and highlights the continuing efforts made by NGOs and research institutes to collect and disseminate relevant information and analysis.
Over the past few years, a worrisome trend of problems in reporting for military spending and the global arms trade and, consequently, reduced transparency has been observed by the team of researchers at SIPRI in charge of maintaining the databases and present global trends. SIPRI relies on open sources for its databases on military spending and arms transfers. Each year, the team collects, processes and then publishes new figures on national and regional military spending and arms transfers, with accompanying analysis of regional and global trends.
Intermittent and reduced reporting by states and international organisations is an issue for the team. However, it is far from being the only one that we face when harvesting data. Indeed, in several instances, there is reporting, but the quality of the data is highly questionable, resulting in lack of clarity about what the figures cover and what definitions are used to achieve them. For instance, the team has noted discrepancies between figures from different government reports originating from the same countries – ´such as with discrepancies between reporting by the Pentagon and the U.S. report to UNROCA in 2014 - as well as important delays in publishing yearly reports.
Military spending may fare better than the arms trade in terms of transparency, as countries such as Nigeria and Kazakhstan have started providing detailed figures online. However, there is a counter trend of countries that have stopped publishing their figures altogether. For its 2015 new military expenditure data, the team decided against presenting an estimate of regional military spending for the Middle East. This decision can partly be explained by the fact that Syria and Yemen are waging wars on their territory, which disrupt regular activities of state institutions such as reporting on budgets. However, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which we can assume to be two large regional spenders, do not publish their military budgets at all. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the third largest global military spender in 2015, a single budget figure is published every year, but there are no details about what it covers, making it very opaque.
Problems of reporting and timeliness are also observed in the global north, especially for arms transfers. Indeed, the publication of the European Union Report on arms exports of member states, which was initially designed to increase transparency on this matter within the European Union, has been severely delayed two years in a row -- the one covering 2014 having been published in early May 2016. The quality of the figures presented in the EU report is also highly questionable. Several states, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, report export licences values without providing any figures for the actual deliveries of the weapons for which the licences were issued. The use of global licences also injects greater opacity into the arms trade.
Some of these problems are not new, and SIPRI has designed alternative ways to circumvent them - to a certain degree. For instance, a network of national experts supports the data collection process by providing details of coverage and definition in the case of military spending. Extra research is led in-house to assess official figures by comparing them to other sources and/or to fill gaps by using trustworthy secondary sources. When no figure is available or is deemed too unreliable, the team uses estimates that are then clearly identified as such, and revised when new information is available.
Despite these difficulties, SIPRI updates its databases and analysis yearly, doing its part to inform civil society, and to support positive actions. However, weaker reporting, discrepancies in figures presented, lack of definitions and delays in publishing the reports reduce decision-makers' accountability as well as oversight of independent auditing agencies and parliamentarians.
Aude Fleurant is Director of SIPRI's Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. The programme team contributed to this blog post.
This is the second blog post in a series on official transparency reporting, where it struggles, and the important role civil society often plays in monitoring and improving global understanding of the trade and use of conventional weapons. Clear here for the first post.
Over the past decade and a half, the United States has greatly expanded its investment and involvement in the security sectors of other countries, moving from more than $5 billion in FY (Fiscal Year) 2001 to more than $19 billion in FY 2015, to help address a range of U.S. security concerns. This investment, often-called security assistance, can be a helpful tool to reduce security threats from violent actors and help make security forces more accountable to the civilian population. However, done poorly it can also undermine stability or have no effect at all.
According to a RAND study last year, U.S. security assistance has several risks. It can undermine legitimate governance, exacerbate the balance of power within the state, give weapons to unintended users, and abet human rights violations. There is also the risk of moral hazard. Since transnational terrorism is not always high on a foreign country’s security concerns, the incentive is also real for some countries to make slow progress in addressing terrorism in order to keep the aid flowing.
Unlike other forms of U.S. foreign assistance, much of the U.S. security assistance is not published on the State Department’s “Foreign Aid Dashboard” or in the International Aid Transparency Initiative registry, making it nearly impossible for journalists, civil society, and policy makers to help identify the specific risks and steer U.S. taxpayer money to more effective programs. When there is information, sometimes that data is widely different than what the Defense Department has told Congress.
For instance, the Foreign Aid Dashboard indicates that the Pentagon allocated money to Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Iraq through the Section 1206 authority in FY 2011. However, Congressional Research Service reports don’t list those countries receiving any Section 1206 funds for that year. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, the Dashboard indicates that Section 1206 funding is addressing health issues instead of counterterrorism issues.
This gap in public information on State and Defense Department assistance efforts prompted the creation of the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM). SAM is the first, and most comprehensive resource to house all publicly available, official data on U.S. security assistance in one place. SAM searches through a diverse range of U.S. government reports, submits Freedom of Information requests, and interviews government officials to obtain sought-after data, including from the growing amount of Pentagon military aid.
Our interactive online databases covering military aid, economic aid, arms sales, and military training provide journalists, civil society, and policy makers in the United States and abroad with key information needed to conduct oversight of this assistance. We also analyze the data to identify important trends and potential concerns and publish our findings on the Security Assistance Monitor blog or in outside sources.
However, there is still some key U.S. security assistance data and information that is not yet available to the public. Unlike the State Department, the Defense Department does not provide a public, comprehensive budget justification to Congress for the next year that shows the type of security assistance it plans for each country and the related costs. There is also no reporting yet to Congress with a full accounting of how the Defense Department spent its money for more than 50 security assistance authorities the previous year.
Improved access to quality, timely, usable information has many benefits. Detailed information on military and police aid helps the U.S. government coordinate security assistance efforts within the State and Defense Departments. It also helps identify where there may be duplicative efforts or an under focus on key issues. Without such basic transparency, it’s also nearly impossible to begin to assess whether or not the United States is spending its money on the right activities and ensuring that such lethal aid doesn’t abet human rights and undermine stability.
Colby Goodman is Director of the Security Assistance Monitor.
In recent decades, international agreements on conventional weapons trade and use have recognized the value of greater transparency, in part by creating reporting mechanisms and requirements. A short list of such agreements, whether legally binding or simply voluntary, include the UN Register on Conventional Arms, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Program of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the more recent Arms Trade Treaty. With the creation of these and other agreements, many government officials now complain of reporting fatigue, drawing into question the value and functioning of many transparency measures. In a series of blog posts over the next two months, Forum on the Arms Trade-listed experts will examine official transparency reporting, where it struggles, and the important role civil society often plays in monitoring and improving global understanding of the trade and use of conventional weapons.
April 30 marks the annual reporting deadline for the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These reports provide a wealth of government-certified information on weapons stockpiles and their destruction, contaminated land and its clearance, measures to protect and assist those endangered or already harmed by these indiscriminate weapons, as well as national laws and implementing measures. Such official reports make it much easier to track progress as well as hold governments accountable to treaty mandates, as well as broader efforts to promote conventional weapons control.
In times of conflict, they can also assist in understanding weapons flows and potential dangers. For example, the appearance of East German PPM-2 landmines in Yemen suggests that new supplies (of old landmines) are coming into the country because those types of mines had not been previously reported by Yemen as part of its stockpile or contamination. Similarly, Ukraine’s most recent transparency report indicates that hundreds of landmines have fallen out of their control, stockpiled in Crimea before the separation of the region.
These reports alone, however, often need to be augmented by additional information, typically gathered and analyzed by members of civil society. The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor -- with its weapons use research led by Human Rights Watch -- as well as many other groups contribute to tracking supplies of landmines and cluster munitions and documenting their use. This is critical, for example, in places such as Syria and Yemen where these weapons have recently been used and are often supplied by countries not party to the treaties, and therefore outside the treaties’ reporting regimes. Importantly, this collective work has contributed to growing international efforts to cut off arms supplies to Saudi Arabia -- in part because of Saudi-led coalition use of cluster munition in civilian areas.
With the upcoming reporting deadline, states have the opportunity, and obligation, to again contribute to improved transparency. Their collective record, however, is a bit disappointing. When last year’s Landmine Monitor and Cluster Munition Monitor were published, 94 States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty had failed to meet their annual reporting obligations and more than three dozen States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions had failed to meet their initial or annual reporting mandates. Since then, Mine Ban Treaty members have adopted a new guide to assist in reporting.
As is common at this point in the year, the number of reports available on the official treaty websites is low (Mine Ban Treaty, Convention on Cluster Munitions). Hopefully the upcoming intersessional meeting on the Mine Ban Treaty will spur countries to submit their reports before that meeting opens on May 19. For the first time, however, there will be no intersessional meeting for the Convention on Cluster Munitions. There is a danger that reporting will lag without that mid-year spur to action.
An additional opportunity, however, exists for states that have not yet joined the treaties to demonstrate commitment to transparency and treaty objectives by submitting voluntary reports, as a number of states have done in the past. The United States, in particular, has expressed a goal of eventually joining the Mine Ban Treaty. Given the size of the US stockpile, and lack of transparency in the progress of destroying it, submitting such a report would be an important step in demonstrating U.S. commitment to the treaty.
The "Looking Ahead Blog" features comments concerning short- to medium-term trends related to the arms trade, security assistance, and weapons use. Typically about 500-1000 words, each comment is written by an expert listed on the Forum on the Arms Trade related to topics of each expert's choosing.
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