This is the fourth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2024 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, often offering recommendations.
The ongoing review process, expected to conclude in 2024, provides an opportunity for discussing and strengthening the implementation of the standards contained in the EU Common Position. Post-shipment controls – including on-site visits, on which this blog will focus – is one of the topics currently discussed.
As of today, post-shipment controls are only briefly mentioned in the User’s guide – a guidance document that accompanies the EU Common Position. Yet, on-site visits could play a role in strengthening the implementation of Criterion 7 of the EU Common Position, which focuses on the risk of diversion. And a number of EU member states, as well as the EU itself, have recently gained experience in adopting and using on-site visits. The blog explores these recent developments and possible ways in which the review process could serve to provide additional information, guidance and support to states that want to use post-shipment on-site visits.
What are post-shipment on-site visits?
On-site visits are one of many post-shipment control measures, and involve an exporting state requiring and then conducting physical checks on the territory of the importing state on military materiel they previously transferred. Such visits can be useful to mitigate arms diversion risks by verifying that the arms are still in the possession of the end-user authorized at the time of the transfer. Importantly, it’s also a tool to build trust and cooperation between importing and exporting states through a dialogue on what measures are most appropriate to prevent and address diversion risks.
On-site visits are not new, but historically they were mainly implemented by the United States (US). The US has set up several programmes, including the Blue Lantern programme since 1990, which foresees what it calls ‘post-shipment checks’. These post-shipment checks can potentially occur on all exports and are based on the extra-territorial application of US export controls. However, in the last decade a growing number of states – many of them in the EU – have been adopting and conducting on-site visits.
A tool increasingly used by EU member states
As of today, around 10 EU member states have decided to adopt on-site visits. EU member states that have adopted them mostly use on-site visits in a targeted or even ‘ad hoc’ approach. For example, states including Czechia, Germany, Spain, and Sweden focus on-site visits on certain export destinations and certain military materiel only – those which are deemed to pose a particularly high risk or be more prone to diversion (eg. it often includes a focus on small arms and light weapons - SALW). Others, like Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia have only used on-site visits a handful of times when deemed particularly relevant.
When used as part of a broader set of measures, states that use on-site visits have found it a useful tool to effectively mitigate diversion risks and to build confidence between importing and exporting states. That said, the experience of these states has also revealed some challenges. For example, the lack of financial resources or diplomatic representation in smaller states can limit their capacity to conduct on-site visits, which are costly and require a lengthy set-up process. Strengthening cooperation at the EU level and possibly having the EU provide concrete support to EU member states that want to use the tool could therefore be an opportunity to address some of these challenges.
The European Peace Facility and the EU’s role in carrying out on-site visits
The EU itself has recently gained experience in conducting on-site visits in the context of the European Peace Facility (EPF). The EPF was established in 2021 to fund the provision of military assistance to partner states, including for the first time lethal military materiel. The EU has been using this tool since February 2022 to militarily support Ukraine, and at the end of 2023 also passed an assistance measure to fund the delivery of lethal military materiel to the Somali National Army.
Post-delivery monitoring, including on-site visits, is part of the conditions that can be attached to the provision of military assistance. So far, the EU’s experience remains limited, but it has confirmed having undertaken on-site visits in the very specific context of Ukraine. As it conducts further such visits – they are planned as part of the post-delivery monitoring of military materiel transferred to Somalia, the experience the EU gains could be useful also to EU member states.
Recommendations for the review process
Post-shipment controls – including on-site visits – is one of the topics that EU member states are now discussing in the enforcement focus group, one of three focus groups created as part of the ongoing EU Common Position review process. Building on previous SIPRI research, this blog offers several recommendations for the enforcement focus group and possible outcomes of its work.
Firstly, the focus group could explore the possibility of providing guidance on the adoption and implementation of on-site visits in the User’s guide to the EU Common Position. Such guidance would be especially helpful to states that want to set up on-site visits, or that have relatively little experience in using the tool. It could build on the experience of EU member states and the EU itself, as well as on the work carried out in the framework of the Arms Trade Treaty – which resulted in a set of 'operational steps for the introduction and implementation of post-shipment control’ endorsed in 2023 by the Ninth Conference of States Parties. Research organizations have also published good practice guides which could be consulted.
Secondly, increasing exchanges on the planning, outcomes and challenges encountered in conducting on-site visits could be beneficial for all states. The User’s guide already ‘invites EU member states to share their knowledge and experience on the implementation’ of on-site visits, but few such exchanges have taken place to date. The focus group could reflect on possible ways to increase these exchanges, as well as on the types of information that could be most relevant to share and discuss.
Thirdly, the EU could contribute to addressing the limited resources that some states have flagged as a challenge to set up or conduct on-site visits. It could do so by using resources it already has at its disposal – or could leverage – to support EU member states. An outcome of the focus group could be to map the extent of these resources. For example, as part of the iTrace project which Conflict Armament Research (CAR) conducts with EU funding, EU member states can already request the assistance of CAR experts in conducting ‘post-shipment verification’ tasks, but it is unclear how much states have made use of this possibility. More broadly, some EU member states with a more limited diplomatic network have expressed interest in the EU taking a stronger role, for example by having EU delegations support willing states in planning or conducting on-site visits. The focus group could reflect on potential benefits but also challenges this could pose – including political sensitivities for the importing state – as well as possible ways to address them.
Writ large, the ongoing review process provides a valuable opportunity for the EU and EU member states to strengthen their cooperation on post-shipment controls – including but not limited to on-site visits. The provision of guidance, increased exchanges and additional resources to states interested in adopting or implementing on-site visits would be a useful and practical outcome of the review process, and serve to advance efforts to combat diversion under Criterion 7.
Lauriane Héau is a Researcher in the Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.
Inclusion on the Forum on the Arms Trade emerging expert program and the publication of these posts does not indicate agreement with or endorsement of the opinions of others. The opinions expressed are the views of each post's author(s).