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The 2015 UN Register on Conventional Arms: still time to improve

On 16 September 2015 the United Nations Secretary-General's annual report on the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) was made publicly available. Reporting for the register started in 1993 and it remains the only global mechanism for official transparency on arms transfers. The register aims to enhance confidence between states and to prevent the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of arms.


Each year all UN member states are requested, on a voluntary basis, to provide UNROCA with information on the previous year’s exports and imports of specific categories of arms that are ‘deemed the most lethal ones’: battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles or missile launchers. States are also invited to submit information on their holdings and procurement from domestic production of major conventional weapons, and on their imports and exports of small arms and light weapons.


Low participation

Following the trend in 2012–14, 2015 is likely to be another disappointing year for transparency in arms transfers. Despite UNODA sending out a friendly reminder to UN member states in February, the number of submissions was only 35 (out of 193 states) by the date of the annual report, 22 July 2015. The official deadline for reporting was, in fact, 31 May 2015 but the document includes several reports from after that date. Grenada was the first country to report to UNROCA in 2015. By the time of publication in September, UNROCA’s website listed 31 reports, including 11 that were not included in the document—the website appears to have only included reports delivered via electronic reporting, and not those handed in on paper.

These figures should set alarm bells ringing as they suggest that UNROCA reporting could reach an all-time low in 2015. The number of states reporting data for 2013, which at the time of writing had reached 58, was until now the lowest ever. The recent level of reporting has been below what was expected. In the 1990s the level of reporting was fairly stable, at between 85 to 99 reports annually. It increased to its highest ever point—126 reports—in 2001, followed by a reasonably stable 113 to 123 reports for 2002–2006. Since then reporting levels have decreased rapidly.

It is still too early to make a final assessment of UNROCA participation in 2015. It is expected that, as in previous years, a number of states will send in their reports in the coming months—and in previous years such late submissions made up a significant proportion of the total. Some of the major arms-exporting states, Russia, China, France, Italy and Israel (all among the top 10 exporters), did not appear to have reported by 16 September 2015. As such, based on their reporting behaviour in past years, it is expected that their reports will come.

Many of the countries that are reported to have imported large numbers of major arms in 2014, in UNROCA submissions from arms exporters or in other public sources, did not participate in the register. Although the Middle East was the original reason for establishing UNROCA, and despite the fact that large-scale arms procurement is an important element in the region’s security situation, Turkey was the only state to report from the region for 2014. Israel, which in the past was the one country in the region that reported every year, stopped reporting by 2013. Saudi Arabia, the largest importer in the region, has never submitted a report. Qatar has not reported on actual imports, yet in 2013 and 2014, through other sources, it announced arms procurement programmes significantly larger than any of its previous arms procurements. Its submission for 2013 consisted merely of a statement saying that ‘It is not seeking to stockpile weapons in quantities surplus to its needs, and is working to reduce its imports of weapons’.

In South Asia, India and Pakistan had reported their significant and increasing imports of major arms for many years, but they did not send reports covering 2013. India did, however, report this year for 2014. But there is still no report available for 2014 from Pakistan. Singapore was the only country to report for 2014 in Southeast Asia, where tensions and arms acquisitions in the South China Sea foreshadow a concerning future. No country from the African continent has submitted a report covering 2014 yet.


Varying quality of reporting

Clear and (as far as can be judged) complete submissions, providing details of the weapons imported or exported, were made by many countries. For example, the reports by Ukraine and Turkey seemed to be consistent with information from other sources, even adding new information to the public domain. However, in addition to continuingly low levels of participation, many of the submissions—including several of the most important exporters and importers—continued to show major flaws. Cross checks on imports and exports reported in submissions, and comparisons with submissions with information from other sources as collected in the SIPRI arms transfers database, suggest that some states’ submissions are incomplete or simply wrong. In other cases, states have chosen to report obviously redundant information or report in a confusing manner.

This is not a new problem and such issues have been around since the start of UNROCA. Differences in definitions and varying interpretations of how and what to report make it difficult to assess submissions to UNROCA, which may intentionally or unintentionally misrepresent actual arms transfers. However, in UNROCA both exporter and importer report on the same transfer and the result should be almost a mirror image. In reality, there are big discrepancies. Of the 50 cases where both exporter and importer have provided a report, only 5 cases show an exact data match; in 6 cases both parties report the transfer but the number of units differ; and in no less than 39 cases either the exporter or the importer does not report the transfer at all. The continuing deficiencies in reporting can be illustrated by a number of key examples from the major arms-exporting states that did report—and certainly have the resources to do a proper job.

The United States provides, in most cases, a designation and description of the weapons it reports to have transferred in 2013 and 2014. In some certain cases the level of detail in US submissions to the UNROCA is quite high like, for example, in reports regarding the transfer of a P-40 (WWII combat aircraft) to a museum in the United Kingdom. In other cases, however, there are clear mistakes and omissions that have, in many instances, been reported via other US Government sources. The omissions are particularly remarkable, as all the missing transfers have been reported via other sources, including in other publications by US Government institutions, such as the Pentagon or the State Department, and by the companies that produced some of the weapons.

The most glaring examples include the reporting of a delivery of 20 F-16C/D combat aircraft to Egypt in 2013 on top of reporting the delivery of 7 F-16C/Ds in 2012. Public reporting elsewhere clearly indicates that only 8 of an order for 20 F-16C/Ds were delivered in 2013, after which the USA stopped deliveries as part of a widely reported suspension of most military aid to Egypt. The final 12 were delivered in mid-2015. At the same time, the delivery of 2 Ambassador missile armed ships to Egypt—handed over in 2013 and transported there in 2014—has not been reported in any US submission to UNROCA. The delivery of 12 F-16Cs to Oman in 2014 has not been reported, nor has the handing over of several F-16s to Iraq in 2014, possibly because the latter were only flown to Iraq in 2015. A transfer of 5 old P-3B maritime patrol aircraft to Pakistan in 2014 has been included, although these planes are probably still in the USA for upgrades before being ferried to Pakistan. However, the actual delivery to India in 2014 of a total of 5 new P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, the advanced successor of the P-3, has been omitted—even though the supply of anti-ship missiles for the aircraft was dutifully reported.

For the first time, in its reports for 2013 and 2014, the USA included some exports of unarmed military transport aircraft: 1 C-130J to Tunisia in 2013 and 1 to Oman in 2014. However, it omitted the delivery in 2013–14 of 2 additional C-130J to Tunisia and Oman, about 20 similar aircraft to several other countries and 10 much larger C-17 transport aircraft to India. The reason for including 2 C-130J is unclear (unarmed transport aircraft are not included in the UNROCA definition), as is the reason for excluding some 30 other aircraft.

Reporting by the UK, also among the top arms exporters in the world, also raised some questions. The UK should be commended for the detail in which it reports exports of small arms and light weapons to the register, in contrast, for example, to the USA. However, as in previous years, its listing of major arms exported in 2014 consists mainly of irrelevant details on exports of decommissioned ships for scrapping and exports of aircraft and armoured vehicles from the 1940s and 1950s to museums and collectors. Of the UK’s 35 entries on exports, only 2 are transfers to military users and of actual military or political significance. The most important transfer of these is the delivery of 8 Typhoon combat aircraft. However, that report is also an example of questionable accuracy since the Typhoon producer, BAE Systems, reported that 11 were delivered to Saudi Arabia in 2014. The UK Government explains the difference elsewhere by stating that it does not report actual deliveries but rather an average annual number based on export licences valid for several years.

More problematic is that several important arms transfers are missing. The UK report does not mention the delivery of 1 Khareef frigate to Oman in 2014, just as the report for 2013 did not list the delivery of another 2. Whereas BAE systems has openly reported continuing deliveries of unidentified numbers of Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2013, and other sources indicate the likelihood of further deliveries in 2014 and/or 2015, the UK has never mentioned such deliveries in any of its UNROCA submissions (even though the missiles, without doubt, fall under the UNROCA definition). The delivery of an armed patrol ship to Ireland also did not make it into the UK reporting for 2014. Nor did Ireland report the transfer, although it did report the import in 2014 of 6 machine guns for testing purposes listed under the category of battle tanks.

India, the largest arms importer globally, gives useful details about the types of weapon included and also dutifully reports armed transport helicopters in its submission. However, like the USA, it does not include the armed P-8I aircraft. More importantly, it excludes the substantial number of tanks and combat aircraft of Russian design that were assembled from kits in India or produced under licence in India. Since India does not provide data on acquisitions from national production, as some other major producers do, the UNROCA report leaves a big gap in the information needed to assess if any excessive and destabilizing accumulation is taking place.


Good reporting is possible and needed

A few initial conclusions can be made on the basis of this first analysis of the still incomplete 2015 submissions to UNROCA. A small number of countries continue to make a commendable effort to provide accurate, detailed, timely and relevant information about their major and small arms exports and imports and their national holdings of major arms. They demonstrate that a basic level of transparency in armaments is possible, even for smaller states with limited resources.

However, over the years UNROCA has been increasingly marred by problems, the most obvious being the steep drop in reporting over the past five years. In addition, serious cases of missing or wrong information in the submitted reports have been detected. These long-standing problems have undermined the usefulness of UNROCA as the confidence-building and stability-promoting measure it was designed to be.

The low level of reporting comes at the same time as the issue of reporting on arms transfers has been given an especially high profile due to the negotiations on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in December 2014. The ATT adopted a provisional reporting format for imports and exports that is essentially a copy of UNROCA’s reporting system. The major problems of participation and quality in UNROCA are issues that will need to be addressed in order to make an information exchange within the ATT framework successful.


About the authors

Pieter Wezeman (Netherlands) is Senior Researcher of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. 

Siemon Wezeman (Netherlands) is Senior Researcher of the SIPRI Arms and MIlitary Expenditure Programme.


Pieter D. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
Siemon T. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.