Codes of Conduct on Arms Transfers -- the Movement toward a Multilateral Approach

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1978, with East Timorese guerrillas continuing to resist the Indonesia military occupation, the war struck my family. My sister Maria Ortensia was killed by a U.S.-made Bronco aircraft that was being used by Indonesian forces in East Timor for counterinsurgency. The same year I lost two brothers, Nunu and Guilherme, the first killed by fire from a U.S.-designed M-16 automatic assault rifle made under license in Indonesia, and the second during a rocket and strafing attack by a U.S.-supplied helicopter on an East Timorese village.(1)

--Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Laureate, 1996

The use of weapons obtained through an international arms transfer, for internal repression, international aggression, and human rights violations remains a serious problem in the post-Cold War era. The incidents described above by Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and the Indonesian Army's recent deployment of British helicopters and ground-support vehicles to suppress the East Timorese independence movement demonstrate the devastating effect that these weapons can have. At the domestic, regional, and international levels, legal efforts are currently under way to design codes of conduct that would deter the transfer of weapons that might be used to torture a nation's own citizenry, to stifle legitimate, non-criminal, anti-government political movements, or to attack a neighboring nation.

The purpose of this Note is to analyze four enacted or proposed codes of conduct on arms transfers: the U.S. Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers,(2) the International Arms Sales Code of Conduct, the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, and the International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. This Note will assess each code's potential for political success, compare their effectiveness, and propose an alternative solution to the unilateral and multilateral codes of conduct currently in force or being considered. Part II discusses the size of the world's arms export market, focusing on government transfers of weapons to countries that use them to carry out internal repression, international aggression, or human rights abuses. Part III describes the currently pending U.S. Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, the recently enacted International Arms Sales Code of Conduct, the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, and the proposed International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers,(3) and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each. Part IV uses United Kingdom (UK) and U.S. sales of weapons to Indonesia as a case study to provide a concrete example of the complexity of the issue and the need for a multilateral solution. Part V proposes a multilateral approach to the issue that is designed to halt arms transfers to undemocratic and human rights-abusing nations, thereby avoiding the weaknesses of a unilateral approach. This approach advocates the creation of a multilateral, supply-side treaty that would regulate arms transfers by monitoring exporting countries' behavior. In order to be successful, the treaty would have to be adopted with the support of the world's ten leading arms exporters.(4) The Note will conclude that despite the potential weaknesses of such a treaty, particularly in terms of enforcement, such a regime would be a more effective means of controlling arms transfers than the unilateral efforts now in place or being considered.


The international arms trade industry systematically moves arms from developed, predominantly democratic nations, particularly the United States, the European Union states, and Russia, to the developing world.(5) Many of the recipient nations are non-democratic or politically insecure states.

Worldwide arms transfers between governments were valued at $23 billion in 1998.(6) The United States led the world with thirty-one percent of all global arms transfer agreements in 1998, concluding agreements to supply more than $7. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.