Managing the Global Problems Created by the Conventional Arms Trade: An Assessment of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms

By Laurance, Edward J.; Wagenmakers, Hendrik et al. | Global Governance, April-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Managing the Global Problems Created by the Conventional Arms Trade: An Assessment of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms


Laurance, Edward J., Wagenmakers, Hendrik, Wulf, Herbert, Global Governance


One of the first global security problems to emerge in the post-Cold War period was the excessive and destabilizing accumulation of conventional weapons. The only truly global instrument to emerge to cope with this was the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. This article is an assessment of how this transparency and confidence-building measure has contributed during its ten-year existence to the management and global governance of the negative consequences of the arms trade. The Register has developed an important norm and made arms transfers more transparent. But it still has a long way to go before it can play its inherent role in establishing a cooperative security regime that would address excessive and destabilizing arms buildups. KEYWORDS: conventional arms trade, United Nations, Register of Conventional Arms, transparency, confidence building, cooperative security.

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At the end of the Cold War and throughout the 1990s, the international community began to seriously address an emerging set of global problems--disease, pollution, violations of labor rights, gender inequality, HIV/AIDS, poverty, injustice, inequitable access to resources--that were increasingly understood to be the result of the increasing globalization that accompanied the collapse of the bipolar international system. Phrases such as new world order, global governance, and managing global issues were increasingly being used to describe how the world was organizing to deal with these problems. Like all global social conditions or problems, the negative consequences of the arms trade must be managed. (1)

Surprising to many, this movement toward global solutions also took place in an important dimension of international security: reducing and preventing the negative effects that accompany the proliferation, availability, and misuse of military weapons. Cooperation among states increased in the area of weapons of mass destruction (WMD): the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed in 1993 and entered into force in 1997; the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was indefinitely extended in 1995; the General Assembly, by resolution in 1996, adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; serious negotiations resumed aimed at developing a verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention; and the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, known as the Hague Code of Conduct, was agreed in 2002. Concomitantly, at the other end of the weapons spectrum, a treaty banning antipersonnel landmines was signed in 1997; the state parties of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) adopted the Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) in 2004; and in 2001, the UN held an international conference that produced a Programme of Action to prevent and reduce the effects from the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. In all these cases, norms emerged to guide the behavior of states; institutions for global agenda setting and policymaking were developed and their mandates grew; and monitoring of compliance became a normal function. (2)

Noticeably missing from this list is any mention of global action to control the effects of the unrestrained trade in major conventional weapons: tanks and armored fighting vehicles, fighter aircraft, helicopters, ships, artillery, and missiles. (3) This reality exists, despite a consensus among states that the unrestrained arms exports to Iraq in the 1980s led directly to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Although a flurry of discussions ensued in the wake of the Gulf War as to how the world could prevent a recurrence, very little in the way of global norms and institutions emerged to restrain the trade in these weapons.

One exception to this trend was the development, in the autumn of 1991, of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (hereafter referred to as the Register). This article treats the Register as a cooperative security policy initiative that, if implemented, would lead to the reduction and prevention of negative effects from this class of weapon. …

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