Technology & Trade

Unauthorized Retransfers: A Challenge to Security and the Legitimate Arms Trade

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By Rachel Stohl, Senior Associate, and Jessica Kosmider: 

Have you ever wondered where Boko Haram, ISIS, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists or Syrian rebels acquire their weapons? These non-state actors cannot use the same avenues as national militaries or legitimate end-users. Instead, they often rely on illicit markets that are rooted in the profitable, legal arms trade. The global legal arms trade is valued at approximately $70 billion per year, while the illicit trade in conventional arms is estimated at $1 billion per year for small weapons alone. With all of these weapons in circulation, there is increased risk that arms may be diverted to rebel groups, terrorist organizations or rogue states.

“Unauthorized retransfers” occur when a party to an authorized arms trade retransfers weapons to an unauthorized recipient without obtaining prior permission from, and in violation of its commitments made to, the original exporter. Unauthorized retransfers transpire in a variety of circumstances, and can include willful government non-compliance, loss or theft. Numerous mechanisms are in place to combat these risks, but tracking unauthorized retransfers is difficult as diversions can occur at various times during the lifecycle of a weapon. This means that the weapons may be retransferred immediately after an original importation or many years later, as well as in whole or in disassembled parts.

Unauthorized retransfers contribute to a multitude of transnational challenges. From escalating armed violence to exacerbating regional disputes, impinging economic development and contributing to immeasurable human suffering, unauthorized retransfers of conventional weapons have deadly and lasting global effects. In the last decade, unauthorized retransfers have had significant impacts on countries around the world. Libya and Syria, for example, are but two areas in which non-state forces are increasingly seen with arms and ammunition that were illegally acquired via unauthorized retransfers. In these countries and around the world, these weapons continue to undermine conflict resolution, peace-building and development efforts.

Many of Ukraine’s arms transfers illustrate the risks posed by unauthorized retransfers. Current international attention on Ukraine focuses on the escalating conflict between the East and West, but Ukraine has exported large quantities of arms around the world, some of which have been retransferred without authorization to parties in conflict. For example, in 2007-2008, Ukraine legally delivered tanks, artillery, small arms and ammunition to Kenya. However, these arms were quickly retransferred to South Sudan without prior authorization from Ukraine. During the South Sudan independence movement in 2011, the South Sudanese opposition forces used those weapons against the Sudanese government, resulting in increased violence, escalated tensions and numerous civilian casualties.

Responsibility for unauthorized retransfers does not rest solely on the re-exporting state. Governments, the private sector and civil society organizations are involved in developing and implementing innovative approaches to address these challenges.

The United States is one of only a few countries that has a retransfer provision in all of its export authorizations. If an end user wants to retransfer a weapon at any point in the lifecycle of the weapon, they must receive government authorization. The United States also has comprehensive end-use monitoring mechanisms. The Departments of State, Defense and Commerce all have their own programs to monitor the items they license. For example, the State Department’s Blue Lantern program monitors, evaluates and verifies that the importer’s use of small arms complies with US requirements and regulations, through pre-license, post-license and post-shipment inquiries and checks. Similarly, the Department of Defense’s Golden Sentry program aims to reduce security risks to the United States and its allies by increasing regulation of US arms shipments. The United States also utilizes the Sentinel program, managed by the Department of Commerce, to investigate proper end use of sensitive items and ensure compliance with license conditions.

Independent organizations and private companies provide significant information on cases of unauthorized retransfers. Conflict Armament Research Ltd., for example, identifies and tracks conventional weapons in contemporary armed conflicts through its publicly accessible “iTrace” program. Markings on the weapons are used to identify a weapon’s model, serial number and, ultimately, a single manufacturer. By using sale receipts, shipping dockets and end-user certification records, it is possible to determine the transfer history of the weapon, as well as if or when it was illicitly diverted.

In the event of an unauthorized retransfer, state governments may prevent future sales to a particular end-user and/or use information from the case to strengthen risk assessments in their export control systems. Yet efforts to prevent unauthorized retransfers do not end at state borders. International norms for arms transfer decisions could go a long way in helping to mitigate these challenges.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is one such mechanism that can help prevent unauthorized retransfers into, out of and through national territories. By requiring states to comply with a number of provisions – such as completing risk assessments, maintaining records of arms exports and imports, reporting on methods used to address diversion – the Treaty establishes a framework that  can be used as tool to help prevent unauthorized retransfers to nefarious end-users.

Whether through unilateral or bilateral government action, private sector innovations or multilateral regimes, stemming the flow of unauthorized retransfers of conventional weapons will benefit security and development efforts around the globe.

Photo credit: FreedomHouse via flickr

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