The Importance of Being Ernie

If the U.N. establishes an Arms Transfer Register, Project Ploughshares' own Ernie Regehr can (but probably won't) claim much of the credit. Regehr is working intensively with the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on Arms Transfer Transparency. He spoke with Annie Bourret by phone from his New York office.

By Annie Bourret (interviewer) | 1992-01-01 12:00:00

ANNIE BOURRET: This U.N. group began working in 1990 and finished by the summer of 1991. How do you explain so much progress in such a short time?

Ernie Regehr: The Arms Trade Register proposals have been persistent over the last several decades. There were proposals in the General Assembly in the l960s. People have expressed concern about the lack of control on the international arms trade since the Special Session on Disarmament in 1958. In the late 1980s the interest accelerated, particularly among Third World countries, such as Colombia, that were having problems with illicit weapons related to the drug trade coming into their territories. Those concerns combined in 1988 to lead to the U.N. resolution establishing this expert group on transparency.

The group started working in 1990, and then the Gulf War brought a broader reaction. Britain pushed the idea of an Arms Trade Register in Europe and took it to the Permanent Five at the U.N. Japan supported the idea in the G7. When Japan and Britain declared support for it, the Security Council and the G7 could hardly repudiate it.

Bourret: What did the group recommend to the General Assembly?

Regehr: The group recommends establishing an Arms Trade Register, to he maintained at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Member states will report their exports and imports of military commodities to the U.N. Secretariat. The Secretariat compiles that and creates a register. That alone imposes a high level of transparency on those countries that are dependent on imports, but low transparency on those countries that buy more from internal sources. That adds a discriminatory element, while the U.N. resolution calls for non-discriminatory transparency. The group recommends that the register be expanded to include not only transfers but also all procurements of military equipment, whether from external or internal suppliers, as well as a complete register of current holdings.

Bourret: How do you think governments will react to such an encompassing register?

Regehr: I think an arms trade register is unlikely to be established unless there is a commitment by the U.N. to move to the next step of including procurements and current holdings. Without that, the Third World countries will see it as discriminatory. If we believe security is enhanced by openness and transparency in military matters, we have to be open and transparent-not just about imported weapons but also about those that are acquired by internal production and those that already are in the arsenals. The Third World countries insist on that.

The supplier countries are less enthusiastic, but most of them don't really resist this because, in most industrialized countries, the procurements and holdings are already transparent. Take Canada: By law there has to be full public disclosure of all military equipment that Canada buys, whether internally or externally. There is no resistance to that idea. The resistance is against the principle that states are accountable to the U.N. for their purchases. The major powers resist that implication.

We want to create momentum for the idea that not only national interests need to be protected here, but an "international community" interest. That's what the Arms Trade Register begins to do. It is not only two countries who are involved in a military sale-the exporter and the importer-but also the international community.

Bourret: At the External Affairs' Consultative Group on Disarmament and Arms Control, there was always some indifference toward this issue of an Arms Trade Register on the part of the officials. What is Canada's position about it now?

Regehr: Canada's position has evolved over the last years. When it was first raised during the 1980s, the government expressed skepticism about the whole idea of transparency. The Committee recommended it and the government responded by saying there was a lack of evidence that it would lead to any restraint. Still, the government agreed to have the issue studied. Canada became a co-sponsor of the resolution to establish the U.N. group to study transparency. Gradually Canada became a strong advocate.

We in the peace movement can claim some credit for that. In the mid-1980s, External Affairs Arms Control and Disarmament Division was not keen on the issue. Within the peace movement there was persistent concern about arms export, and exports were being exposed, despite government secrecy. I felt all along that the government was vulnerable on this. No one likes being a merchant of death, or the idea of an uncontrolled international trade in arms. There is broad political support for controlling it, but it could not have happened without the persistence in bringing it to public attention. That changed Canadian policy in two ways:

Canada switched to supporting a U.N.-based arms register, and Canada changed its own disclosure policy. It now reports Canadian military exports in far greater detail. This year, Canada has published a first annual report on its arms sales.

Bourret: Do you think an international arms register could prevent a conflict like the Gulf War?

Regehr: No. You are not going to get an Arms Trade Register that suddenly reveals a military buildup that no one knew about before, and then an action to prevent a crisis. It could prevent a future Gulf Crisis by dealing with security questions in a particular region. If there is openness in arms shipments in a region, and this leads to mutual security discussions and relaxation of tensions and mutual restraint, you can avoid this kind of crisis in the future. An arms register is going to encourage security discussions, dialogue, mutual security agreements and, in the long run, reduce conflict.

The creation of this register is an important event. We should not oversell it as something that will solve everything. But we should not undersell it. The process of building a genuinely new world order is the process of putting international institutions into place that will help deal with security in a different way. The credibility and centrality of the U.N. in international security, and the accountability of the states regarding their own actions are important precedents.

Bourret: When do you think the register will become a reality?

Regehr: At the moment, it is uncertain. By the time Peace Magazine goes to press, it may become more clear. The current session of the General Assembly may establish the register in January 1992. Once it is established, the U.N. will invite submissions and reports. It will take a few years to build up and enjoy broad participation, but the intention is to start it immediately. The uncertainty relates to the current resolution before the General Assembly. Some states are interested in doing more studies. If there is another study called before the register is implemented, I suspect that the purpose is not to get new information, but to delay implementation..

Annie Bourret is a peace activist and a freelance writer.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1992

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1992, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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