Q&A: Aiming to build confidence through transparency

June 12, 2024

A conversation with Carina Solmirano

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2024

Political scientist Carina Solmirano is the Project Lead of the ATT Monitor. The ATT Monitor is an independent project of Control Arms, a coalition of more than 300 civil society partner organizations, including Project Ploughshares. Ploughshares Researcher Kelsey Gallagher has been on the ATT Monitor’s editorial advisory committee since 2021.

Kelsey Gallagher: Carina, could you please begin with a description of the ATT Monitor and its objectives?

Carina Solmirano: The ATT Monitor was born to act as a watchdog or monitoring mechanism for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), as the Treaty itself doesn’t have any enforcement mechanisms. We have, over time, developed a specific area of monitoring, which is related to transparency—what and how states comply with their reporting obligations. We also seek to understand why states do or do not comply.

Our main aim is to be a resource for ATT States Parties. We want to provide them with unbiased analysis of the information that they submit. We also encourage states to improve transparency and to comply, or comply more fully, with the treaty.

We have also done many case studies—for example, work on South Sudan on diversion—or responded to issues related to Treaty universalization. But our primary focus is on reporting and transparency under the ATT.

KG: Why focus on transparency?

CS: Transparency is a crucial element in the global arms trade because it’s the key confidence-building mechanism. Instruments such as the UN Report on Military Expenditures (UNMILEX) and the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) were developed with this aim in mind.

The Monitor, as a civil society project, was also intended to promote accountability. While transparency is understood in the international arena as a relation between countries, it is also important within countries—for citizens, for the congress, for taxpayers. All these relationships are as valid as ever and even more relevant in the context of some of today’s ongoing conflicts.

Full transparency would give us a more complete picture. And it would tell us where to look for gaps and potentially worrying transfers.

This idea of confidence-building makes me think about my region (I’m from Argentina). A few years ago, many countries in South America began importing major conventional weapons—very modern systems— as part of the modernization of their armed forces. Other countries in the region became alarmed; there was a lot of talk of an ongoing arms race.

And then came the call for greater transparency, which helped these countries come together and convene an instrument very similar to the UNMILEX instrument but done in the context of the Union of South American Nations. It acted as a conflict-prevention mechanism and, of course, as a confidence-building mechanism.

I think that greater transparency contributes to stability and the certainty that existing arms transfers are not leading to potential conflict and are not being misunderstood as provoking a new arms race.

Certainly, in South America and maybe also in parts of Africa, calling for greater transparency helps in preventing illicit trafficking and the diversion of weapons—to unauthorized users and for unauthorized uses. Regions that are under arms embargoes or undergoing an internal economic or political crisis or even civil war fundamentally benefit from transparency. If the trade is transparent, there should not be illicit trafficking. There should not be weapons diverted to these unauthorized users or uses.

KG: UNROCA, which was established in 1991, was itself founded as a confidence-building mechanism. In some ways, states were ceding some level of their sovereignty, of their monopoly on information related to their arms transfers, to learn what other states were doing.

But let’s get back to ATT reporting. Solid data from official reports on the types of weapons transferred legitimately offers insights into illicit retransfer, diversion, pilfering of arms.

CS: Exactly. We have seen examples of diverted weapons to areas like Sudan or  the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our friends at Conflict Armament Research study diverted weapons; when they try to trace them back, they might find that the transfer was not reported. And you wonder, was it not reported because it was diverted from the outset? Avoiding such suspicion from civil society or other governments shows the value of transparency.

KG: So, we were talking about UNROCA. I think it would be fair to describe it as a precursor to reporting under the Arms Trade Treaty. The ways in which states report their conventional arms transfers are somewhat similar. What do you think, Carina?  

CS: It’s important to highlight that UNROCA is a voluntary mechanism. States are politically but not legally bound to report. Under Article 13 of the ATT, States Parties must report. The initial report on their national control systems must contain a lot of information about how the country implements the treaty domestically. Then they must submit annual reports, which are very similar to those going to UNROCA, by May 31—also the deadline for UNROCA.

Annual reports must indicate all their arms imports and exports, reported as either authorized or actual transfers. They are expected to contain other information as well, but the treaty’s text on reporting is flexible. Nil reports are possible; states also have the option of withholding certain information, either for national security reasons or because of commercial sensitivity issues.

States must report on transfers of the eight categories of conventional arms—seven major conventional weapons categories plus small arms and light weapons. They can include their financial value or the number of transfers. They must identify each importer and exporter; they also have the option to describe the end use or the end user, as well as details about the model, the calibre, the brand. The ATT Monitor normally encourages states to provide the most information possible.

KG: And States Parties can report either publicly or privately.

CS: Exactly. Yes, a report can be publicly available to everyone, or it can be kept private and distributed only among States Parties. The Monitor always advocates for States Parties to report publicly to achieve the highest standards of transparency under the Treaty.

KG: How compliant are ATT States Parties with their reporting obligations?

CS: As you know, the reporting aspect of the treaty is one of the most difficult ones. Compliance has been shifting—more than shifting, declining. About 60 of the 113 States Parties comply annually, although not always on time.

States had to start reporting with their 2015 transfers. So, we can now see trends. We have learned a lot about why states comply and why they don’t. The states that regularly comply seem to do so for several reasons. Many States Parties—for example, the European Union, Australia, Canada—had already developed transparency systems before they joined the ATT.

KG: And here we’re talking about some national arms control systems that include an element of proactive transparency.

CS: Not only those systems, but good recordkeeping systems—on everything!—and large, stable bureaucracies. Not all regions of the world have them.

But for those who perhaps do not have systems so developed historically, especially many countries in the Global South, there is still prestige in becoming part of an international regime, in being an international citizen. And so complying with these obligations, as regularly as they can, is important to these States Parties. It might also be the case that they don’t have anything to hide and are willing to report.

Another reason that states comply is because both the ATT Secretariat and civil society, including organizations like yours and the ATT Monitor, remind states that not complying is not an option.

Many countries understand that there is a benefit in reporting because in our interconnected world, the information is already out there. If a state doesn’t publish information on their arms transfers, someone else will.

But we have learned a lot about big problems with capacity that produce lower rates of compliance, especially in certain regions. I have spoken with many of my colleagues in Latin America and Africa, and it is a tremendous job for some of these countries. Maybe the only transfer that a state had one year was the import of 100 rifles. And the state must go through this bureaucratic process to report that? Of course, I always say, yes, do it! But I understand capacity constraints and limited resources.

There can also be a lack of awareness of what the ATT requires. There’s a huge rotation of government officials. Whatever institutional memory a state has built can be lost when an official is transferred to a different department.  

Coordinating national information is another problem. I was talking with some of my colleagues here in South America and they don’t always talk to each other. The police collect certain information; the Ministry of Defence collects certain other information; Customs maybe collects other information. And they don’t talk to each other. So, when the ATT National Point of Contact goes to them for information that must be reported to the ATT, some have it, some don’t.

Another problem relates to the lack of political will. Certain countries—especially large exporters or countries that have a history of more transfers—seem not to realize how important it is to report and be transparent.

KG: During ATT meetings, you and I are often chasing down states that are not reporting—quite literally, sometimes—or could be reporting more fully. Some states are upfront: they don’t have the capacity. But then there are states—some in the Global North, some larger exporters, and some with a history of transparent reporting—that suddenly join the bloc of countries that are no longer reporting. What happened? What drives such a change?

CS: I do believe it is lack of political will. No one is chasing after these states. Remember: the ATT doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism; it doesn’t penalize anyone. We are the watchdogs.

KG: Yes, civil society.    

CS: Over the last eight years we’ve collected a huge amount of data. And we’ve seen practices emerging from the Global South that indicate that when countries want to report, they do it. The reports of some countries show a level of transparency that is unbelievably positive. If there is political will—and some capacities are in place—it is possible to comply.

KG: I’d note that, every year, we see states that report before the deadline! Some are certainly in the developing world. Positive reporting practice is not monopolized by those states with high capacity.

We touched on some of this, but what would full transparency look like? Do you think that our understanding of global arms flows would change substantially with full transparency?

CS: Full transparency would give us a more complete picture. And it would tell us where to look for gaps and potentially worrying transfers. The full disclosure of all relevant information related to arms transfers would include the types of weapons, the quantities or the number of weapons, identities of exporters and importers, and disaggregated disclosure. End users and end uses would also be identified, as would financial arrangements.

A former colleague at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute created a definition of what I think would be full transparency; it includes:

  1. public availability of information,
  2. reliability—we are sure the information is correct,
  3. comprehensiveness—we have the full picture,
  4. comparability, and
  5. disaggregation.

Let’s talk about comparability. We used to conduct discrepancy analysis, looking into the reported exports of one state and then the reported imports of the recipient to see if the information matched. Sometimes the match didn’t happen, because one group reported authorized exports and the other group reported actual transfers, or something similar. But in some cases, an importer didn’t report anything at all. And we’d ask why.

There are other barriers to full transparency. We don’t know, for instance, whether arms transfers that are part of secret military agreements are reported. I would guess not. Also, we don’t know if transfers under military aid programs are fully reported. In the case of Ukraine, some countries indicated last year that some transfers were part of aid packages to Ukraine. But this war is a very public conflict. What has happened with military aid programs to, for instance, Central America or parts of Africa? Are they reported?

KG: That lack of information is a known unknown—we know that there’s an unknown; we just don’t know where it is. I think you raise a good point about Ukraine. Most donor countries were proactive and transparent with their transfers to Ukraine, some getting really granular. If they did strike some transfers from the public record, some reported this clearly. But is this level of transparency repeated in other contexts? We don’t know.

Military aid to Ukraine has not been particularly controversial in the West, because Ukraine was invaded. Other situations might be much more controversial and exporters might be less transparent.  

CS: Totally. I was thinking about transfers to Africa. Are arms transfers in aid of  counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations fully reported? Much is not known.

KG: The purpose of the ATT is to:

contribute to peace, security, and stability;  

reduce human suffering;

encourage further transparency and cooperation in the international arms trade.  

But how does transparency help to achieve the first two objectives?

CS: Transparency promotes peace and stability, especially if weapons transfers are being conducted responsibly. Disclosing information on arms transfers transparently can also tell the world how much closer you are to contributing to the objective of peace and security. The same is true in regard to reducing human suffering.

From Blog

Related Post

Get great news and insight from our expert team.

Ukraine’s battle-tested tech

Strengthening the protection of civilians: Reflections from the Oslo Conference on EWIPA

Let's make some magic together

Subscribe to our spam-free newsletter.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.