Prague, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch is urging the European Union and NATO to work harder to ensure that prospective member countries clamp down on illicit weapons trafficking.
The U.S.-based human rights group released a report today in Bratislava that concludes Slovakia must do more to bring its arms trade under control.
The author of the report, Human Rights Watch arms trade researcher Lisa Misol, told RFE/RL that NATO and EU countries could provide a more positive example on the weapons trade by supporting an international treaty preventing the transfer of arms to human rights abusers.
"We can say that the situation...described in the report does not correspond with reality at all. Slovakia is going to be a member of the EU and NATO. And it is unthinkable that on such sensitive issues we would implement a different cultural behavior."
Misol notes that with the next wave of expansions expected in May, the window of opportunity is closing for both NATO and the EU to secure firm commitments on the necessary reforms: "As Slovakia and a number of other countries are set to enter NATO and the European Union, we think this is an incredibly important moment for those organizations to remind the acceding countries that this is a very serious matter and that arms trade controls need to be firmed up."
Misol notes that Slovakia adopted some legal reforms in 2001 and 2002. But she says serious legal loopholes still allow weapons to go to human-rights abusers in Africa and elsewhere.
"The report focuses on Slovakia because it is an important case study of problems that exist throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and because the Slovak government has made some steps toward reform. We think they need to do considerably more."
In particular, Misol says lawmakers in Bratislava need to close a loophole that makes it easy for arms traffickers to use Slovakia as a transit point: "Slovakia passed some reforms, most notably a package of reforms in the middle of 2002. Unfortunately, they declined to close a legal loophole that allows weapons to pass through Slovakia without a government license."
A spokesman for the Slovak Foreign Ministry, Juraj Tomaga, told RFE/RL today that officials in Bratislava have received the report and are studying its details. But Tomaga denied Slovakia is exporting weapons to violators of human rights. He said Bratislava respects all UN and EU criteria on arms deals and embargoes.
"Just on the first preliminary reading of the report, we can say that the situation that has been described in the report does not correspond with the reality at all. Slovakia, in a short time, is going to be a member of the European Union and NATO. And it is just unthinkable that on such sensitive issues we would implement a different cultural behavior."
But Misol says weapons that transit Slovakia are often passed on to rights-abusing governments and sometimes end up in countries that are subject to an international arms embargo.
"For us as a human-rights group, we have a special concern about the weapons that are going to conflict regions in Africa where many of the worst human-rights abuses occur. And Slovakia does play a significant role in those types of movements. So this report documents, in a very high level of detail, three case studies."
Those three case studies exemplify the main arms-trade challenges facing Slovakia, as well as other countries in the region, such as Bulgaria and Romania -- illegal arms deals disguised as legitimate transactions, the use of deceptive practices by arms brokers and transport agents, and the inadequacy of current licensing controls.
"We have looked at the wider question of arms trade controls in a number of countries, and several questions have come up in each of them," says Misol. "One is the failure [of governments] to adequately control when they approve an arms deal. And in fact, we find many authorized arms transfers to countries that should never be getting those weapons. There are EU standards for this. There is an EU code of conduct on arms exports, and very few countries are living up to those commitments."
Misol says surplus weapons also pose a problem in Central and Eastern European countries that had large armies during the Soviet era. That, she says, is because many of those countries are now trying to sell off their Soviet-era military surplus without paying enough attention to who eventually gets those weapons: "There is a strong incentive on the part of the exporter to get rid of [surplus weapons]. They need the money to help finance military modernization. And that is something that the process of NATO enlargement has, in fact, encouraged. In order to get into NATO, countries are shedding weapons, and they are often turning around and selling them. So one thing that NATO has started doing -- and we hope they will continue to do and expand on [it] -- is to make funding available to destroy those surplus weapons or otherwise dispose of them to make sure that they don't get sold off."
Misol says another important issue is the need to enforce arms embargoes and actually prosecute people implicated in violations of international embargoes.
"Iraq is a good example of how arms embargoes are not taken seriously by the international community. They can and should be a very important instrument to prevent weapons from going to where they shouldn't be allowed to be. But governments don't take them seriously very often. On the whole, the UN has done a better job in recent years of monitoring arms embargoes and even reporting publicly about violations -- not entirely consistently, but with some very good case studies, particularly in Africa. But that is not enough to take care of the problem. There needs to be exposure of those deals. There needs to be greater transparency about any followup action. And there really does need to be serious commitment to taking those actions -- to learn the lessons about what went wrong, to prevent it from happening again, and to hold accountable those who are responsible."
Misol concludes that there is a lot that NATO and the EU can do to encourage prospective members to enforce international embargoes. But at the end of the day, she says it is clear that it is up to the national governments to take the necessary measures.