Between domestic legislation, international law and multilateral consensus, a group of about 40 industrialized countries with a thing about signing papers, have made a megalomaniacal dictator’s job difficult – not to mention that of his suppliers. The handful of countries that, after having started two world wars, have learned the recipe for destruction, are doing their best to keep it a secret.

Domestic law

The basis for export control of strategic goods, services and technology lies in the domestic law of each sovereign state. In Norway and Sweden the relevant laws date back to the 1980s, and use broad language in saying that all goods and services that can directly strengthen a state’s military capacity, or that can have significance in strengthening it, should not be taken out of the country without the consent of the foreign ministry. In Europe this is a fairly standard requirement, even before the Code of Conduct came into being. Accompanying these laws are usually non-exclusive lists of goods and services covered by the law, and a catchall clause.

In addition, some countries, e.g. Norway, Sweden and Germany, have tried to get more control over the arms flow by adding sections or legislation regarding, for example, residents and domestic business involved in arms brokering.

European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports

On June 8, 1998, the EU Code of Conduct was incorporated as an attempt to consolidate and coordinate the various domestic legislation of the member states. The code is the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on arms exports in place in the world today, covering small arms, conventional, chemical and biological weapons, their components, technology, training equipment and quite a bit of related material.

The eight criteria it sets down covers 1) respect for other multilateral treaties, 2) respect for human rights and 3) internal security in destination country, 4) preservation of regional peace, 5) the security of the member states and their allies, 6) the destination country’s behavior in the international community, 7) end-user controls, and finally 8) the destination country’s economic and technological situation.

The code is not legally binding, but more of a set of guidelines and a political tool. An important aspect of the code, however, is the system set up for exchange of information, and EU insiders argue that this makes the code more stringent than the term “politically binding” otherwise implies. Each country that denies an export license application must notify the other EU states, and if one of these gets an application “essentially identical” in nature, it must confer with the first state about its reasons for denial. If it decides to undercut the first state’s decision, it has to explain its decision. Under this system it soon gets politically difficult, or so it is argued, for a member state to grant questionable export licenses. All in all, the code of conduct strengthens the national legislation and its enforcement, and sets up mechanisms to ease multilateral cooperation.

Wassenaar

The Wassenaar Arrangement is a multilateral agreement on certain export control requirements. Concerned mostly with conventional weapons, the agreement includes a list of goods that should be subject to export control, and sets up a system for information exchange that is less comprehensive than that of the EU Code. Wassenaar also includes attempts for minimum standards of end-user control and licensing.

Australia Group

When UN reports in 1985 revealed that Iran and Iraq were developing chemical and biological weapons, Australia took the initiative to create what later came to be called the Australia Group in order to stop this development on the supplier-level. The members of the Australia Group have also resumed a responsibility to educate other states about chemical and biological weapons, and how to prevent the spreading of them.

Missile Technology Regime

The Missile Technology Regime is a multilateral treaty intended to restrict spreading of the technology needed to deliver weapons of mass destruction. The idea is that even if a country manages to build a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon, somebody has got to throw it at the enemy, because nobody is going to tell them how to put it into anything that gets off the ground.

Non-Proliferation Treaty
Zangger committee
Nuclear Suppliers Group

The NPT is probably the most famous of these three international tools to keep nuclear technology out of the wrong hands. In this context, any hands that don’t already have a piece of nuclear deterrence are the wrong hands.

Landmine ban

(A.K.A.: Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Landmines and on the Destruction.)

Although rarely mentioned in connection with the other multilateral agreements, the landmine ban is one of the obligations the EU code specifically mentions that it does not nullify. The main idea behind banning landmines is that they have a nasty tendency of remaining long after any armed conflict is over, and killing or maiming civilians who are just going about their daily business.

In addition to this substantial framework, a sovereign state, the UN, the EU or the OSCE may declare embargos against certain countries, usually because of internal repression in the country, or some other humanitarian reason, or because the country blatantly disregards the international community’s game rules.

Seeing as how it is virtually impossible to have a system without loopholes, however, in the end it is often less about agreements and multilateral frameworks than about political and corporate morale, and that’s always difficult to measure.