Arming allies without arming adversaries: Preventing Arms Diversion

The following study aims to document and analyze the most significant approaches to preventing arms diversion‭, ‬with the ultimate‭ ‬goal of arming allies without risking the arming of adversaries‭.  ‬This objective‭, ‬while challenging‭, ‬stands as one of the most‭ ‬critical challenges faced by governments and the international community today‭, ‬particularly in the intricate and interconnected‭ ‬conflict environments of our world‭. ‬Weapons can easily fall into the hands of governments or armed groups whose interests conflict with those of the weapon-manufacturing or transporting state‭.‬

In the literature related to studies on preventing arms diversion‭, ‬several key points are universally acknowledged‭:‬

1 Any concept of‭ “‬arms diversion‭” ‬should encompass‭:‬

a‭. ‬Redirecting the actual transportation of authorized weapons from an intended user to an unauthorized one‭.‬

b‭. ‬Making the transfer insecure during delivery or afterwards‭, ‬intentionally or negligently leading to the unauthorized seizure‭ ‬of weapons‭.‬

c‭. ‬Illegitimate exchange of weapons for power‭, ‬money‭, ‬trade‭, ‬gifts‭, ‬benefits‭, ‬or any other service‭.‬

2 ‭”‬Preventing arms diversion‭” ‬is commonly defined as stopping the illegal trade of weapons‭, ‬eradicating it‭, ‬and preventing the redirection of weapons to the illicit market or unauthorized final use and end users‭, ‬including committing terrorist acts‭.‬

3 Weapons diversion and illegal trade are among the most significant factors undermining societal stability‭. ‬They escalate instances of peace and security compromise‭, ‬pushing certain societies and states into a vicious cycle of violence and insecurity‭. ‬Thus‭,‬‭ ‬the shared global responsibility demands solutions covering all stages of the arms and ammunition lifecycle‭, ‬from production to‭ ‬final usage‭, ‬to prevent the diversion of arms through illicit trade to non-state armed groups‭, ‬criminals‭, ‬and terrorist entities‭.‬

4 Among the diverted weapons‭, ‬illicit accumulation and transfer of small arms and light weapons‭, ‬and their misuse‭, ‬stand as crucial factors fueling armed conflicts‭, ‬crimes‭, ‬their perpetuation‭, ‬and exacerbation in various regions worldwide‭. ‬Izumi Nakamitsu‭, ‬United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs pointed out that there are an estimated one billion small arms in circulation globally‭, ‬which are used in deadly violence both in conflict and non-conflict situations‭. ‬This phenomenon is widespread across regions from the Americas to Africa to Southern Europe‭.‬

5 The direct effects of arms diversion are deaths‭, ‬injuries‭, ‬displacement‭, ‬and psychological harm‭. ‬Indirect effects include long-term social and economic consequences‭, ‬such as the inability to access health and education services‭, ‬as well as humanitarian aid‭.‬

6 Arms diversion is a dynamic and multifaceted trade‭. ‬As gaps and loopholes are closed‭, ‬actors in this trade exploit other vulnerabilities‭. ‬Consequently‭, ‬the international community faces numerous challenges in its efforts to prevent arms diversion and illegal trade‭.‬


The following study aims to document and analyze the most significant approaches to preventing arms diversion‭, ‬with the ultimate‭ ‬goal of arming allies without risking the arming of adversaries‭. ‬This objective‭, ‬while challenging‭, ‬stands as one of the most critical challenges faced by governments and the international community today‭, ‬particularly in the intricate and interconnected‭ ‬conflict environments of our world‭.‬

Weapons can easily fall into the hands of governments or armed groups whose interests conflict with those of the weapon-manufacturing or transporting state‭. ‬This can occur through various means‭:‬

1 Seizure by an enemy during armed conflict‭.‬

2 Acquisition after a change in the allied or friendly government‭.‬

3 Confiscation following the withdrawal of weapon-manufacturing or allied forces from battlegrounds or previously controlled territories‭.‬

Such dynamics contribute to intense regional and international instability‭, ‬sustain armed conflicts‭, ‬and hinder post-conflict reconstruction and development‭.‬

Key Approaches to Preventing Arms Diversion

Full Control over the Transfer Process‭: ‬All categories of arms imports and exports are part of a chain of transportation and re-transportation processes‭, ‬commencing with the manufacturer and concluding with the delivery of the transferred arms to what is referred to as the‭ “‬end-user‭.” ‬Additionally‭, ‬arms can be retransferred through re-export to new end-users‭.‬

Arms diversion in the transfer process can occur when weapons are lost‭, ‬stolen‭, ‬or intentionally retransferred to an unofficial‭ ‬recipient for unauthorized possession and use‭. ‬

Furthermore‭, ‬it can happen when the importer violates end-use agreements‭. ‬As illustrated in the following diagram‭, ‬arms diversion in the transfer process can occur at multiple stages‭, ‬starting from the country of origin or factory‭ (‬departure point‭), ‬during‭ ‬transportation to the intended end-user‭, ‬at the time of delivery to the declared recipient‭, ‬or after‭, ‬whether from weapon depots or conflict areas‭.‬

Patterns of Arms Diversion

The exporting states bear the primary responsibility for preventing arms diversion‭, ‬thus they should‭:‬

•‭ ‬Conduct comprehensive risk assessments in the short‭, ‬medium‭, ‬and long terms by exploring all scenarios of arms diversion and studying whether and how to mitigate the identified risks‭.‬

•‭ ‬Exercise due diligence in verifying the end-user‭.‬

•‭ ‬Ensure safe transportation at all stages‭.‬

On the other hand‭, ‬importion and transition states should‭:‬

•‭ ‬Develop or maintain effective systems for monitoring arms transfers to ensure the strict application of arms diversion prevention laws‭.‬

•‭ ‬Register all weapons under their jurisdiction and record them‭.‬

•‭ ‬Fully cooperate with requests for searches for missing weapons‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬the collaboration between exporters‭, ‬importers‭, ‬and transporters within what can be termed‭ “‬comprehensive collaborative control‭” ‬is crucial‭. ‬This is to ensure secure delivery and minimize diversion risks‭, ‬representing a significant step in enhancing arms transfer security and preventing diversion‭.‬

Addressing Corruption and Administrative Inefficiency in Regulatory Authorities‭: ‬One of the most common methods employed by arms traders involves complicity among administrative staff or exploiting their incompetence‭, ‬including‭:‬

1 Forging shipping documents‭, ‬including product descriptions and personal information about the sender and recipient‭.‬

2 Underestimating the value of illicit shipments of small arms to reduce customs scrutiny‭.‬

3 Employing indirect routes and multiple shipping points to conceal the destination of illegal shipments to specific countries‭.‬

4 Altering or obfuscating serial numbers and other identification marks on weapons and ammunition‭.‬

5 Disassembling weapons and placing incorrect labels on storage containers‭, ‬concealing weapons within or behind household goods‭, ‬construction materials‭, ‬and machinery‭.‬

6 Using dummy companies and nominal buyers to mask the identities of smugglers and their links to unauthorized shipments‭.‬

Governing and Restraining Arms Transfers During Conflicts‭: ‬Arms transfer operations during conflicts pose complex risks‭. ‬These include the danger of an enemy seizing weapons intended to aid an ally‭, ‬arms falling into the hands of unexpected parties after a change in government in conflict areas‭, ‬and the risk of abandoning weapons during troop withdrawal from conflict zones‭, ‬leaving them as spoils for the enemy‭. ‬According to arms control expert and Deputy Director of Stimson’s Washington office‭, ‬Rachel Stohl‭, “‬It’s impossible to know not only where weapons go and who uses them‭, ‬but also how they’re used‭. ‬In the context of war‭, ‬it’s an illusion to think that someone can fully control the trajectory of arms‭.”‬

The events in Syria after 2011‭ ‬provide a stark example‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬the American group SITE Intelligence revealed a video clip‭ ‬disseminated by ISIS‭, ‬showing American weapons and parachuted supplies intended for Kurdish People’s Protection Units‭ (‬YPG‭), ‬falling into the ISIS hands‭.‬

The rise of the Taliban‭, ‬now in control of Afghanistan‭, ‬is another clear example of the risks posed by arms sales in conflict areas‭. ‬The Taliban now control the military arsenal left by the previous government‭.‬

The lesson learned from this is that arms transfer operations may enhance the military strength of the current allied government‭ ‬but could also bolster the potential future adversary’s military power‭.‬

Exporting states hold the responsibility to consider the strategic risks associated with transferring arms to conflict areas and‭ ‬assess the risks of arms diversion with more mechanisms for governing and restricting arms transfers during conflicts‭.‬

Enhanced Security during Weapon Use‭: ‬Weapons and ammunition are often diverted from stockpiles under the control of defence and security forces due to weak monitoring measures‭, ‬making them vulnerable to theft and seizure‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬arms diversion can occur through attacks on equipment transport convoys and security personnel carrying weapons during‭ ‬their service‭.‬

Arms diversion affects all national forces and security units‭, ‬including those operating abroad in the context of United Nations‭ ‬peacekeeping operations‭. ‬Between 2004‭ ‬and 2014‭, ‬at least 35‭ ‬incidents of arms and ammunition diversion occurred‭, ‬resulting in the loss of 750‭ ‬weapons and 1.2‭ ‬million rounds of ammunition due to attacks on convoys and fixed military sites‭. ‬

Notable documented cases include incidents in Sudan and South Sudan‭, ‬where over 500‭ ‬weapons and more than 750,000‭ ‬rounds of ammunition were lost‭. ‬These materials include pistols‭, ‬rifles‭, ‬machine guns‭, ‬grenade launchers‭, ‬anti-tank weapons‭, ‬and mortar shells‭, ‬in addition to the associated ammunition‭.‬

Therefore‭, ‬ensuring enhanced security during the official international‭, ‬regional‭, ‬or local use of weapons has become essential‭ ‬to curb arms diversion‭.‬

Curbing the Illicit Arms Trade‭: ‬In addition to diverting legitimately manufactured firearms and weapons through illegal means‭, ‬the illicit arms trade represents‭ ‬another source of unauthorized arms flows in conflict areas‭. ‬In fact‭, ‬weapons and ammunition that were manufactured and diverted decades ago continue to be illegally circulated‭. ‬Small-calibre ammunition produced during the Cold War remains widely prevalent in conflict areas‭. ‬Since 2010‭, ‬560‭ ‬types of such ammunition have been documented across seven conflict zones in Africa and Syria‭. ‬More than half of the documented ammunition was produced before 1990‭.‬

Consistent Implementation of National Laws‭, ‬Regulations‭, ‬Regional Agreements‭, ‬and Relevant International Commitments‭: ‬National laws‭, ‬regulations‭, ‬regional agreements‭, ‬and relevant international commitments have agreed upon the obligations specified in Article 11‭ (‬1‭) ‬of the Arms Trade Treaty‭, ‬which came into effect in December 2014‭ ‬to regulate the trade in arms from small‭ ‬arms to combat tanks‭, ‬fighter aircraft‭, ‬and warships‭.‬

The obligations and measures that countries should take to prevent arms diversion include‭:‬

1 Commitment to preventing arms transfer diversion‭.‬

2 Commitment to risk assessment and implementing countermeasures and preventive actions‭.‬

3 Commitment to disclosing and enforcing arms diversion prevention measures‭.‬

4 Commitment to information exchange and cooperation to take effective measures‭.‬

Efforts to prevent and combat arms diversion start with the faithful and consistent implementation of national laws‭, ‬regulations‭, ‬regional agreements‭, ‬and relevant international commitments by all countries‭.‬

Active Role of Civil Society‭: ‬Civilian society can play a pivotal role in preventing arms diversion‭. ‬A prime example of this is the Argentine‭ “‬Armas bajo Control‭” (‬Arms Under Control‭) ‬alliance‭, ‬which comprises 150‭ ‬civil society organizations established to monitor the implementation of‭ ‬the Arms Trade Treaty‭.‬

International Cooperation‭: ‬The problem of arms diversion cannot be effectively solved or mitigated by individual states alone‭. ‬Disrupting illicit arms trade networks requires international cooperation‭, ‬including information sharing‭, ‬knowledge transfer‭, ‬and providing technical and financial assistance to enhance the capacities of resource-constrained countries‭, ‬institutions‭, ‬and other relevant entities in controlling weapon stockpiles and monitoring borders‭. ‬

International cooperation also ensures coordinated efforts to intercept arms diversion operations and impose sanctions on illegal arms trafficking syndicates‭.‬

Collaboration with universities and research centres in training and producing balanced studies and knowledge-based maps‭: ‬Collaboration with universities and research centres to produce balanced studies and knowledge-based maps can contribute to curtailing arms diversion‭.‬

Maps of networks involved in corruption‭, ‬international smuggling routes‭, ‬illicit brokers‭, ‬methods of arms diversion‭, ‬delivery points‭, ‬and the interfaces utilized by groups participating in arms diversion processes can all contribute to generating balanced‭ ‬knowledge that mitigates arms diversion‭.‬

Additionally‭, ‬training and expertise exchange through university‭, ‬research‭, ‬or international institutes‭, ‬such as the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research‭, ‬which offered training courses between 2015‭ ‬and 2020‭, ‬exemplifies the desired cooperation in conducting assessments of arms and ammunition control for institutions in 11‭ ‬countries‭.‬

Utilizing New Technologies‭: ‬New technologies‭, ‬such as self-destruct devices‭, ‬can minimize the risks of unauthorized weapon use‭. ‬However‭, ‬these technologies‭ ‬require ongoing research and development‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬substantial research funding and collaboration with military and civilian technology companies are necessary to develop innovative technologies aimed at preventing arms diversion‭.‬


Despite the legal frameworks governing states‭’ ‬control over arms transfers‭, ‬the vast majority of arms diverted in the black market were initially manufactured and owned legally before being transferred to unauthorized recipients‭.‬

Furthermore‭, ‬there are cases of homemade and altered weapons‭, ‬however‭, ‬such weapons are often assembled from legally acquired components‭.‬

In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict‭ (‬where Western countries and NATO allies are arming Ukraine‭), ‬the international‭ ‬community must ensure more than ever‭ (‬given the vulnerabilities in arms transfers to Ukraine‭) ‬that arms diversion is prevented‭.‬

Jürgen Stock‭, ‬the Secretary-General of INTERPOL‭, ‬warned that the conflict in Ukraine could lead to a proliferation of weapons on‭ ‬the black market‭.‬

Therefore‭, ‬the international community must develop stricter oversight mechanisms for arms supplies to Ukraine and other countries‭. ‬This can be achieved through the development of innovative forms of tracking and detailed inventory systems for the supplied‭ ‬weapons‭. ‬

Such systems would establish an international regime for arms monitoring‭, ‬using non-traditional methods that align with evolving‭ ‬and diverse conflict environments‭.‬

In conclusion‭, ‬despite all political and legislative attempts to prevent arms diversion‭, ‬the transfer of weapons still entails unavoidable risks‭. ‬Weapon manufacturers and carriers cannot guarantee that their weapons will never end up in the hands of illicit forces‭.‬

New technologies can reduce arms diversion‭, ‬but this is a field that requires further research‭, ‬development‭, ‬and integration into relevant legislation to ensure tracking without surveillance‭.‬


‮‬By‭: ‬Prof‭. ‬Wael Saleh‭ ‬‭(‬Expert at Trends Research‭ & ‬Advisory‭)‬

Al Jundi

Please use portrait mode to get the best view.