Arms embargoes prohibit the supply or transfer of arms and related materiel to specific areas or actors. They often remain in force for longer periods: the arms embargo on Somalia has been in place since 1992. They entail direct obligations to act on UN member states – unlike travel bans for example, which have to be imposed individually. But unless their objectives and reach are adjusted to keep pace with dynamically evolving situations, arms embargoes risk becoming purely symbolic.
Over time UN arms embargoes have tended to become more comprehensive and more precise. In Libya for example many of the conflict parties are today applying different military means than they were in 2011, and increasingly make use of foreign fighters. But today’s UN arms embargoes include arrangements for such developments.
While the embargo imposed on Iraq in 2003 simply prohibits the “the sale or supply to Iraq of arms and related materiel”, all other current arms embargoes in conflict contexts also cover technical advice, financial assistance, and training related to military activities. The arms embargo on Libya – like those on South Sudan and Central African Republic – also explicitly prohibits the provision of armed mercenary personnel.
The Security Council also modifies individual UN arms embargoes with substantial changes with reference to the conflict situation in the target area. The now widespread practice of time-limiting sanctions is helpful for this. They require regular extensions and therefore, a constant review of the situation on the ground.
There can be deadlocked situations. The arms embargo against Sudan/Darfur was tightened slightly but never expanded to cover Sudan as a whole, largely on account of Chinese objections. Thus, it was almost impossible to control and largely ineffective. But that is not the normal case. Despite the controversial nature of the Western intervention in Libya, the Security Council was still able to agree on relevant changes to the open-ended arms embargo – relaxations in 2011 and 2013 and a renewed tightening after fighting flared up again in 2014.
In most cases Security Council amendments are designed to differentiate the embargo, above all through exemptions. These exist in all conflict-related regimes today, with the exception of the measures against the Taliban. Exemptions allow for deliveries of non-lethal equipment for humanitarian purposes for example, or military supply to peace operations, but also for the capacity-building of national security forces. In almost all cases, such a possibility to support and train national security forces – which otherwise would be covered by the embargo – is foreseen. The arms embargo on DR Congo has generally applied only to non-state actors since 2008.
Such an easing is often justified by the Security Council with reference to changes on the ground, for example the installation of a civilian transitional government or largely free and fair elections held. So actual events do matter, but they are naturally interpreted by the Council. Where miscalculations occur it may become impossible to implement an embargo effectively.
Even if adjustments are timely and appropriate, they are not easy to implement and monitor. Exemptions may create new loopholes. Moreover, their conditions may be complex, as is the case with the widespread requirement to notify the relevant sanctions committee or seek its advance approval. If arms embargoes are to have the intended impact, alterations and their objectives must be clearly formulated and communicated to the member states, especially those in the affected region.
Using the Mechanisms in the UN Sanctions System
Not all UN member states possess sophisticated systems for controlling the export and transit of goods. Yet, this is a crucial prerequisite for effective sanctions regimes, alongside translating Security Council sanctions into national law and involving the private sector. Furthermore, law enforcement in many UN member states is ill-equipped to pursue violations.
It is therefore crucial to strengthen these capacities in member states. This already occurs fairly comprehensively in relation to measures against terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but in the case of sanctions designed to contain or resolve conflicts much work remains to be done. Relevant starting points can still be found in the outcomes of the Bonn-Berlin Process, which Germany initiated in 1999 to support national implementation of UN arms embargoes.
But it is a fine line between inadequate capacity and conscious evasion and violation. Therefore, mechanisms to improve the implementation and enforcement of sanctions have been put in place within the UN system. First of all, arms embargoes are no longer configured as stand-alone measures. Since that approach proved largely ineffective, they are now usually imposed in conjunction with commodity bans and/or asset freezes, to hinder the financing of arms purchases.
In Libya for example a ban on illicit exports of crude oil and refined petroleum products is part and parcel of the sanctions regime. But conflict parties that receive direct military support from third states are less dependent on such sources of funding. The sometimes open interventions by Rwanda and Uganda in DR Congo, thus, triggered a Security Council decision on aviation and customs controls at the country’s eastern borders. And in 2009 secondary sanctions were imposed on Eritrea for assisting Al-Shabaab in Somalia. But such firm Security Council responses to violations by states are relatively rare, especially when the interests of permanent members are involved.
Another approach is listing individuals and entities involved in breaching an embargo. Almost all the nine current arms embargoes provide for the possibility to respond to violations with travel bans or asset freezes. But very few individuals and entities are actually listed on these grounds: to date three for Somalia, one for Sudan and four for the Taliban.
Only in the case of DR Congo has a larger number been listed for this reason, partly because until the end of 2005 violating the arms embargo was the only criterion available for listing. Today the tendency is to establish more and more differentiated listing criteria. But it would also be important to actually apply the existing criteria in the UN sanctions system when violations occur.
Source: SWP- Berlin