Junior Ambassadors Program 2018 - Sandra Rau

The Reinvention of Arms Control Regimes: Blockchain Verification Mechanism in Arms Appropriation

by Sandra Rau


Arms control is a contested issue due to its inherent security-freedom dichotomy. While opponents of control regimes appeal to the responsibility of the individual, the arms and weapons matter is too sizeable for non-interference: the global arms industry totaled $ 370.7 billion in 2015, an estimated 875 million small arms and light weapons circulate worldwide, and 700,000 to 900,000 small arms are produced annually.

Compared to technological progress, international control in arms production, distribution, and ownership is tremendously stagnant. Control regimes continue to rely on formats like working groups, treaties, or declarations with nation states as the main actors. Accordingly, integrity and operational capability of existing control mechanisms require significant input, e.g. benevolence of the participating national governments, human and financial resources, and reliability of data. Existing structures, thus, remain fragmented in coverage, cumbersome in their application, and unsatisfactory in their results.

The application of Blockchain technology (BT) can revamp control mechanisms and accelerate governance regimes. Blockchain is a transaction-based tracking system. It establishes reliable ownership paths through public key cryptography and a distributed ledger technology (DLT), the latter being a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data through a decentralized, on- or offline peer-to-peer infrastructure. Arms producers should be required to integrate BT-based features into arms or their activating component – similar to serial numbers – and update their product lines. The DLT is programmable and automates complex tasks. It would record, review, and authorize arms transaction requests based on predefined transaction specifics ("smart contracts"). Lost or stolen guns would break the ownership chain and be rendered useless through non-executable transaction processes.

BT is a promising amendment to arms governance: it removes intermediaries, such as control organizations or on-the-ground investigation teams; it securely stores and transparently communicates information with pre-programmed operations, and thereby creates high level of user trust; it avoids the problems of participation in and compliance with conventional control regimes; the technology does not require centralized control or monitoring infrastructure. Hence, it is no longer about the 'what' of executable services, but performance security of pre-defined and agreed-upon services.

BT would increase quality in arms control by extending the scope of key actors: appealing to the foremost responsibility of producers (technology provision according to the best of their knowledge and capacity) and owners (technology execution in the peer network on a national legal basis). It avoids surveillance or physical tracking, hence does not interfere with rights or the discretion to produce, vend, purchase, own, and use arms.

Control regimes could then revamp by moving past the enforcement predicament to pure standard setting and parameter specification. For example, one could discuss whether the DLT system should work on a restricted permission-based 'proof of stake' system (e.g. background checks).Participation would become a matter of having a stake in international standard setting, especially given that arms production is concentrated in a few countries, and the threshold for introduction of the system is manageable in scope. National legislation or companies could become pioneers in that field. Remarkably, Blocksafe Foundation, a major innovation advocate who aims at establishing the first global BT-based defense network, could engage the largest global arms producer, US company Lockheed Martin.

BT lays the groundwork for the future in international arms governance and existing monitoring and control bodies should seek to encourage piloting this new technology.


Sandra Rau ist Programmberaterin im Bundesprogramm "Demokratie leben!" des Bundesamtes für Familie und zivilgesellschaftliche Aufgaben.