James Bevan
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   United Kingdom

James Bevan

James Bevan has developed a global methodology to identify and map flows of illegal weapons into armed conflicts. Through Conflict Armament Research, James collects first-hand data on conventional…
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This description of James Bevan's work was prepared when James Bevan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


James Bevan has developed a global methodology to identify and map flows of illegal weapons into armed conflicts. Through Conflict Armament Research, James collects first-hand data on conventional weapons and ammunition and feeds them into an innovative online mapping tool. By holding every actor to account, James is changing the incentives and capacities of both exporting and importing countries to control weapon flows into conflict areas. Ultimately, James is opening up a powerful mechanism to regulate the global arms trade and decrease violent conflict.

The New Idea

Around the world, the globally connected illicit trade in conventional weapons, involving national governments, rebels, militia and insurgent groups, fuels devastating armed conflict. Drawing on more than a decade’s experience as a weapons expert in conflict areas, James Bevan set up Conflict Armament Research (CAR) in 2011 with the mission to understand, and therefore better control, destabilizing weapons transfers. Ultimately, by mitigating weapons supply into conflict areas, James aims to de-escalate levels of violent conflict, so that the incentives of peace building begin to outweigh the attractions of violence, allowing communities to re-build normal social and economic relations.

In order to begin to address armed conflict, James recognized the need to fill the information gap between what is happening on the ground, and top-down policy and practice. Starting in Africa and the Middle East, James is therefore drawing together a critical mass of global weapons data, which is needed in order to understand trade patterns accurately for the first time. As the only non-governmental organization focused exclusively on the identification and tracking of weapons on the ground in armed conflicts, CAR plays a critical role in international efforts to understand illicit weapons proliferation.

Whereas UN weapons monitoring occurs mainly in embargoed countries, James has drawn together an independent team of experts, which operates beyond embargoed states and across entire conflict-affected regions. CAR’s teams react within a matter of days to analyze and investigate seized weapons, including their markings, manufacturing codes, countries of origin and supply routes. CAR relies on high-level diplomacy and the negotiation of formal agreements with national governments to gain access to seized, recovered, or intercepted weapons. CAR is committed to impartiality and uses its commitments to transparency to gain access to groups that are not usually at the table.

James has built up what is thought to be the world’s largest database on weapons documented in armed conflicts: a technology platform called iTrace. CAR is populating the sophisticated back-end database with an extensive series of field investigations, including in the Central African Republic, Congo DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria. Once verified by James’s network, of CAR and independent arms experts, the information will be published on a free public access online map (due for public release on 27 September 2014). James believes that only by publishing information transparently can systemic change be achieved, by creating equal pressure on all players in the system, raising public awareness and providing an aggregated global database of evidence on illicit weapons transfers. In addition to this data, on-the-ground knowledge, know-how and experience enables James’s team to form a holistic understanding of conflict. To accelerate systemic change, CAR uses this understanding to inform policy directly and pressure national governments to take responsibility for weapons under their jurisdiction or control. Already, James’s work has affected UN policy, government practices in Africa, gained the support of all 28 EU member states, and successfully engaged Chinese government authorities—China being one of the a major weapons suppliers to the Middle East and Africa.

The Problem

The illicit proliferation of conventional weapons fuels war and insurgency across the globe. It undermines security and impedes the development of peoples, nations and regions: half of the countries with the lowest levels of development in the world have experienced armed violence since the 1990s. The vast majority (up to 90 per cent in some areas) of illicit weapons, which enter the hands of insurgent groups, militia and terrorist organizations in conflict areas, originate from national governments in the surrounding region. This diversion of formally legal state-owned weapons to illicit markets, takes place either because state agencies deliberately transfer weapons to non-state forces, or through negligence due to corruption or a lack of management, record-keeping and oversight of government stockpiles. Controlling the proliferation of arms is crucial for reducing the global death toll from armed conflict.

In 2006, the international community began a concerted initiative to regulate the illicit arms trade. This effort finally translated into the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, which when ratified, will obligate member states to monitor arms exports, mitigate diversion and curtail the use of weapons in human rights abuses. However, there is currently no independent international monitoring mechanism in place to ensure that states adhere to these arms control commitments. The willingness and capacity of many states to self-monitor is demonstrably poor. Policy-makers lack the information needed to formulate effective counter-proliferation policies, practice, or hold responsible states to account.

On the supply-side, some weapons-producing countries have no intention of fuelling violence, but are unaware that the weapons they legally trade end up in conflict zones. Others may deliberately turn a blind eye but there are few incentives to change, and a lack of evidence means they cannot be held to account. Until these supply side mechanisms are reported and understood, there remains little scope to curtail illicit weapons at their source. Country-specific investigations must be cross-verified with information derived from investigations elsewhere in the world, but existing attempts to map trading currently remain patchy. While some non-profit organizations do provide desk-based research and analysis on armed conflict, they rely on project-specific funding and do not collect systematic information on the ground. The root cause of the problem therefore goes back to a lack of on-the-ground data. Promisingly, experience to date suggests that even limited reporting of weapons transfers (such as by UN sanctions monitors) has a powerful dissuasive effect on the actors involved in illicit trading, offering a powerful potential route to change this system.

The Strategy

James’s mission is to reduce the impact of armed conflict and violence around the world, by limiting the inflow of illicit arms into conflict areas. This effort will require informed, global co-ordination at every level, from international and national decision-makers to civil society. James’s strategy is therefore to first build flawless on-the-ground evidence on illicit trade routes, then aggregate the data and make it publicly accessible online through a mapping visualization tool (iTrace), and finally to work directly with decision-makers to design effective new policy and practice.

As a first step, James addresses the lack of data collected on-the-ground. Because the arms trade is international in nature, James knew that any solution would need to reach far beyond national borders. CAR was therefore founded in 2011 to draw together international arms investigators and specialists with access to weapon stockpiles in conflict areas. The network includes UN sanctions monitors, former peacekeeping mission personnel, investigative journalists, and independent researchers. Each expert reports back from their field investigations, shares documentary evidence with each other, and contributes to building a shared database on their findings.

James saw that by aggregating tracing data across a whole region, it becomes possible to map complex trade routes for the first time. He recognized the need to establish an independent organization to collect on-the-ground information directly, and quickly react to opportunities for weapons analysis (such as during a weapons seizure by a government force, or after diplomatic negotiation with a rebel group).

After pitching to a number of organizations, James realized the funding community was not yet open to his vision, and was unable to source philanthropic funding. To fund the cost-intensive work, James therefore set up CAR as a limited company, and as Director undertook paid analyses for international organizations such as the UN, the World Customs Organization and a range of NGOs. This income stream funded CAR’s first independent field missions and the initial building of what would become a world-class database, and James is committed to re-investing any organizational financial surpluses into the future. With over 20,000 data points to date, CAR’s database is already thought to be the largest publically accessible database of illicit weapons in the world. Already, James’s method has been pivotal in uncovering state-sponsored weapons supplies into the Central African Republic, Congo DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria. To date, CAR’s primary focus has been on Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. However James aims to gradually shift these activities to a global focus, starting in East Asia and Latin America.

Gradually, James’s careful work has begun to put weapons tracing on the global agenda. CAR produced how-to field guides, published influential reports, and supported other organizations’ weapons tracing initiatives. James also hosted a series of influential conferences on weapons tracing and gained presenting opportunities in front of all the major players, from national governments to UN summits to specialist advisory groups.

The second part of James’s strategy is to create a sophisticated online mapping system that will display illicit flows of weapons, and publish the findings openly and freely online. In late 2013 James secured funding from the European Commission to back the creation of this system, called iTrace, and to generate a baseline of data from extensive field investigations. iTrace’s open data publication policy is central to James’s strategy, because it maintains CAR’s diplomatic position as a neutral, trusted agency rather than a campaign group, whilst simultaneously publishing data which will “name and shame” a number of government actors who are failing to meet international obligations and pressure for system change. By making the map easily accessible and through direct engagement work, James aims to generate mass public awareness and pressure around this usually “hidden” issue, leveraging his strong links to media outlets (including Reuters and the New York Times who already promote CAR’s findings) and civil society organizations such as the Small Arms Survey and Amnesty International. James already plays a diplomatic role advising the UN and drafting policy, and is scheduling a series of four international meetings in the next two years to ensure iTrace translates into coordinated, strong international policy and monitoring tools on the ground.

The final part of James’s strategy is to change the system to limit the flow of arms on the ground. Firstly, by holding countries to account, either for producing or directly supplying weapons that end up on illicit markets. iTrace will mean these countries will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the problem, and will be publically accountable for illicit or irresponsible arms transfers. Weapons export controllers will also be able to refuse export licenses to certain countries, armed with new concrete information about which countries allow arms diversion to conflict zones to take place. James will continue to work advising and influencing governments and inter-governmental agencies like the UN, on policy and innovative on-the-ground practice. Already, after careful advisory work and sitting on the Africa-China-EU Expert Working Group, Chinese officials are hearing James’s message that their laissez-faire attitude to exporting weapons to Africa is actually increasing volatility across the entire region, which runs against China’s long-term economic interests. In addition to supplier states, James’s work will assist countries across Africa, the Middle East and beyond to better control their own weapons stockpiles and decrease diversion at the national level. CAR is creating a diagnostic tool within iTrace to identify weak points in arms control systems and identify the sources of leakage, such as insecure storage locations, weak arms management systems and corruption leading to illicit weapons sales. This information and CAR’s direct advisory work will help put in place further monitoring systems and catalyze local training. Already for example, James is developing a new concept for stockpile monitoring across Africa based on the simple, affordable, and technology-appropriate methods already used for mobile banking.

The Person

James first journeyed to West Africa when he completed schooling in the UK in the mid-1990s. He travelled alone for 6 months, seeking out the regions where he could experience life on the ground as far away from tourism as he could. He travelled on a dollar a day, staying in people’s homes and witnessing African lives up close. A fearless youth, he ended up in situations which in hindsight were extremely risky, travelling in zones where war was breaking out and waiting in an airport as it got bombed.

James had initially planned to study Geography, but changed his degree to International Relations. As crises in West Africa and the Balkans hit the news, James became increasingly interested in security issues. After graduating James found work locally in a multinational business, but disillusioned soon quit his job and approached his old professor, who immediately saw a fit between James’s interests and the Diplôme d'études approfondies (Masters), with a specialization in political science at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, which he pursued with a scholarship placement.

Closely following global politics, James realized two things: that war was not between states, but between people, and that it was not heavy weapons that often caused the most deaths, but small arms and light weapons. Determined to find out more, James secured a part-time job at the Small Arms Survey, even though it meant losing his scholarship funding. James started at the very bottom, stocking the research institute’s library. It was in 2003 that a small pocket of funding allowed James to head on his first field mission in Uganda, largely unsupervised and far removed from the Small Arms Survey’s normal remit. James began connecting with NGOs working in the field of arms control, but quickly realized how far removed they were from players on the ground. James started to get in contact with militia groups, and spent time interviewing former Lord’s Resistance Army child fighters. Talking about weapon types and stockpiles in a neutral and impartial way created a space in which James was trusted and able to gain information no one else would be able to access. However the level of destruction and brutality he witnessed in this first visit would remain the most shocking experience of his life. It was then that James learnt what it meant to physically be and live in armed conflict - a reality many of the international community working from a desk would never experience.

James rose to the level of senior field researcher at the Small Arms Survey, and launched his own branch of work around the importance of on-the-ground weapons monitoring. When it eventually became clear the Small Arms Survey’s core strategy would not adopt his ground-up approach, James joined the United Nations as the Head of the UN Sanctions Monitoring Group on Côte d’Ivoire. Between 2008 and 2011, he conducted on-the-ground weapons monitoring, pushing the limits of the normal practices and remit in his role, attempting to build a full picture of weapons supplies into the country in order to increase the effectiveness the Monitoring Group. However, following investigations into the activities of one Security Council Member State, that state vetoed his further appointment as Head of the Sanctions Monitoring Group. James became more and more frustrated seeing organizational resources being thrown at a problem that was hardly understood. Seeing vital flaws in the UN’s approach, James left his UN arms specialist role to create CAR, operating as an independent organization and championing a new systemic approach to tackle the illicit arms trade.

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