16th Jan 2019

EU mulls new measures to stop arms smuggling from Africa

  • Libya is a main smuggling rout of weapons into Europe (Photo: Sebastia Giralt)

The EU is looking to set up a network of experts in north African countries to curb arms and ammunition smuggling into Europe.

“The majority, the main sources of illegal weapons, come from Western Balkans and also north African countries, especially Libya,” an EU source close to the dossier told this website on Wednesday (14 January).

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  • The UN is leading political talks in Geneva to end the Libyan conflict (Photo: BRC)

In the Balkans, small arms are looted from weapons depots or manufactured illegally. Some are traded online and even delivered by mail order.

But in places like Libya, they are a legacy of conflict.

EU interior ministers along with their Western Balkan equivalents in December agreed a draft action plan on illicit trafficking in firearms between the EU and south-east Europe.

The EU source said the north African scheme would be modeled on the Balkan one, where emphasis is placed on modernising law enforcement agencies, increasing mutual trust, and raising awareness.

But it’s unclear if a new cell of EU experts could even be sent to Libya at this time.

The EU’s border control mission, Eubam, left Tripoli for Tunisia last year because it was unsafe to stay.

Traditionally, the illegal arms end up falling into the hands of the some 3,600 known criminal organisations operating in Europe.

But, as the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris showed, they can also be used in terrorist attacks.

“Last year, illegal immigration was in the spotlight of the politicians, now they came back to terrorism, but this doesn’t mean we discovered the illicit trafficking of arms two days ago,” said the EU source.

Legal to illegal

At the same time, the European Commission wants to muscle up existing EU firearms laws.

Two years ago, it laid out its policy plans to update the EU firearms directive with the intent to get something on the table this July.

It covers firearms for civil use, not weapons for armed forces and police, and sets in place rules to support a EU industry worth €1.7 billion in 2013.

But it noted that deactivated weapons are being illegally reactivated and resold, with alarm guns, air weapons and blank-firers are also being converted into lethal firearms.

A commission-funded study in November, which evaluated the directive, said convertible guns be purchased without a licence in Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Turkey.

In a memo set out last week, the commission pointed out that “terrorists are using weapons more and more, in addition to the traditional strategy which was based on the use of explosives”.

The problem is acute in France where authorities recorded a 40 percent increase in seizures of stolen civilian and military weapons between 2010 and 2011.

A study by Europol, the EU police agency, on some 152 terrorist attacks carried out in five member states in 2013, found France also had the most cases where firearms were used in assaults.

The commission said the latest draft could call for stricter checks on some categories of weapons and prohibit the most dangerous types.

But the call may meet resistance from major weapons producers.

Italy is biggest small arms producer

Italy dominates the EU market in firearms and accounts for around 37 percent of the overall production. Its top manufacturers are Beretta, Armi Perazzi, and Sabatti.

Other major producers of firearms are Austria with an estimated share of around 32 percent, Germany with 9 percent and Belgium with 5 percent.

Most are shipped out to places like the US and other non-EU countries.

Still, the number of legally-held civilian firearms in the EU is relatively high.

According to estimates cited by the commission, there are 80 million in the EU, of which half a million are unaccounted for.

Germany has the most registered firearms at 5.3 million, followed by France at 3.8 million, and Spain with 3.4 million.

Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at the University of Brighton, said recent gun laws imposed in Germany and Belgium has resulted in the disappearance of “millions of rifles and hand guns”.

A 2012 report by the Flemish Peace Institute found that the annual average of lost guns in Belgium rose from 375 between 1991 and 2006 to more than 4,300 in the 3.5 years period after a more restrictive law was passed.

“Most of these figures relate to defence guns and military firearms, permits for which could only be renewed under stricter conditions in the new legislation,” notes the report.


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