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19th Oct 2019

Italy-Libya arms deal shows weakness of EU code

  • The shipment was made in sealed containers, its value was incorrectly marked and it was incorrectly lodged in the EU register (Photo: dawvon)

An Italian company's sale of over 11,000 pistols and rifles to Libya in late 2009 has highlighted weaknesses in the EU's arms control regime and the dangers of selling guns to difficult countries.

EUobserver and arms-control NGO Rete Italiana per il Disarmo have learned that on 29 November 2009 Italian company Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta quietly shipped €7,936,900 of small arms from the port of La Spezia in Italy via Malta to Tripoli.

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The deal did not break any laws because there was no EU arms ban on Libya at the time. But for Rete Disarmo it underlines serious problems in the Italian and EU arms control structures.

The 16.5 tonne order was packed in four sealed containers and involved about 7,500 PX4 Storm pistols, 1,900 CX4 semi-automatic rifles and 1,800 M4 Super 90 shotguns.

It was bought by the Gumhouria Bank in Tripoli and the purchasing department of Gaddafi's General People's Committee for General Security. It was shipped on a vessel called the Holandia with the help of UK-based Brointermed Lines, the Valetta-based shipping agent W.J. Parnis England and the Tripoli-based agent Germa Shipping & Stevedoring.

Because Beretta marked the guns as non-military items, the permit was issued by the local authority in Brescia instead of by Rome. The Italian end-use certificate was issued on 10 June 2009, the very day of Gaddafi's state visit to the Italian capital. The Libyan authorities confirmed receipt 10 long months after the guns crossed the Mediterranean Sea.

The transaction only came to light because official EU figures mistakenly recorded the shipment as €79,689,691 of Maltese-origin guns and Malta wanted to wash its hands of responsibility when the story hit the headlines.

In another mistake, W.J. Parnis England this week wrote to the Maltese authorities to say sorry that it made a typing error in adding an extra zero to the value of the order. It is unclear how adding a zero to €7,936,900 makes €79,689,691.

Rete Disarmo director Francesco Vignarca said: "Without the Maltese mistake we would not have had any clue of this shipment in the EU documents. And if the shipper puts down the wrong number [of the price] this is taken at face value by Malta and by the EU. This is very bad. We only know what is happening in the EU arms market on the basis of official reports. And if this is how the reporting is done, then how can we trust it?"

He added: "What kind of knowledge of the world does the local authority in Brescia have? What does it know about what is happening in Libya or Yemen? And how can the Italian government say the shipment went to the right hands if it got the Libyan confirmation [of receipt] only 10 months later?"

"If this is what is happening in the official and legal arms trade, I can only imagine what is happening in the illegal arms trade."

With the EU saying that Gaddafi has killed up to 2,000 people in atrocious violence in Libya, the Beretta deal also shows the reputational risks to governments and companies which sell weapons to difficult countries.

Beretta on 24 February wrote to this website to say it "strongly denies and defines as unsubstantiated the news relative to a presumed supply of €79 million of weapons from the company to the Libyan government through Malta." It did not say that it sold €7,936,900 of guns instead. The company's official website says: "Thanks to the courage, vision and skills of its lineage, its name has earned international status for its high-tech content, performance and for the Italian style that distinguishes its products."

'Clear risk' ignored

With the Arab uprisings claiming hundreds of lives also in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the EU figures tell a sad tale of arms exports to hardliners.

EU companies in 2009 got €275 million of weapons permits for Algeria, with France, Italy, Bulgaria and Poland taking the lion's share. They got €40 million of Bahrain licences (mostly France and Belgium), €294 million of Egypt permits (France, Germany, Slovakia and Italy), €53 million of Tunisia licences (France, the UK) and €101 million of Yemen permits (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic).

Elsewhere in the region, EU companies got €5 billion of Saudi Arabia licences, €2.1 billion United Arab Emirates permits, €976 million Oman chits and €499 million Morocco permits.

They also got 2009 licences for Angola, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan. The same year the EU lifted an arms embargo on Uzbekistan and three months ago EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton recommended lifting the EU ban on China.

The EU's Code of Conduct on arms sales says that "respect for human rights in the country of final destination" is a top criterion for granting permits. It adds that licences should be denied "if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression."

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