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Europe Needs to Name and Shame Its Small Arms Dealers

The spread of weapons is undercutting the European Union’s own security.

By , a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional.
A police officer shows drugs and weapons to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin
A police officer shows drugs and weapons seized from local dealers to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin (center) in a police station in Cavaillon, France, on Aug. 16. Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images

 Security concerns continue to dominate the European Union’s foreign-policy agenda. However, lost among the discussions of Russian military activities in the Baltics and Chinese investment in European ports is one enduring threat to European security: the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, such as assault rifles, pistols, heavy machine guns, and explosives. Although the ramifications of this proliferation are less dramatic than Russian aggression or Iranian nuclear ambitions, the flow of these weapons into Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, continues to undermine the EU’s desire for security both at home and abroad.

The trade in small arms and light weapons continues to spur political instability, support the emergence of terrorist organizations, and fuel the drug trade. From drug cartels in Latin America touting submachine guns to the assault-rifle-wielding anti-government militias of South Sudan, the impact of these weapons is not only global but also cross-cutting. The use of these weapons in violent and illicit activities gives the EU a key interest in preventing the trade—but even more important is the role they play in terrorism.

From 2010 to 2020, such weapons were used in over 85,000 terrorist attacks, which led to over 193,000 deaths globally. From 2010 to 2015, 50 percent of all violent deaths worldwide involved small arms and light weapons. While the majority of this violence is in Africa and the Middle East, Europe is no stranger to terrorism, with the 2020 Austria and 2015 Paris attacks as recent examples of the EU falling victim to the consequences of these weapons ending up in the hands of illicit actors. Violence in the Middle East and North Africa, meanwhile, is a major driver of the arrival of refugees in Europe.

 Security concerns continue to dominate the European Union’s foreign-policy agenda. However, lost among the discussions of Russian military activities in the Baltics and Chinese investment in European ports is one enduring threat to European security: the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, such as assault rifles, pistols, heavy machine guns, and explosives. Although the ramifications of this proliferation are less dramatic than Russian aggression or Iranian nuclear ambitions, the flow of these weapons into Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, continues to undermine the EU’s desire for security both at home and abroad.

The trade in small arms and light weapons continues to spur political instability, support the emergence of terrorist organizations, and fuel the drug trade. From drug cartels in Latin America touting submachine guns to the assault-rifle-wielding anti-government militias of South Sudan, the impact of these weapons is not only global but also cross-cutting. The use of these weapons in violent and illicit activities gives the EU a key interest in preventing the trade—but even more important is the role they play in terrorism.

From 2010 to 2020, such weapons were used in over 85,000 terrorist attacks, which led to over 193,000 deaths globally. From 2010 to 2015, 50 percent of all violent deaths worldwide involved small arms and light weapons. While the majority of this violence is in Africa and the Middle East, Europe is no stranger to terrorism, with the 2020 Austria and 2015 Paris attacks as recent examples of the EU falling victim to the consequences of these weapons ending up in the hands of illicit actors. Violence in the Middle East and North Africa, meanwhile, is a major driver of the arrival of refugees in Europe.

The EU has taken several steps to mitigate the spread of these weapons. In 2018, the union adopted a new strategy to combat illicit accumulation and trafficking, updating the original strategy that was adopted in 2005. Individually, European states have also taken a proactive role in fighting proliferation. Every EU state has ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, endorsed the International Tracing Instrument, and continues to fund iArms and iTrace, projects that seek to identify potential arms traffickers and track the transfer of diverted weapons. Additionally, 26 out of the 27 states are member to the Wassenaar Arrangement, the international organization tasked with fighting the spread of small arms.

So why are these weapons still spreading across Europe and beyond? Part of it is the relative ease of smuggling them as well also their general accessibility. Small arms and light weapons continue to be the easiest avenue for bad actors to acquire the hardware needed for terrorist activities. According to the Small Arms Survey, there are over 1 billion firearms in circulation, with a majority held by nonstate actors.

But there’s also the money. As of 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the value of the arms trade to be at least $95 billion annually. With five of the top 10 global arms exporters in the EU, Europe’s relationship with small arms and light weapons is not as clear as it would seem.

European-manufactured arms have been at the center of several international conflicts over the last several years, whether delivered in aid, as when in 2011, the French government delivered arms to rebels in Syria, or traded legally or illicitly. A study conducted by Conflict Armament Research in 2016 was able to directly trace arms used by the Islamic State back to Europe.

Now, whether these European arms were sold illicitly to the Islamic State by a European arms manufacturer or scrounged up by the group in the aftermath of battle is unclear. However, it would not be the first time European arms ended up in the hands of bad actors without the state’s knowledge. Heckler & Koch, Germany’s most prominent arms manufacturer and producer of the G36 assault rifle that arms much of the German military, has been at the center of numerous controversies.

Reports by several governments and organizations have the G36 turning up in the hands of rebels in Libya and Georgian nonstate actors. Heckler & Koch arms have also ended up in several states that are the target of export bans, including Mexico. The German government denied any knowledge of these transfers, as did the company’s top executives. Whether the reports are true or not, opportunities for the illicit transfer of these weapons will grow as the market for arms increases.

With the 2020 announcement that arms manufacturers in Belgium are opening new production plants in Morocco, it seems clear that EU member states are eager to pursue market expansion—despite the dangers that inevitably come with it. Locating factories outside of Europe limits the effectiveness of internal monitoring techniques and creates additional opportunities for illicit transfers, while the simple introduction of these arms into circulation further burdens the already strained arms-tracing mechanisms. Without additional resources, the current monitoring and control systems will become less effective as the market for arms continues to swell.

The EU needs to adopt new measures to combat the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The national nature of arms transfers results in dispersed data on the issue, which inhibits monitoring activities that bad actors seek to exploit. To fill this gap, the EU should seek to establish an annual report with consolidated information on state-level transfers of this class of weapons, arms manufacturers’ sales to other nations, and, more importantly, a list of violations of the EU’s common position on small arms. An annual report would reinforce the idea that the EU is monitoring not only its members but also the companies who operate within the bloc such as FN Herstal, Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, and Rheinmetall AG. The report should analyze uncovered or reported smuggling operations and European arms found in conflict zones.

The ability to name companies and states creates reputational costs that could alter illicit behavior. Whether from the threat of lost revenue or sanctions, naming and shaming these entities would provide governments with the information needed to recognize patterns of illicit behavior and reveal unexplained arms transfers that could require further investigation.

The process of naming and shaming both states and companies can only do so much in that it is dependent on these actors valuing their reputation. Although not ideal, this process can serve as a middle ground until the EU establishes an enforcement mechanism for violating the common position on small arms and light weapons. Whether enforcement entails a temporary ban on the transfer of arms, an inability to conduct sales with certain countries, fines, or jail time is up to the EU. Until then, if the EU. is serious about combatting the spread of these weapons, then it should start by creating reputational costs for those entities that operate outside official European security policy objectives.

Austin Wright is a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional, specializing in trans-Atlantic security and export controls.

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