Working together to stop illegal arms trade in the Western Balkans

Illegal arms trade – a security risk

Illegal arms trade – a security risk, © photothek

31.01.2020 - Article

The impact of years of civil wars in the Western Balkan region can still be felt to this day, with up to six million small arms still in circulation. Germany and France have launched an initiative to curb the illegal arms trade and to bring arms under control.

Illegal arsenals pose a huge security risk to people in the Western Balkans and Europe as a whole. Illegal trade leads to many of the arms ending up in EU Member States. The perpetrators in Paris in 2015 procured their automatic rifles via illegal channels from the Balkan region. It is estimated that there are still up to six million small arms in the region from the time of the wars. Germany and France have launched a joint initiative to counter the illegal arms trade.

A security issue – also for Germany

At the initiative of Germany and France, the Heads of Government of eight EU and six Western Balkan countries agreed at a summit held in London in July 2018 on a roadmap for comprehensive small-arms control by 2024. The aim of the plan is to curb illegal flows of weapons and ammunition in the region and to bring the high numbers of arms from the time of the wars leading to the break‑up of former Yugoslavia under control. At the first follow‑up conference in Paris in December 2018, donors provided funding of around 16 million euros available, almost half of which will come from Germany. The funding will be used to support UN organisations, the OSCE and NGOs in their work to achieve comprehensive small-arms control.

What was achieved in the first year?

On 31 January, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas invited his counterparts from the Western Balkan countries and France to Berlin to a meeting to review the roadmap’s implementation and integrate the initiative into a new EU action plan on firearms trafficking in south-east Europe. Opening the conference, Foreign Minister Maas declared that this would create synergies for Europe:

The EU has been on board from the outset. This is with good reason as the security of the EU is inseparably bound up with the security of the Western Balkans. This is something that we have been aware of not just since the Paris attacks. And this is why I consider it to be an exceptionally positive sign for the future that two new members of the European Commission are with us here in the form of Ylva Johansson and Olivér Várhelyi.

All of the Western Balkan countries have already adopted national action plans aimed at achieving the roadmap’s goals. In addition, each country held national coordination meetings prior to the conference in order to also consolidate work between bilateral donors, representatives of the host countries and NGOs at the national level. The inclusion of the justice ministries is a major achievement, as criminal justice plays a key role in solving gun crimes. The countries are aware of the importance of achieving a common framework for solving the problem of small arms and adapting the legal basis to EU standards.

Foreign Minister Maas said that the initial achievements needed to be followed by others, and progress along the path they had set out on must continue:

The EU integration of the countries of the Western Balkans is also in the strategic interests of both sides. This is why it’s important that we continue to pursue this accession process intensively and to set ourselves objectives.

Concrete steps to tackle small arms

Local partners are coordinating their work via the UNDP-mandated regional small-arms control centre SEESAC and carrying out projects launched by the initiative. For example, UNDP is training border police officers in Bosnia and Herzegovina to enable them to detect illegal arms smuggling more easily. Another example involves the OSCE, which is drawing up instructions on deactivating illegal arms correctly so that they no longer pose a threat.


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