Minimizing the Threat of Small Arms in the Western Balkans

by Ivan Zverzhanovski, SEESAC Coordinator

What do the places like Sevelievo (Bulgaria), Padjane (Croatia) and Evangelos - Florakis, (Cyprus) have in common? They are among the many ammunition storage sites where an accident took place in 2011, causing the death of over 440 people, injury to approximately 2,000 individuals, and leaving long-term environmental and infrastructure damage (See:Small Arms Survey Report).

In 2011, the rate of accidents at munitions storage sites rose to unprecedented levels - 3.8 incidents per month. According to the UN International Ammunition Technical Guidelines, Eastern Europe and Africa are areas of particular concern because countries in this region possess significant surpluses, much of which are well past their safe storage life.

Given the sensitive nature of the materials, storage facilities require proper management by trained personnel, adequate conditions for storing and constant surveillance for security reasons. In many instances, the government or private owners of the facilities are unable to meet these requirements.

As a result, weapons are sometimes illegally taken out of the storages or accidents such as those in Svelieve, Padjane and Evangelos Florakis take place.

Small arms and light weapons pose a direct threat to the communities where they are located. They can have a negative long term impact on the region’s sustainable development, and contribute to the spread of insecurity.

The project that I manage is helping combat the threat posed by small arms and light weapons in Southeast Europe. The project’s official name is the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Yes, it is quite a mouthful, so around here, we just call it SEESAC. The project is a joint initiative of UNDP and the Regional Cooperation Council.

So what does controlling and reducing the proliferation of arms mean in practice? I often get asked this and every time I try to answer I realize the scope and complexity of our work. At the hard, visible end of the spectrum are the weapons destructions.

Since 2009, in cooperation with ministries of the interior throughout the region, we destroyed some 85,000 pieces in Croatia, Moldova and Serbia alone. Because people like to see a heap of guns as they get destroyed, these activities provide media coverage, providing us with visibility and powerful images to illustrate the results of our efforts.

Destruction of weapons have another benefit – they ensure that those weapons we destroy can never find their way to a conflict zone, or to the street.

However, we also realize that we cannot destroy all weapons and hence we increasingly work on more secure storage solutions. It is obvious that states will continue to keep large arsenals of weapons and ammunition. What we want to ensure is that they are kept safe and secure – that weapons and ammunition do not “walk” away from the storages or explode, as is sometimes the case.

In the past three years, I have had to learn a tremendous amount about storage, how they are built, how ammunition is kept, and guarded.

In order to make sure all illegally owned weapons are destroyed or safely stored, my team and I also help with campaigns to raise awareness and collect weapons. As I sit and write this, I am wearing a black T-shirt with a slogan – Manje oruzja, manje tragedija (Less weapons, less tragedies), a souvenir from the recently concluded awareness raising and collection campaign carried out by my colleagues in Croatia together with the Ministry of the Interior. Highly visible, it resulted in large numbers of weapons and explosive devices returned by citizens, making Croatia safer for its citizens.

However, as the topic we deal with remains highly sensitive, a lot of what my team and I do is much less visible and has to remain so.

For instance, we facilitate the meetings of the Informal Regional Information Exchange Process on Arms Exports, a process which brings together government officials from six countries in the Western Balkans. These are the very individuals denying or granting import and export licenses for arms, on a day to day basis. As we facilitate these informal gatherings,the latest of which just took place some weeks ago, where experiences but also difficulties are discussed, we are privy to discussions that have to remain off the record. In these cases, measuring and demonstrating impact is challenging.

In my line of work, the main challenge for Western Balkan countries is the practical implementation of their existing legal and political commitments in the control of small arms and light weapons.

Consequently, in order to minimize the risk of proliferation of small arms and light weapons, it is crucial to increase the safety of existing stockpiles, to destroy surpluses and to establish more stringent controls - including through marking and tracing tools.

Together with its partners, UNDP has been working for 10 years to achieve these goals and my team and I look forward to continuing to do so.