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The fight to keep small arms in the right hands

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called them weapons of mass destruction - small arms are responsible for the majority of violent deaths worldwide. The German army is now trying to limit their proliferation.

The small underground room is untidy and full of dangerous equipment. A dozen wooden crates, presumably containing ammunition or possibly hand grenades, are stacked against the left wall. On a shelf there are 50 or 60 rifles piled in all directions. In between, on the floor, there are machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles, open boxes with guns of all kinds. Some loaded, some unloaded.

This depot, however, isn't real - it's a meticulous fake, set up for training purposes. "We find chaotic weapons depots like this very often," said Lieutenant Colonel Heiko Lambert of the German army's arms control squad in the town of Geilenkirchen in North Rhine-Westphalia. "They're more the rule than the exception."

Lambert said he has seen many such stores - in Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and now he's on his way to Sudan. At least a hundred times a year the Bundeswehr's "Center for Verification Missions" (ZVBw) sends out specialized squads, often at the behest of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Their job, for example in Russia or Ukraine, is to check whether governments and military forces are sticking to their international agreements.

Lambert speaks with his colleagues Photo: DW/Alois Berger

Lambert inspects weapons caches around the world

Big small arms

But more often than not Lambert and his colleagues have much less spectacular jobs to perform. During "assessment visits," team members examine weapons and ammunition caches of allied armies. Officially, the inspectors are invited by the governments of countries like Moldova and Tajikistan - in reality, though, Germany's military and Foreign Ministry push them to allow the inspections. Poorly secured weapons depots are one of the main causes for the proliferation of handguns, rifles, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

"There are around a billion small arms in circulation around the world," Lambert estimated, "A good portion of them have got into the wrong hands through theft and poor controls."

Small arms are defined as any weapon that one or two men can carry. More than 1,000 people are killed by them every day, and three times as many injured. In order to illustrate how carelessly arsenals are stored in many countries, the Bundeswehr has set up an old munitions depot in Geilenkirchen according to a Moldovan model: an unsecured fence, rusty locks on the bunker entrances, defective lighting, and a completely inadequate two-man guard detail to cover the entire area. Then there are the chaotic weapons depots themselves.

The ZVBw has warned of the dangers of poorly operated arms depots, which, they say, are easy pickings for criminals and terrorists. For this reason, the Bundeswehr is trying raise awareness in eastern Europe, and increasingly Africa, that it presents a danger to both governments and their militaries if they don't look after their own weapons.

Raising concerns

For Lieutenant Colonel Kerstin Bekaan, the focus is on lifecycle management - looking after a weapon for as long as it is functioning, which could last decades. In the courses and seminars that Bekaan holds for officers and government officials in many different countries, she underlines not only the importance of correctly storing the weapons, but accurately taking stock. "It's about making clear that buying a weapon is bound up with the long-term decision of how to handle it, so that nothing goes missing and becomes a danger to oneself."

Bekaan makes no bones about the fact that it's very difficult to get the message across in certain regions in the world. But there's no alternative - it just takes patience. "We work to establish the idea of lifecycle management in different countries, and that's why we offer our training."

But Bekaan said she holds out another hope too - that the arms industry will outfit weapons with an electronic security system. Technically it has long been possible to install a chip into weapons that would allow every single rifle in the world to be located via satellite. By the same token, some landmines are constructed so that they only have a limited lifespan, and are no longer explosive after a certain period. Guns and ammunition could theoretically be built with a technical "expiration date." For controversial weapons deals, such as to Kurds in Iraq fighting "Islamic State" extremists that are currently under discussion in Germany, this would reduce the danger that the weapons would later be misused for other purposes.

Soldiers standing at a fence topped with barbed wire at the German training facility Photo: DW/Alois Berger

A typical scene - set up for training purposes

Little interest in limits

But the necessary research is still in its early stages. The

arms industry

has no interest in the development of such systems, said Bekaan, because most customers don't want time limits. ZVBw boss Brigadier General Jürgen Beyer also sees little enthusiasm for "temporary" weapons. "Of course we should work on it," Beyer underlines. "But that puts us in the high-tech area, and that is suitably expensive."

Now that the German government has resolved to begin sending weapons to the Kurds, there will be no guarantee that the weapons and rocket launchers won't turn up somewhere else. Beyer holds out little hope that his inspectors will ever get the opportunity to check on the Kurdish weapons depots in northern Iraq saying, "The area is not part of any agreement where we have any jurisdiction - that's beyond our control."

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