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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 09:27 GMT
Hunting the illegal arms traffickers
By Alex Vines
Africa Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs

As part of a UN initiative to enforce arms embargoes, weapons expert Alex Vines uncovered an illegal deal in Liberia. Here he explains why it's so difficult to stop illicit gun trafficking around the world.

Liberian youth
Serbian-made weapons have been found in Liberia
A fragile peace now reigns in the West African state of Liberia, where years of instability and civil war have caused widespread devastation.

This history of internal uprisings and factional fighting has created a huge demand for weapons.

And the guns frequently end up in the hands of child soldiers, some as young as 12 years old.

In an effort to bring peace and security to the country, an arms embargo was imposed in late 1992 by the United Nations.

However, the embargo was regularly violated so in 2001 the Security Council decided to start policing it for the first time.

It appointed a panel of experts to monitor and report embargo violations to the Security Council Sanctions Committee.

Liberia's experience is not isolated; it remains too easy for unscrupulous brokers to export weapons with false documents
In March 2003, our panel had heard rumours that a specific Belgrade arms broker was preparing shipments of weapons for the Liberian Government in violation of UN sanctions.

We wanted to build up a strong case for the authorities in Belgrade to act upon and prosecute, as well as to stop any attempt by Liberia to continue to buy weapons from Serbian dealers.

We had tried to prosecute sanctions violators in other countries before but without success. But this case had much promise, especially with the new post-Milosevic government in Belgrade.

Child's gun clue

We started our investigation by looking at weapons held by deserting government soldiers and rebels from neighbouring Sierra Leone brought across the border into Liberia.

UN weapons expert Alex Vines
Alex Vines inspects weapons in Liberia
And it was in no-man's land, in the middle of the Mano River Union bridge between Sierra Leone and Liberia, that I first realised we were on the right track.

A rebel child soldier showed me his AK-47 assault rifle which was stamped with M-70 2002 and a serial number.

I knew immediately that this weapon had been made in Serbia.

The child told me that he had captured the weapon recently from a Liberian Government soldier he had killed.

From then on we found scores of serial numbers from Serbian-made M-70 assault rifles, all made in 2001 and 2002.

We also crossed into northern Liberia and discovered government soldiers carrying similar weapons.

False paperwork

Armed with this information we travelled to Belgrade to discuss our findings with the Serbian authorities.

We needed to match our serial numbers with those of six shipments of weapons that were exported in 2002 from Belgrade and supposedly destined for Nigeria, according to the "end user certificate".

This certificate, stating which country weapons are to be sold to, is legally required for an international arms sale to take place.

But as there is no standardised, internationally-recognised certificate, it is difficult for authorities to tell if a document is genuine or not, and so prevent an illegal deal.

In this case, the documentation was false.

The Serbian officials confirmed that all our serial numbers matched the M-70 weapons exported from a Serbian arms factory, even though the factory genuinely believed the guns were destined for Nigeria.

We managed to prove that the Serbian broker knowingly exported the weapons to Liberia. We then handed over the case to the Serbian authorities to follow up and act upon.

As a result, the broker lost its export licence and has now closed down.


Since the making of the BBC's film there have been serious political changes in Liberia.

Former President Charles Taylor is now in exile in Nigeria and is wanted by Interpol.

UN peacekeepers in Liberian capital, Monrovia
It is hoped UN peacekeepers will bring security to Liberia
A UN peacekeeping force has been sent to Liberia following an agreement between warring factions.

There are tremendous challenges ahead: the country is awash with weapons and thousands of child soldiers need to be re-integrated into civilian life.

Militias need to be disbanded and the government's army transformed.

A Serbian UN peacekeeper stationed in Liberia could find himself staring down the barrel of a gun made in his home country.

Liberia's experience is not isolated; it remains too easy for unscrupulous brokers to export weapons with false documents.

A new system including standardisation of documentation, marking of weapons and a verifiable supply chain could make deals like the one from Belgrade to Liberia much less easy.

Correspondent: Gun Traffic was broadcast in the UK on Sunday, 7 December, 2003 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

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