Cooperation in tracing

May 11 2011, 1:16 PM  by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will

The bulk of Wednesday’s discussion focused on the third thematic item of the MGE, cooperation in tracing. The discussion kicked off with a presentation of INTERPOL’s tools states can use to help them trace firearms, which include a firearms tracing tool; firearms reference table; firearms identification online training; and a ballistic information network. INTERPOL’s representative also announced a fifth tool under development, which is an international database for stolen, lost, smuggled, and trafficked Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also gave a presentation, which focused on bringing a criminal justice perspective into the meeting. The UNODC representative noted that -firearms are always involved in transnational organized crimes, either as means to facilitate the commission of crimes or as commodity for illicit trafficking. Yet, she explained, few criminals are brought to justice for firearms trafficking charges—far more are investigated for drug trafficking or associated crimes. She warned against considering the issue of firearms in isolation and urged states to take a broader view to respond adequately to the challenges of organized crime, such as by implementing both the ITI and the Organized Crime Convention. She argued that their combined implementation will give states effective tools for international cooperation.

In keeping with the form of the MGE’s previous discussions, Ambassador Jim McLay led off the member state discussion with some questions, such as: How frequently have states received tracing requests? Have such requests generally been successfully completed? What are the main reasons they’re not completed? What tools have you used? What other tools exist at the bilateral or regional level? How effective have such instruments been in practice, or how could they be enhanced? What challenges have states encountered in sharing information? What could be used to promote coordination with private sector and inter-regionally to enhance tracing?

Several delegations attempted to answer these questions in their interventions. A few gave examples of tracing requests they received. The Philippines noted that in one recent case they were able to successfully assist another country in tracing 115 of 181 seized firearms, which led to criminal charges. However, the remaining weapons were untraceable either because their markings were damaged or there were no records. In this regard, the delegation emphasized the importance of yesterday’s discussions on marking and record-keeping, noting that the inadequacy of either will make tracing extremely difficult.

The German delegation highlighted another challenge, which is of manufacturers illegally marking weapons. In one case, it noted that a firearm brought to it for tracing was marked with one manufacturer’s information but was actually produced by another manufacturer that used the other’s trademarks. This resulted in an investigation that has revealed the broad scope of this practice, and illustrates an extensive knowledge of firearms is necessary to successfully trace weapons. France’s delegation also emphasized the importance of training and competence, and several other delegations such as Sudan highlighted such “capacity deficits” being the biggest challenge to tracing firearms in their regions or countries, especially where conflicts have recently taken place. Of course, as several delegations pointed out, situations of conflict are one of the prime instances when tracing is most needed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged all states “to ensure that illicit weapons that are recovered during or after armed conflicts are traced, and to maximize tracing cooperation to this end.”

The US delegation emphasized the need of training for police officers, who sometimes need to be convinced of the value of tracing a weapon. It explained that the United States tries to train its police to think of the firearm as an informant, which has lot of information about things other than the crime for which it was specifically used to commit—for example, if it turns out to be an illegal firearm, the individual might be part of a trafficking network. The US delegation also gave a presentation of its eTrace system, which is provided free of charge to any country seeking to trace US weapons that end up in their territories.

Israel’s delegation brought up another challenge, regarding cases when the information requested pertains to deals brokered by arms traders whose sole connection with the country from which the trace is requested is that person’s citizenship—i.e. when the arms deal has been brokered between two other states, operating from outside the country from whom a trace is requested. In response, the Belgian delegation suggested looking at the proof stamp on the barrel of the weapon, which should contain a unique country mark to help identify the actual country of origin.

Several delegations explained how their tracing systems work locally and nationally and how their agencies cooperate with those of other countries. Belgium and Germany both emphasized the importance of having good relations with weapons manufacturers in one’s country, for sometimes the manufacturer’s records of when a weapon was made or who it was sold to can prove instrumental in tracing a firearm successfully.

Brazil’s delegation referred to confidentiality of information as a potential challenge for cooperation, noting that if the country that requests a trace on a firearm does not have the requisite information—type of weapon, manufacturer, caliber, and serial number—then the country requested to conduct the trace might need more information, such as where it was seized or who the end-user was intended to be, but this information is not always easily forthcoming. The US delegation also pointed out that some country’s laws require them to share information that the country that has conducted the trace may prefer be kept confidential—for example, if an individual is being charged with a crime that involves a particular firearm, the information provided by the tracing authority will have to be shared with the defence, not just the prosecution.

A few delegations brought up new questions for the MGE to consider. Belgium’s delegate noted that a trace on a particular firearm can reveal that certain buyers require special attention in their license requests and said that Belgium includes an anti-diversion criterion in transfer requests and export licensing. He asked how such information on the risk of diversion could be efficiently compiled in order to assist police.

Mexico’s delegation explained that to bring charges against traffickers, authorities require identifying not just the producer and distributor of the firearm but also the trafficking route by which the weapon entered the country. To help facilitate this type of tracing, Mexico’s delegate asked other states to consider developing a directory of competent bodies and authorities that can be put together that allow for an investigation between these bodies instead of having to send a formal request through INTERPOL. The delegation of Peru supported this idea.