Note d'Analyse
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Date d'insertion : 16/06/2004

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Briefing on the SALW tracing system in the
Federal Republic of Germany and scope for possible improvements

by Holger Anders, IANSA European Regional Information Officer

Timely and reliable tracing of illicit SALW (1)

One of the crucial challenges for current efforts to assist states in timely and reliable tracing of illicit SALW is to identify and establish those measures that will allow for tracing illicit SALW recovered in conflict and post-conflict situations.(2) Thus, particularly SALW recovered in such situations may previously have passed through many hands without being adequately recorded. The point at which the weapon was diverted into the illicit trade can therefore usually not be adequately identified. Moreover, in absence of greater physical controls of SALW transfers and holdings, points of diversion are, if at all, often identified only long after the diversion took place. This means that a significant opportunity for the combat against the illicit SALW trade is missed.

If this situation is to be redressed, it is essential that UN Member States adopt an appropriate tracing infrastructure. At its core must be the ability of States to identify the complete trade path of a SALW while under a State’s jurisdiction and the weapon’s destination. In addition, there must be a clear identification of the channels of information exchanges and their modalities in the context of tracing requests for illicit SALW. Further, much greater emphasis should be put on establishing and undertaking control functions in relation to SALW transfers and holdings. UN Member States should therefore designate one national focal point for tracing illicit SALW and one or more competent national authorities to undertake relevant verification tasks.

Specialised national agencies

The Model Convention on Marking, Registration and Tracing of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) (3), picks up on these ideas and proposes a proactive tracing infrastructure that would allow states to identify SALW diversions before an illicit weapon is potentially recovered and to respond to tracing requests with adequate information within short periods of time. Following the mechanisms for tracing goods in other commercial sectors (4), the principle of “one step up, one step down” is suggested. This means that every person or entity in the supply chain of a SALW must know where the weapon came from and where it is destined to go. Central to the proposed infrastructure are specialised national agencies. These would combine the functions of the national focal point with that of relevant competent national control authorities. One of their tasks would be to establish and maintain national record-keeping systems that allow for the complete tracing of a weapon’s path while under the State’s jurisdiction. That is, the agencies should maintain data on every SALW that enters the State’s jurisdiction through, for example, domestic manufacture or import, and on who is authorised to hold or stockpile that weapon. Agencies would also maintain data on every SALW that leaves a State’s jurisdiction through, for example, destruction or exports. Such information must also allow for the identification of the relevant actors involved in the last known stage of a weapon’s trade path.

Control functions
In cases of cross-border transfers, exporters and importers of SALW would have to inform their national agency about the involved transport agents, the unique identifiers of the transferred SALW, and potential obligations regarding end-use or re-transfers of these weapons. The national agency in the exporting country should undertake systematic pre-shipment inspections to verify that the SALW in the shipment are adequately recorded and correspond to the accompanying transfer documents. A list with information on, among other, the type, quantity, exporter, importer and transport agents of the SALW as well as their individual markings should then be transmitted to the national agencies in the countries through which the weapons are transited and exported to.

It would be the task of the national agency in the importing country to undertake delivery inspections to verify that the weapons reached their authorised recipient and to register the SALW. Further tasks of the national agencies should include post-delivery verification and inspections of national holdings of SALW. Such a system of physical inspections in relation to SALW transfers and holdings would follow already existing practices in other commercial trade sectors, where trade inspection services verify quality and quantity of transferred goods.(5) Such a system would also seem essential for the timely identification of successful or attempted SALW diversions.

The costs for maintaining specialised national agencies will depend on the size of the agency, which, in turn, would be determined by the quantities of SALW under a State’s jurisdiction and the number of required inspection tasks to be implemented. A country that only occasionally has SALW transfers entering, transiting or leaving its jurisdiction would consequently have a smaller tracing agency than one, where cross-border SALW transfers take place several times a week. Depending on the country, agencies could therefore be based on a small number of full-time employees with relevant support staff and technical capabilities. They should have the means for easy displacement for on-site inspections of transfers and holdings.

Control functions such as on-site inspections as well as pre-shipment and delivery verifications could also be subcontracted to accredited commercial trade inspection institutions. Such institutions charge clients a percentage of the value of the shipment and fixed rates for regular on-site inspections. Applied to inspections of SALW transfers and holdings, this could mean that importers and exporters of SALW would pay, for example, 0.4 to 1% of the total value of a SALW shipment for the verification of the transfer and a set charge for on-site inspections. Costs for States to create and maintain the proposed tracing infrastructure should therefore largely be recoverable.

International centre to assist tracing

This national tracing infrastructure should be complemented by an international centre located within the framework of the UN. This centre should assist States and their national agencies in the timely and reliable tracing of illicit SALW and act as a coordinating body for tracing requests. This will be particularly important in cases when a weapon is traced that, since its manufacture, entered and left the jurisdiction of several countries. This means that a national agency initiating a tracing request would forward the request to the international centre. This centre would then contact the agency in the country of manufacture or last known legal import of the weapon. In turn, the contacted agency will then have to trace the weapon in its national record-keeping system to identify whether the weapon was diverted within that country or whether it was exported.

Within a period of, for example, several working days, the contacted agency would then have to respond to the international centre with information on whether the weapon was diverted within the country or whether it was legally exported. In the later case, the contacted agency would have to provide information on the destination of exported weapon. In this case, the international centre would be responsible for contacting any further national agencies that may be required to establish the point of diversion of an illicit SALW. It would be the obligation of the agency in the country where the diversion is discovered to inform the competent national authorities so that appropriate measures can be taken by these authorities.

To facilitate such tracing efforts, national agencies should submit information on cross-border SALW transfers, including the unique identifier and other information contained in the markings of a SALW, to the international centre. This would not amount to a transparency measure on the SALW trade. Rather, the international centre should act as a confidential repository of relevant information that protects commercial confidentiality and takes account of possible national security interests of States. Such international systems for information exchange ensuring the complete confidentiality of customers already exist in, for example, relation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Similar to the IAEA, the mission of an international tracing centre should be ‘guided by the interests and needs of Member States, strategic plans and the vision embodied’ in the statute of the centre.(6) The release of information by the international centre on specific SALW transfers would consequently be strictly limited to that information necessary for the tracing of an illicit SALW and would only be transmitted to those agencies, which are directly involved in the particular tracing request.

German system for tracing SALW

Tracing requests concerning the Federal Republic of Germany as presumed country of manufacture of a SALW that was subsequently diverted into the illicit trade are usually made through Interpol. It is the Federal Criminal Police Bureau, which handles these requests in Germany. Based on an analysis of the markings on the weapon, it is decided which of the various registers on SALW existing in Germany need to be consulted. For commercially-traded SALW considered as war weapons, it is usually the records held by manufacturers and dealers that are consulted. These registers are organised so as to allow for identifying whether the weapon was indeed manufactured by the contacted manufacturer, and where the weapon was transferred to. In cases where the markings indicate that the weapon was previously owned by the Federal Armed Forces, the Federal Armed Forces Military Police is contacted. The Military Police then consults the registers held within the Federal Armed Forces. When markings of a weapon indicate that they were previously held with Federal or State Police or Customs agencies, it is these agencies which trace the weapon in their internal records.(7)


There are several elements in the German system on marking, record-keeping and tracing SALW that reflect best practices on the international level. Regarding the marking of SALW, best practices include the clear stipulation in national law that every SALW produced or transferred into Germany must have permanent and easily recognisable markings that identify the manufacturer or importer as well as the weapon’s unique identifier.(8) They also include the obligation to apply additional markings to SALW held by security forces to identify the relevant holder such as the military or federal and state police forces.(9) Moreover, agencies such as the procurement office for the Federal Customs Administration possess facilities to apply required additional post-production markings for weapons themselves.

In relation to record-keeping systems, best practices include the obligation of manufacturers and dealers to maintain ‘arms books’. In these books are registered the serial numbers and other marks of produced or held SALW, and in cases of transfers, their recipient.(10) For transfers of SALW considered as weapons of war in Germany, arms books must also identify involved transport agents.(11) For reasons of efficiency, several SALW manufacturers keep arms books in electronic format. Arms books for war weapons must regularly be submitted to the Federal Office for Economics and Export Control. There are regular on-site inspections to verify information contained in these arms books by this office. Regular on-site inspections at facilities of manufacturers and dealers in SALW falling under the Weapons Act are carried out by regional administrative authorities.(12)

SALW held by civilians must be registered with local police, and security forces are obliged to maintain complete record-keeping systems on SALW held by them. Best practice here includes in particular the centralised and electronic registers kept by the Federal Customs Administration and the Federal Border Police for the weapons held by these agencies respectively. Similar to the electronic arms books kept by certain manufacturers, these registers allow for the immediate identification of a weapon’s path while under the agency’s responsibility and its destination.(13)


In comparison to the proposed tracing infrastructure, there are, despite its strengths, several weaknesses in the German system. The most notable one is the absence of one national agency centralising information on SALW falling under Germany’s jurisdiction as well as those entering or leaving its jurisdiction. Further, record-keeping systems for security forces are fragmented between the individual agencies and are in certain cases maintained in paper form or as electronic systems that are not interconnected. (14) This may hamper the tracing of weapons in the internal records of the relevant security force.

There is also no centralisation of information on the paths of civilian-held weapons and no obligation exists for manufacturers and dealers to regularly submit to authorities arms books on SALW weapons falling under the Weapons Act. In short, the path of an individual SALW while under Germany’s jurisdiction and its destination must be pieced together from several sources. Again, this may hinder the timely and reliable tracing of an illicit weapon.

In addition, there are no systematic inspections of cross-border SALW transfers. Customs usually can only control a small portion of the goods entering or leaving a state’s jurisdiction. When transfers, including imports, are checked by customs, these controls usually limit itself to checking shipping documents. There is therefore no inspection of quantities and markings in a SALW transfer and their verification against recorded information in these documents.(15) There are also no systematic post-delivery inspections to verify that imported weapons are still in the possession of the authorised dealers or agencies.

Strengthening Germany’s tracing infrastructure

There are several measures Germany could implement to strengthen its tracing infrastructure. One practical measure is the upgrading of post-production marking facilities in the security forces. Efficient tools for such markings are laser workstations. These are the size of a large filing cabinet, require a standard power source and are, together with operating software that is adapted to requirements of the user, internationally available in basic standard models from 42.000 EUR. Distributors of these workstations also often provide related services and recommended training courses. (16)

Regarding record-keeping systems on SALW, the federal government should ensure that all of the agencies under its authority establish and centralise electronic record-keeping systems on SALW held by the individual agencies. For reasons of efficiency, it might be desirable to integrate these separate registers under the authority of one single agency. The federal government should also encourage the governments of the individual federal states that registers on SALW held by the State Police Forces are upgraded.

Equally encouraged should be the introduction of one central electronic register on civilian-held SALW, or, at a minimum, the establishment of such registers on the level of states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Likewise, manufacturers and dealers of SALW should be required to keep and regularly submit arms books on both SALW considered as weapons of war and those not considered as such to relevant authorities in electronic format. The Federal Office for Economics and Export Control should correspondingly be equipped with the technical means to receive and store submitted information electronically. The arms books on the trade in SALW not considered as weapons of war should be extended to include information on transport agents involved in a transfer.

National tracing agency
As argued here, the creation of one specialised national agency could considerably contribute to streamlining the fragmented tracing mechanisms currently employed in Germany, free up resources in those agencies currently undertaking relevant control functions and lead to an overall reduction of costs for maintaining the present national tracing system. The specialised agency should be mandated to, among other tasks, centralise SALW record-keeping systems. For the purposes of tracing illicit SALW, the most efficient measure is the establishment of one electronic register that records the history of each SALW under Germany’s jurisdiction. This would mean a register that integrates the record-keeping systems on SALW held by the security forces with those on civilian-held weapons and the arms books maintained by manufacturers and dealers. Such a register, if adequately set up, can ensure commercial confidentiality of submitted information and the protection of person data. (17)

If one central register for all SALW is judged undesirable, the national agency should nevertheless centralise information contained in regularly submitted arms books and register exports, transits, imports and domestic transfers. The agency should therefore be informed by the security forces on every SALW that is acquired, transferred, lost, or destroyed by them. The agency would also take over the control functions presently carried out by the Federal Agency for Economics and Export Controls and regional administrative authorities regarding arms books. This would include regular and challenge on-site inspection.

Lastly, it would also take over those tasks from the Federal Criminal Police Bureau that are related to the tracing of an illicit SALW in Germany’s SALW record-keeping systems. Based on such a tracing infrastructure, the Federal Republic of Germany would be in a position to quickly identify discrepancies in recorded information and possible SALW diversions, as well as to retrieve required data and respond in a timely and reliable manner to tracing requests.


Based on the already existing mechanisms and regulations on marking and record-keeping in Germany, it its generally possible to identify whether a SALW bearing relevant markings was manufactured in Germany and its destination. Moreover, Germany’s tracing system already contains certain best practices such as additional identifying marks on SALW held by security forces, facilities in such forces to apply relevant post-production markings, and centralised electronic registers of certain federal security forces. It could be argued therefore that, given the strengths of the present tracing system and the assumed low risk of SALW diversion within Germany and during exports, there is no immediately evident need to strengthen Germany’s tracing infrastructure.

However, the proposed tracing infrastructure would seem crucial for a pro-active international system to prevent SALW diversions, efficiently trace illicit weapons, and apprehend those involved in diversions. The proposed infrastructure is therefore of as much relevance to Germany as to other countries involved in the SALW trade. Further, as argued in this briefing, the proposed infrastructure is both technically and financially feasible. Without international agreement on such a pro-active approach, current efforts to assist states in the timely and reliable tracing of illicit SALW run the risk of missing a significant opportunity to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit SALW trade in all its aspects.

Annex – SALW Marking and Record-keeping in Germany


Marking requirements
Arms manufacturers and dealers in Federal Republic of Germany must ensure that SALW and their main components produced, imported or otherwise transferred into Germany are permanently and easily recognisably marked so as to identify the producer or importer. (18) This mark must include a stylised eagle to denote Germany as country of manufacture or import. Markings on SALW must also include a serial number. (19) SALW held by Federal and State Police Forces are, apart from the obligatory markings on firearms, marked with abbreviations identifying the relevant forces holding the weapons. SALW held by the Federal Armed Forces are marked so as to identify, inter alia, the manufacturer, year of delivery, and serial number. (20) Persons and entities commercially trading firearms may only cede such weapons if appropriately marked. (21) Violations of the obligation to appropriately mark firearms, or to ensure that such markings exist before ceding firearms, are punishable as an administrative offence with a fine of up to 10.000 EUR. (22)

Marking methods
Marking methods vary depending on the material to be marked and requirements of end-users. One increasingly used method by manufactures for marking SALW is that of laser marking. (23) Laser marking has the advantage of being a flexible and economically efficient method to mark metals and plastics in even hard to reach places. Further, marking lasers and their operating software can be easily integrated into production systems of SALW. Laser marking and engraving machines are also methods used to apply post-production markings on weapons.


Manufacturers and dealers
Manufacturers and dealers are obliged to maintain ‘arms books’, which register the serial number and other marks of produced or acquired weapons. In cases of transfers, arms books must identify the name and address of a weapon’s recipient and, for war weapons, also the date of transfer and name and address of the transport agent. Information on a ceded weapon must be kept for at least ten years after the transfer of the weapon and regulations stipulate penalties for the falsification of arms books. (24) Many SALW manufacturers in Germany operate, for reasons of efficiency, electronic in-house record-keeping systems for such books. This also allows manufacturers, when provided with a serial number of a weapon bearing their mark, to immediately identify the recipient of a weapon transferred from their facilities. Copies of pages in war weapons books identifying, inter alia, the origin or recipient of SALW considered as war weapons must be submitted, on a six monthly basis, to the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA). BAFA carries out regular on-site inspections every second year, and may carry out challenge inspections. Books on the manufacture and transfer of other SALW must be submitted, upon request, to the police. Regional administrative authorities carry out on-site inspections once a year to verify the information contained in these books. (25)

Federal and State Armed Agencies
Federal armed agencies register the weapons in their possession separately. The Federal Armed Forces register information on SALW under their authority in either electronic or paper-based format on a variety of organisational levels. SALW held by customs are registered in a central electronic register maintained by the Federal Revenue Administration. SALW held by the Federal Border Police and by the Federal Criminal Police Office are also registered in central electronic registers maintained by these agencies. These registers have been adopted to the need of the specific agencies and allow for the complete tracing of the movements of a weapon from its point of acquisition by the relevant agency till its sale or transfer to another end-user, its destruction, or disappearance through loss or theft. The requirements for the maintenance of central electronic registers differ according to the number of registered weapons and to the changes in possession that must be recorded. One of these registers contains some 20.000 SALW and is maintained and updated by one person working in a full-time position. Information in these registers is kept indefinitely which allows for the tracing of a weapon in the records even decades after a weapon was transferred by the relevant agency. (26)

Reflecting the federal structure of Germany, police forces of Germany’s federal states (Länder) maintain their own record-keeping systems for SALW held by them. The record-keeping systems differ from state to state and often information on weapons is registered locally. Due to pressures to enhance efficiency, State Police Forces increasingly opt for specialised software for SALW registers in local stations and work towards the centralisation of these local-level registers within their state. (27)

Civilian Possession of Firearms
Possession of SALW considered as war weapons for private purposes is prohibited in Germany. The possession of firearms by civilians is regulated by the Weapons Act. Under this act, individuals and entities holding firearms must be in possession of a weapons card listing each individual firearms and its markings in their possession. (28) Weapons cards may be obtained after an application to local police authorities. Card holders must notify authorities about any planned acquisition of weapons and provide information on the recipient of a firearm in cases of transfers in ownership. Local police then inform the authorities in the area where the recipient of the weapon is located, who has to register the received weapon with the local police. It is up to local police forces to determine whether to opt for electronic record-keeping systems. Where electronic registers exist, they tend to be localised and do not allow for electronic transfer of data on civilian-held firearms between local police authorities. (29)



(1) The author is European Information Officer of the International Action Network on Small Arms with the support of GRIP (Groupe de recherché et d’information sur la paix et la sécurité), Belgium. The author would like to thank everyone in the contacted governmental agencies and commercial enterprises who has helped him to collect the here presented information. The here presented opinions and any factual errors remain the author’s sole responsibility.

(2) As noted by the Group of Governmental Experts on Tracing Illicit SALW, “current levels of cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, in tracing illicit weapons, particularly in conflict situations, are far from adequate and could be made more effective.” (United Nations (2003) Report of the Group of Governmental Experts established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 56/24 V of 24 December 2001, entitled “The illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects” (UN Document A/58/138). United Nations: New York, 11 July, p.12, para. 25).

(3) The model convention was drafted by GRIP, Belgium in collaboration with the Centre for International Law of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in the framework of a research project funded by the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is available at

(4) The “one step up, one step down approach” underpins, for example, the present food safety regulations in the European Union (EU). These binding obligations apply throughout the EU to ‘all stages of production, processing and distribution of [all] food … intended to be … ingested by humans’. (EU (2002) ‘Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law’ Official Journal of the European Communities, n° L31/1. EC: Brussels, 1 January, § 1.3-§2 and §18).

(5) Manufacturers and dealers of dangerous goods, for example, are frequently required to obtain certification by packaging control organisations that intended packaging complies with safety standards regarding the transport of these goods. These goods include ammunition and cartridges for small arms (See UN (2001) UN Model Regulations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods 12th edition. UN: New York). Participants in cross-border trading, including governments, also frequently make use of a number of globally operating trade inspection services, including for pre-shipment and post-delivery inspections. For examples of such service providers see or

(6) See

(7) See Federal Republic of Germany (2003a) National Report on the Implementation of the United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. Federal Foreign Office: Berlin, 29 April, p.33ff

(8) See War Weapons Control Act, BGBl I 1961, 444, last amended by §3 Gesetz vom 11.10.2002, I 3970: §12.7.3; Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act, BGBl I 649, last amended by § 18 Gesetz vom 21.12.1992, I 2150: §13.1; and Weapons Act 2002, BGBl I 2002, 3970: §24.1.1.

(9) See Federal Republic of Germany (2003a), op. cit., p.34.

(10) Weapons Act 2002, § 23.1 and §23.2; General Weapons Ordinance, BGBl of 31 October 2003, I, 2123: §17 - §20; War Weapons Control Act, §12.2; Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act, §9 - §11.

(11) Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act, §9 - §11.

(12) See Federal Republic of Germany (2003b) Information exchange Pursuant to the OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Federal Foreign Office: Berlin, 30 June, p.18.

(13) Telephone interviews by the author with officials in the Federal Customs Administration (4 May 2004), in the Federal Border Police (6 May 2004), and with representatives of two SALW manufacturers in Germany (3 and 7 May 2004).

(14) Telephone interviews by the author with officials in State Police Forces in North Rhine Westphalia and Bavaria (5 and 7 May 2004).

(15) See Berkol, Ilhan (2004) Marking, Registration and Tracing of Small Arms and Light Weapons: Draft Convention. GRIP: Brussels, p.26.

(16) Telephone interviews by the author with laser-marking manufacturers in Switzerland and Germany (10 and 12 May 2004).

(17) see Berkol (2004), op. cit., p.27.

(18) War Weapons Control Act §12.7.3; Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act §13.1; and Weapons Act 2002, §24.1.1.

(19) Weapons Act 2002, §24.1.3; and Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act §13.2. Exceptions to the obligation to include serial numbers in markings exist in relation to, for example, certain categories considered as war weapons such as howitzers, mortars and hand grenades (ibid.).

(20) Federal Republic of Germany (2003a), op. cit., p.25f.

(21) Weapons Act 2002, §24.1.4.

(22) Ibid., §53.1.9; §53.1.10; and §53.2.

(23) Telephone interviews by the author with representatives of two SALW manufacturers in Germany (3 and 7 May 2004).

(24) Ibid., § 23.1 and §23.2; General Weapons Ordinance, §17 - §20; War Weapons Control Act, §12.2; and Second Ordinance Implementing the War Weapons Control Act, §9 - §11.

(25) Federal Republic of Germany (2003b), op. cit., p.18.

(26) Telephone interviews by the author with officials in the Federal Customs Administration (4 May 2004) and in the Federal Border Police (6 May 2004).

(27) Telephone interviews by the author with officials in State Police Forces in North Rhine Westphalia and Bavaria (5 and 7 May 2004).

(28) Weapons Act 2002, §10.1-5.

(29) See fn. 27.

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