No Questions Asked: The Eastern Europe Arms Pipeline to Liberia

Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper

November 15, 2001

Following the release of a new United Nations report on sanctions violations in Liberia, the U.N. Security Council is weighing what further steps, if any, to take to address the violations.  The report, prepared by a five-person independent panel of experts, presents fresh evidence of violations of an arms embargo and travel and diamond bans imposed on Liberia by the Security Council.  In the case of weapons flows, it reveals that the arms embargo imposed in 1992 on Liberia has been flouted with alarming regularity during the past eighteen months and illustrates the channels through which arms are smuggled.  It builds on the work of an investigative panel on Sierra Leone, which found in a December 2000 report that rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone obtained arms via Liberia, in violation of arms embargoes on both parties.  The Liberia arms embargo was initially established following the outbreak of renewed fighting in that country’s 1989-1997 civil war and kept in place as insecurity persisted and spread beyond Liberia’s borders.

Related Material

U.N. Warned of Arms Shipments to Sierra Leone
HRW Letter, April 18, 2001

Neglected Arms Embargo on Sierra Leone Rebels
HRW Briefing Paper, May 15, 2001

Bulgaria: Money Talks: Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers
HRW Report, April 1999

The 1992 arms embargo on Liberia was replaced with a new, tighter embargo in March 2001, intended to curb arms trafficking via Liberia to the RUF, in response to the Sierra Leone panel’s December 2000 report.  The RUF, whose forces have committed horrific atrocities, has itself been under an arms embargo since 1997.  Both embargoes have failed miserably, with devastating human consequences.  The continued influx of weapons to a region marked by extreme violence against civilians and instability has contributed to the spread of a series of brutal conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and neighboring Guinea.  The security situation has improved in recent months, but conditions remain volatile.  The continued flow of arms and ammunition to the region endangers civilians and risks a slide back into full-blown war.  (See, for example, information on arms shipments from Liberia to Sierra Leone, in a letter by Human Rights Watch to the U.N. Sanctions Committees, April 18, 2001, available at

In this briefing paper, Human Rights Watch builds on the U.N. experts’ report to examine the manner in which the Liberia arms embargo has been systematically breached to furnish weapons to gross human rights abusers.  Much attention has been given in the past to the subject of individual arms traffickers and the transport networks they use to illegally deliver weapons to abusive end users.  What is often overlooked is that the illegal activities of these traffickers intersect with the arms trading policies and practices of governments.  The Liberia experts’ report offers concrete examples of how arms traffickers dupe arms exporters and points to some problems that deserve greater attention, but it does not criticize arms supplier governments for their irresponsible behavior.  For that reason, this paper focuses particular attention on the countries in central and eastern Europe whose lax export controls facilitate illicit arms trafficking.  We highlight the supply side of the illegal trade, identify the major weaknesses in existing controls, and draw concrete lessons from the Liberia example.  We conclude by offering a set of recommendations to address weaknesses in these controls and thereby help prevent the flow of weapons into the wrong hands.  We endorse some of the recommendations made by the Liberia panel for action by the Security Council and member states, and also add further recommendations to more fully address the supply dimension of the arms trade.

How Arms Traffickers Defy Sanctions

The channels used to break the arms embargo in Liberia are similar to those found elsewhere.  The patterns portrayed, and even some of the individual players in Liberia, are familiar from embargo-busting operations elsewhere, including Angola. (See Human Rights Watch, Angola Unravels: The Rise and Fall of the Lusaka Peace Process, September 1999.) 

In essence, arms dealers and their networks of associates who are involved in sanction-busting create a false paper trail to camouflage their operations and avoid scrutiny.  They set up front companies, enlist corrupt officials, and take advantage of regional governmental actors—usually allies of the arms client—to help them hide their tracks.  They also exploit weak controls on transport.  In Africa, they often use aircraft and the air cargo industry, filing false flight plans, submitting fraudulent documents, and flying improperly registered aircraft to ply their trade.  The traffickers rely on weak controls in arms-exporting countries and the glut in the arms market to ensure them access to a wide range of military equipment at very competitive prices and with few questions asked.

The trade, of course, depends on the ability of clients or their patrons to pay, whether in cash or precious gems or—as the Liberia panel found was the trend in Liberia—through direct bank transfers to arms traffickers from government accounts or those of private business interests allied to the government.  Liberia’s weapons purchases from 1999 to 2001 were mainly financed by off-budget spending, or payments made from revenue that bypasses the central bank and is therefore not accounted for in the budget.  This method has also been used elsewhere to avoid scrutiny of military expenditures.  (For the Angola example, see Human Rights Watch, “The Oil Diagnostic in Angola: An Update,” March 2001, available at

Sanctions-Busting by Arms Exporters

The countries of central and eastern Europe have long been a major source of the weapons sold to areas of violent conflict in Africa, including to embargoed parties.  For example, U.N. investigations have established that arms originating in Bulgaria and Romania were supplied to rebels in Angola, in violation of an embargo, and that Ukraine supplied weapons that were sold to RUF rebels in Sierra Leone.  The U.N. Liberia panel, in its report, names Ukraine, Moldova, and Slovakia, as well as the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, as the points of origin for actual or attempted illegal arms shipments to Liberia.  It also names nationals of several central and eastern European countries, including Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Moldova, as well as companies based in most of those countries.  A Kyrgyz national is also named in the report.

In each of the cases, the weapons were authorized for another destination, according to the documents presented by arms brokers and shipping agents involved in the deals.  Those documents, however, are easily forged and almost never checked.  To the contrary, falsified documents produced by arms brokers and accepted unquestioningly by government authorities are a convenient loophole that is often exploited. 

The U.N. Panel’s Findings

The panel’s case studies demonstrate the ease with which Liberia was able to procure quantities of weapons from central and eastern Europe, as well as Central Asia.  The following findings are gleaned from the U.N. panel’s report.  While the U.N. report did not emphasize this dimension, the case studies it presents clearly illustrate the utter lack of responsibility taken by arms exporters with regard to end-user controls.

The EUC Factory 

The Pecos company of Guinea, a front company, supplied a seemingly endless stream of false end-user certificates (EUCs) to the arms smuggling network of Victor Bout, a well-known arms broker who has been named in other U.N. reports.  EUCs are documents provided by the purchasing government that guarantee that it is the ultimate user of the arms that are being purchased.  The documents in question were forgeries purporting to be EUCs issued by the government of Guinea.  The false Guinean EUCs (and in one case also a forged Namibian EUC) were used in several countries, leading to embargo violations. 


  • Kyrgyzstan exported spare parts and rotor blades for military helicopters in July 2000, without authenticating the Guinean EUC provided by a broker, and these were delivered to Liberia via Cairo.  Kyrgyzstan also authorized the sale of helicopters to “Guinea,” without itself verifying if that was indeed the intended destination, as noted below.

  • An Egyptian arms broker was left with several tons of small arms supplied by Slovakia when the importer, Uganda, rejected them.  Rather than returning them, as Uganda said it requested, the broker sold them to “Guinea” in November 2000.  He made the sale on the basis of an EUC supplied by Pecos and apparently acted without authorization for re-export from the Slovak exporter.  A first consignment of 1,000 AK-47 assault rifles was delivered to Liberia that month.  A second consignment, containing 1,250 more small arms of the same type, was halted before it left Uganda on suspicion it was headed to Liberia.

  • In February 2001, Slovak authorities halted the shipment of a Kyrgyz helicopter gunship they had repaired after they learned that the Kyrgyz authorities were not expecting the helicopter back, as specified in the Slovak contract.  Kyrgyzstan, in fact, had sold it to “Guinea” via Pecos.  Slovakia, for its part, had arranged the repair contract with a Kyrgyz defense official.  The intermediaries had provided Slovakia and Kyrgyzstan with different end-user certificates for the same helicopters.  It remains unclear what became of a second Kyrgyz helicopter repaired in Slovakia and sent back on August 2000.  Kyrgyz authorities say they have no information about that deal, but flight records show that the same plane that carried it from Slovakia flew to Liberia some three weeks later.

  • Moldova blocked the export of two helicopters in March 2001 at the military airfield of Marculesti.  They were to have been shipped to “Guinea” for repairs before being exported to Namibia.  Guinea has no helicopter repair facilities, but no one had questioned this point.  More shockingly, the deal had been arranged without export authorization or any end-user certificate at all, purportedly because the arms broker had arranged for the Moldovan defense ministry, the owner of the helicopters, to lease rather than sell them.  The EUC that was later produced listed “Guinea,” but all indications are that the planned destination was Liberia. 

Weapons Galore

In July 2000 Ukraine approved the export of 113 tons of ammunition, some five million cartridges, to C^te d’Ivoire, based on an EUC signed by the then Ivoirian head of state, Gen. Robert GueV.  Ukraine indicated that it took steps to authenticate the EUC, uphold a commitment to a 1998 West African small arms moratorium, and send a representative to accompany the flight, but these efforts failed to prevent an embargo violation.  The vast majority of the Ukrainian weapons cargo was simply transferred onto another plane and flown to Liberia, as part of a sanctions-busting scheme to which General GueV was a party. 

Human Rights Watch had earlier reported on a similar incident in March 1999, when the government of Burkina Faso provided false cover for a sixty-eight-ton weapons shipment from Ukraine that, once delivered to Burkina Faso, was loaded onto a different plane for Liberia.  (See Human Rights Watch, “Burkina Faso Arms Inquiry Urged” at and “Neglected Arms Embargo on Sierra Leonean Rebels,” at  As it happens, there was at least one common thread.  Leonid Minin, a well-known arms dealer who was arrested in Italy in 2001 in connection with illegal arms sales, was allegedly involved in both deals, together with associates.  His role in the March 1999 shipment was documented in the December 2000 report of the Sierra Leone panel of experts.

In 2000 Liberia purchased even more arms, the Liberia panel found.  Before his arrest, Minin bought U.S.$1 million worth of weapons using false EUCs bearing GueV’s name.  The approximate value of the July ammunition shipment from Ukraine amounted to only about $250,000.  The authorities of the country that supplied the remainder of the weapons, which was not identified in the report, apparently did not check the authenticity of the documents before approving the sale.  As it happened, with Minin’s arrest and the collapse of the sanctions-busting scheme, the weapons could not be delivered to “C^te d’Ivoire” and were put in storage.  Human Rights Watch notes with concern that it is not now known where the balance of the weapons are, or to whom Minin’s associate in this deal may sell them. 

Weak End-User Controls

Human Rights Watch research has found that, in general, arms controls in central and eastern Europe are characterized by weak laws, lax attitudes, low capacity, endemic corruption, and a strong incentive to sell on the part of the arms-exporting countries.  These factors all favor the arms traffickers. (See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Bulgaria: Money Talks—Arms Dealing with Human Rights Abusers, April 1999, available at

Many export control authorities, whether through complicity or incompetence, are only too happy to accept documents at face value and take brokers at their word.  An irresponsible attitude and lack of concern for where the weapons might actually wind up mars arms trade practices across the region, although some governments that are long-time suppliers, under international pressure, have tightened control procedures. (For examples of recent irresponsible arms transfers by several central and eastern European countries that are candidates for European Union membership, see Human Rights Watch, Open Letter to E.U. Foreign Ministers, October 19, 2001, available at

As the Liberia case helps illustrate, governments take little if any responsibility for authenticating EUCs, confirming that the signature on them is valid, verifying that weapons shipments are delivered to the approved destination, or checking that they are not re-exported without authorization.  They have little interest in doing so.  The fewer questions they ask, the more likely they are to make the sale and thereby support the arms industry and bring in needed hard currency.

Besides, they have a ready-made excuse if their weapons are later found to have been supplied to embargoed parties.  They argue simply that they exported the weapons “legally” and cannot be held accountable if the shipment was delivered to a different destination.  A number of countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine, have used this rationale to deny any governmental responsibility for sanctions-busting.

Lessons from the Liberia Case

Some lessons can be drawn from the numerous failings of arms exporters vis-à-vis embargo enforcement from the supply side.  Human Rights Watch concerns regarding poor arms-trade controls were echoed in part in the U.N. Liberia panel’s report, which found that:

  • More rigorous end-user controls could prevent illegal arms deliveries.  Standards need to be elaborated for the actual certificates.  Currently, EUCs carrying old dates or signed by officials who have long since left government service are considered valid, and such EUCs were used to purchase weapons for Liberia.

  • Governments must authenticate end-user documents.  Contact with Guinean authorities would have established that Guinea did not order any of the weapons being purchased in its name.  In Human Rights Watch’s view, the Pecos operation was as successful as it was, and for as long as it was, only because governments were so lax.

  • Greater information-sharing would help exporters identify suspicious transactions, and to do so earlier.  For example, the panel noted that the representative for Pecos, a Slovak national, previously ran an arms-dealing company in Slovakia, Joy Slovakia, that had been alleged to be involved in arms smuggling and money laundering.  Human Rights Watch also notes that the same company was named in mid-October 2001 in a report by the U.N.’s Angola Monitoring Mechanism for using a “Guinean” EUC to procure weapons in Moldova.  The report suggested these weapons were destined for the UNITA rebels.

  • Greater transparency is needed.  As noted by the panel, the volume of purchases by “Guinea,” had they been reported in the U.N. register on conventional arms, should have sounded an alarm.  Human Rights Watch notes with concern that Moldova and Kyrgyzstan have only submitted one report each to the U.N. register since 1992, and that the latest U.N. register does not include a submission from Ukraine for 2000.

In addition, we highlight other failings evident in the Liberia case that are not addressed in the U.N. report:

  • Even basic verification of delivery is not taking place to ensure weapons shipments arrive at the authorized destination.  Only Ukraine took this step.  As a result, Slovakia did not know that the first Kyrgyz helicopter was missing until it was about to permit the export of a second one under the same conditions.

  • Supplier governments must take the initiative to monitor for possible re-export of their weapons.  Ignoring this invites re-export, as was the case with the re-export of the Slovak arms sold to Uganda and the Ukrainian ammunition sold to C^te d’Ivoire.

  • Governments must also be skeptical.  Ukraine sold large quantities of weapons to C^te d’Ivoire without contemplating that they might have been destined elsewhere and apparently without questioning whether C^te d’Ivoire could reasonably be expected to need such quantities of weapons.  Moldova did not notice that Guinea had no helicopter repair facilities until after authorizing the “repair.”

  • Corrupt government officials must be held accountable.  The Kyrgyz military official who arranged a fraudulent contract with Slovakia was fired, rather than charged with violating an arms embargo.  That is insufficient to deter such behavior.

  • Arms-exporting governments must live up to their international pledges to exercise restraint in the arms trade and block weapons sales to human rights abusers, areas of violent conflict, and known diverters of weapons, and must be held accountable when they fail to do so.  For example, Slovakia’s sale of arms to Uganda are inconsistent with its commitments under the 1998 European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, to which it has pledged to adhere, and the provisions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons, agreed in November 2000.  Uganda, beyond its civil war and poor domestic human rights record, is engaged in a regional conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Ugandan forces have been responsible for gross and widespread violations of international humanitarian law.  (See Human Rights Watch, Uganda in Eastern DRC: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife, March 2001.)

  • Surplus weapons are a serious problem.  In the U.N. report, only the Slovak small arms are described as unused weapons, and Human Rights Watch understands that the remainder of the arms sold to Liberia were surplus weapons from military stocks in central and eastern Europe.  One example illustrates the incentives at work:  As described by the panel, Moldova’s defense ministry, strapped for cash, was quite eager to “lease” its helicopters following their “repair,” because under the arrangement agreed with the broker the defense ministry would share in the profits from the deal and pilots from the Moldovan air force would gain contract work.

  • Existing civil aviation controls are insufficient.  The panel emphasized the operations of a mystery airline registered in the Central African Republic and a web of front companies elsewhere that form part of Victor Bout’s arms trafficking network.  These were linked to central and eastern Europe.  For example, Moldovan planes were repeatedly used to illegally deliver weapons to Liberia and Moldovan airlines were among the companies named in the report.


The U.N.’s Liberia panel has presented a number of recommendations to address arms trafficking.  Some seek to impose greater control on the transport of weapons, particularly to clamp down on operations by identified arms smuggling companies and prevent the use of fraudulent aircraft registrations.  Further recommendations are aimed at restricting the inflow of weapons to the countries of the Mano River Union (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea), and to halt arms flows to rebels, as well as to extend the embargo on Liberia and inhibit the use of extra-budgetary spending or proxy payments by private companies for arms procurement by Liberia.  Another set of recommendations is directed at improving end-user controls in arms-exporting countries.  A final set of recommendations calls for continued monitoring of violations.

Human Rights Watch welcomes many of the recommendations made by the U.N. panel of experts on Liberia.  In areas where the panel’s recommendations do not go far enough, we have made additional recommendations.

With respect to violations of the arms embargo on Liberia, Human Rights Watch endorses the following key recommendations made by the panel for immediate action by the Security Council:

  • Establish a U.N. working group to develop a standardized end-user certificate that would be difficult to forge.  Human Rights Watch has made this recommendation since 1999.  (See Money Talks.)  While there has been some interest in such an initiative in different fora, little progress has been made.

  • Guarantee continued monitoring of and public reporting on arms embargo violations in Liberia, both by enhancing the capacity of the U.N. Secretariat to monitor arms trafficking on a sustained basis, and by deploying expert consultants as needed.  In the short term, consistent with the Liberia panel’s recommendation, it should attach a Sierra Leone-Liberia sanctions officer to the sanctions unit in the U.N. Department of Political Affairs as an in-house resource for both sanctions committees and any expert panels that may be created in the coming year.  Human Rights Watch further recommends, as it has in the past, that the Security Council establish a permanent sanctions unit in the U.N. Secretariat to ensure continuity and the preservation of institutional memory with respect to the monitoring of U.N. sanctions regimes. 

  • Immediately ground all aircraft owned, operated, or insured by the companies identified in the U.N. report as having arranged illegal arms flights to Liberia, pending inspections of all the documents for each aircraft. 

  • Mandate that Liberia cease the practice of off-budget spending and that it work with international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund to arrange for an audit of expenditures—to be conducted by an independent and reputable third party and using international accounting standards—to ensure none of these funds are used for the purpose of financing illegal arms purchases. 

In addition, Human Rights Watch calls on the Security Council to authorize UNAMSIL peacekeepers in Sierra Leone to monitor and enforce the arms embargo in force on the RUF, especially in Kailahun district, and make public the information it collects.  Moreover, we recommend that the Security Council call on U.N. member states to enact national laws that implement U.N. arms embargoes and to prosecute violators.

We also support the following of the panel’s recommendations directed at U.N. member states:

  • To prevent the continued use of planes identified by the panel as carrying false registrations, the authorities in the countries whose aircraft registries have been fraudulently used should take corrective action, coordinate with each other urgently, and make public relevant information regarding the falsely registered planes.  The International Civil Aviation Organization and its regional counterpart in Africa should raise awareness about this endemic problem and promote a solution. 

  • The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should expand the 1998 West Africa small arms moratorium to encompass all weapons categories, develop it into an information-exchange mechanism, and make it binding.  Arms exporters should officially recognize and fully comply with the moratorium, including through full participation in the proposed information exchange.

  • All arms exporters should review their arms records and conduct a thorough investigation of any arms transactions involving companies and individuals named in the panel’s report, and advise the U.N. sanctions committees on Sierra Leone and Liberia of the findings.

Finally, Human Rights Watch makes a number of recommendations to the exporting states in eastern Europe and to the E.U. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose institutions these states are aspiring to join.  (For a more complete set of recommendations, see Arsenals on the Cheap: NATO Expansion and the Arms Cascade, April 1999.)  To exporting states in eastern Europe:

  • Introduce human rights considerations into arms trade law.

  • Improve regulatory controls, with particular attention to end-user controls, as well as border, customs, and civil aviation controls.

  • Improve legal accountability, including by enacting national laws that implement U.N. arms embargoes and by prosecuting violators.

  • Increase transparency.  For example, prepare and make public a detailed annual report on arms transfers.

  • Dispose of surplus stocks in a responsible fashion.

  • Enforce international arms embargoes, and comply fully with the European Union’s code of conduct on arms transfers and the provisions of the OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons. 

To the European Union and NATO:

  • Promote the harmonization of arms trade controls within the E.U. and NATO to the highest possible standard and actively encourage candidate countries to undertake needed reforms to meet those standards.

  • Provide incentives, including financial assistance, for the responsible disposal (for example, through destruction) of surplus military equipment held by candidate countries.  Target heavy conventional weapons systems as well as small arms and light weapons.

  • Identify responsible arms trading practices, including strict arms trade controls and the disposal of surplus weapons in conformity with human rights criteria, as a requirement for membership.


The continued failure by U.N. member states to implement and enforce the Liberia arms embargo puts both civilians and regional stability at serious risk.  The Security Council must learn from the utter failure of the Liberia arms embargo to take steps to address the many weaknesses that allowed it to be systematically breached.  Action is needed to break up arms-smuggling networks, hold accountable arms dealers involved in the illegal trade, and combat fraud in the air cargo industry.  But the international community must also acknowledge that, while arms traffickers use deception to ply their deadly trade, it is governments who have permitted them to flourish through their neglect of the control measures needed to uphold arms embargoes.  The time has come to shore up arms trade controls, particularly in central and eastern Europe, and take action on the ground to give arms embargoes the teeth they need to be effective.