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.
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 http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/04/SLsanc0420.htm.)
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.
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 http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/angola/index.htm.)
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 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.
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 http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/03/burkina0330press.htm and “Neglected Arms Embargo on Sierra Leonean Rebels,” at http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/05/slback0515.htm.) 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.
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 http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/bulgaria/.)
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 http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/10/arms-eu-ltr1019.htm.)
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.
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:
In addition, we highlight other failings evident in the Liberia case that are not addressed in the U.N. 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:
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:
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:
To the European Union and NATO:
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.