Airplanes: The Overt Illicits
A new report from SIPRI exposes the dual-use nature of air transport in conflict zones: the same planes that deliver humanitarian aid also carry guns, conflict minerals, drugs and other illicit goods. (Executive summary PDF here.)
The report reveals that 90 per cent of the air cargo companies identified in arms trafficking-related reports have also been used by major UN agencies, EU and NATO member states, defence contractors and some of the world’s leading NGOs to transport humanitarian aid, peacekeepers and peacekeeping equipment. In some cases, air cargo companies are delivering both aid and weapons to the same conflict zones.
One of the interesting points in the introduction:
Transportation represents the ‘choke point’ for destabilizing or illicit commodity flows. Air and maritime transport actors are far easier to trace than arms brokers, drug cartels or resource smugglers as the former must legitimately register their aircraft, vessels and associated companies. As such, transporters are the only non-state actors involved in destabilizing or illicit commodity flows required to operate overtly. This characteristic makes them possible to track via databases, flight and maritime records and field research and subject to control.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including: the UN and other aid agencies should make contracts for the delivery of humanitarian aid conditional on carriers’ adherence to an ethical code of conduct; and the EU should use its air safety regs to put companies engaging in illicit activities out of business.
How much can the UN and the EU realistically do? Given that this state of affairs is pretty much an ‘open secret’ in the humanitarian sphere, it seems likely that aid agencies use these dodgy carriers not because they don’t know or don’t care about illicit trade but because such carriers are the only options available. For example, UN agencies used two airlines in Sudan that have been implicated in arms trafficking — but did they have that many other, cleaner options? If aid agencies could not use carriers that did not sign up to the proposed ethical standard, would that be more likely to force carriers to abandon illicit activities — or make it more difficult for agencies to deliver aid?
Second, the report is less convincing about the degree to which the EU can put illicit carriers out of business if they are operating largely outside of European airspace. Last year in Central Asia, every single plane I took was banned under EU safety regulations. I still made it across the Pamirs (barely, but that’s another story).
However, the report generally is full of useful and fascinating information on air transport and illicit commodity flows, and I highly recommend reading through it.
This brings to mind another fascinating take on the subject: Darwin’s Nightmare, an excellent French documentary from 2004. From the film’s website:
Some time in the 1960’s, in the heart of Africa, a new animal was introduced into Lake Victoria as a little scientific experiment. The Nile Perch, a voracious predator, extinguished almost the entire stock of the native fish species. However, the new fish multiplied so fast, that its white fillets are today exported all around the world. Huge hulking ex-Soviet cargo planes come daily to collect the latest catch in exchange for their southbound cargo… Kalashnikovs and ammunitions for the uncounted wars in the dark center of the continent.
The director’s explanation of his motivations alludes to a number of themes running through this project and suggests a certain universality of these aspects of war economies.
In 1997, I witnessed for the first time the bizarre juxtaposition of two gigantic airplanes, both bursting with food. The first cargo jet brought 45 tons of yellow peas from America to feed the refugees in the nearby UN camps. The second plane took off for the European Union, weight with 50 tons of fresh fish.
I met the Russian pilots and we became “kamarads”. But soon it turned out that the rescue planes with yellow peas also carried arms to the same destinations, so that the same refugees that were benefiting from the yellow peas could be shot at later during the nights. In the mornings, my trembling camera saw in this stinking jungle destroyed camps and bodies. First hand knowledge of the story of such a cynical reality became the trigger for Darwin’s Nightmare…
I could make the same kind of movie in Sierra Leone, only the fish would be diamonds, in Honduras, bananas, and in Libya, Nigeria or Angola, crude oil… [It is] incredible that wherever prime raw material is discovered, the locals die in misery, their sons become soldiers, and their daughters are turned into servants and whores. Hearing and seeing the same stories over and over makes me feel sick.
Basically: airplanes rarely fly with no cargo, and illicit goods tend to pay better than legitimate trade. As long as these two principles apply, this is going to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.