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May 12, 2009 / jeni

Airplanes: The Overt Illicits

airplaneA 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.


Leave a Comment
  1. david ronfeldt / May 12 2009 18:01

    a marvellous new example of “strategic multiplexity” in which actors have relations that cooperate, compete, and conflict all at the same time. much messier than normal multipolarity. for what it’s worth, i’ve briefly added an update to an old blog posting explaining this, with a nod of thanks to your blog. onward.

    • kiers / Jun 9 2009 10:03

      dear herr ronfeldt,,
      it always amazes me how academics come newly to peer into poor small hitherto unmentionable regions of the world and then “discover” strategic multiplexity manifest among the natives as it were.! Wow. it’s a tough world out there.

      But let us not forget the 800 kilo gorilla: the USofA State departmento. Let’s reach way back into the arcane annals (anals?) of strategic multipolar temporal multiplexity and find what “State” just did LAST WEEK….
      It gave arms to Paquistan, which really spawned a terrorist force US helped cultivate, to ostensibly fight those same terrorists, all the while knowing in plain view, that “aid” is being used against Indya, to whom the USofA departmento, after much hand wringing about proliferation, will deign to SELL to Indya by way of close ally Isrel, some more (maybe managed to be 3-4 TIMES as much as the “aid”) awacs, sensors etc.

      Which is the only country in the world ( hint: a strategically multiplexed ideologue ) which talks to both North and South korea? to both ISrel and Saudi Arabia? Indy n Paquistan? China n Jep0n? Germani and UK? Russya n Gorgia? that’s a tough one.! ok ill make it easy on ya; uncle siam that’s who

  2. kiers / Jun 20 2009 11:48


    life imitates blog which imitates life(!) :

    turns out the americans are using russian charters (as duly noted by this blog, nice work guys!) to fly arms/tanks/pyrotechnics to afghanistan via karachi (maybe with some “leakage” there!) using civilian call signs, and the pilot losing his way to boot!

    • jeni / Jun 20 2009 12:50

      Nice catch Kiers! This is very interesting.

      I’m also curious how things will play out in Uzbekistan, with the US basically using South Korea as a front to regain the use of a base there for supplying Afghanistan. It’s very clever but also fooling no one, so what’s the point?

      • kiers / Jun 21 2009 12:48

        thanx. rich article.

        this got NO coverage in media a.f.a.i.k.! we can now add Koeran Air and Uzbek Air to the Russian air charter companies under this blog topic. What is a “black op” anymore and what is private enterprise??? ! touche.

  3. James Bradley / Feb 13 2010 10:55

    Great writing skills, you must do this for a living. Any chance you can share some pointers to a newbie like me?

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