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Playing both sides: how air transport firms profit by shipping arms and aid

Incredible as it may seem, traffickers in commodities that help fuel some of the world’s nastiest conflicts—transporting such things as arms, ‘blood diamonds’ and cocaine—also continue to profit from humanitarian aid and UN peacekeeping contracts.

On 14 May in Brussels, European Union experts from the fields of humanitarian aid, civil aviation, peacekeeping and security met to discuss a new SIPRI report, Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, highlighting how air cargo companies delivering weapons to African conflict zones are also involved in the very humanitarian and peacekeeping operations designed to ameliorate the effects of those conflicts.

The report, by SIPRI researchers Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley, outlines how such air cargo companies have played a crucial role in facilitating many of the worst conflicts to have plagued Africa and South America since the end of the cold war. The companies have shipped arms, diamonds and other valuable minerals, or narcotics such as cocaine and khat, fuelling conflicts in Angola, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

At the same time, the report documents how many of these airlines were hired by the major providers of humanitarian assistance, including the UN, the EU and NATO, to bring emergency aid and other support to crisis-hit areas in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

The SIPRI report, funded by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, notes that the air cargo companies in question are controlled by several different types of players—from international crime syndicates and warlords to national governments—and names several.

As the report also shows, these airlines have also proved to be a safety risk, with frequent crashes leading to the deaths of pilots and peacekeepers as well as the loss of humanitarian aid. The use of these companies can have serious consequences for the integrity of UN and other humanitarian aid and peacekeeping supply chains, endangering the lives of people who come in their way.

What can be done?

There are no overnight solutions. Air cargo companies which fly into conflict and disaster zones are essential for humanitarian operations, bringing food and supplies to millions of people. Sometimes the only companies willing to fly to the world’s most dangerous places are those which have supplied the weapons being used there in the first place. The report recognizes that sometimes humanitarian aid is about choosing the ‘least bad’ alternative, but it also argues that the problems could be nearly solved within a year and a half through a coordinated response by EU.

To begin with, in all known cases, companies involved in arms trafficking consistently fail air safety inspections. As such, air safety is the arms traffickers’ Achilles heel, and more rigorous regulation of air safety could potentially do for these air cargo companies what tax evasion charges did for Al Capone. Indeed, more than 80 air cargo companies which have been blacklisted by the EU for air safety violations and have also been named in arms trafficking reports have been subsequently decertified and officially closed down. This makes the EU’s air safety blacklist the most effective anti-arms trafficking mechanism to date, and it needs to be even further strengthened.

As a first step, the EU and the UN should coordinate measures to deny humanitarian aid contracts to arms traffickers while seeking to alter the behaviour of less persistent offenders. To do so will require better awareness, coordination and information sharing among peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid agencies. Relatively simple solutions lie within the EU’s reach thanks to the the internet, which can be used to empower aid agencies working in the most remote and inaccessible parts of Darfur and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The SIPRI report’s recommendations and the discussions at the expert meeting have highlighted a number of cost-effective measures which could not only clean up humanitarian aid delivery, but also help put the arms traffickers out of business.

To download the report Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, SIPRI Policy Paper no. 24, click here.


Hugh Griffiths was Head of the Countering Illicit Trafficking–Mechanism Assessment Project and was seconded to the United Nations Panel of Experts on sanctions to North Korea.