The independent resource on global security

July/Aug. 12: The new information superhighway: practical methods for sharing knowledge and stemming destabilizing arms flows


The MV Alaed was prevented from delivering arms to Syria because the British insurer of the ship withdrew coverage after its EU-embargoed destination was made public. In June 2012 the Alaed was forced to return to Russia, where its cargo of gunships and missiles was unloaded.

Successful, practical measures such as insurance withdrawal targeting ships or aircraft involved in destabilizing arms transfers depend on the sharing of information. Indeed, timely access to such information is one of the main challenges for states and international organizations seeking to monitor and enforce United Nations and European Union (EU) arms embargoes. 

The lack of information prevents effective monitoring

In most cases involving illicit transfers to areas subject to the most comprehensive and binding of embargoes—those mandated by the United Nations Security Council—information is often lacking. Which aircraft or ships are involved in such shipments? Who has access to such information? How can such information be shared? And when the aircraft or ship has been identified what tools can be utilized to stop the shipment?

In Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Libya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia and Sudan, small teams of UN-appointed experts backed by a handful of support staff in New York are charged with monitoring vast tracts of jungle, desert and, in the case of Somalia, sea. 

Often lacking the full cooperation of neighbouring states that support opposing military formations in DRC, Somalia or Sudan, these small groups of unarmed civilians need to harness every single information source and network available to them. This, in turn, depends on effective cooperation between governments, institutions and networks.

One successful example of such cooperation was a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in January 2011 between the UN and Eurocontrol, the civil-military air traffic management organization of which some 37 states and the European Commission are members.  

Under the terms of the MoU, the UN may obtain key information on potentially suspect flights as part of its efforts to document illicit arms transfers. Thanks to the MoU, an unknown aircraft may be identified and a pattern of suspicious flights established.

Timely information in action: the case of Syria 

Although Syria is subject to a EU arms embargo, no UN Security Council resolution prohibits arms transfers to the country. This has allowed at least two Eastern European states that are not members of the EU to transfer military equipment to Syria by air. 

However, aircraft transporting military equipment to Syria must also file flight plans in advance. So, as long as air traffic control data is accessible to arms control and intelligence officials, Syrian military equipment flights within EU airspace may be prevented. 

For example, beginning in July 2011 EU member state Lithuania blocked several attempts by a Syrian Ilyushin cargo aircraft to transit Lithuanian airspace in order to transport helicopter gunships from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to Syria. The military equipment flights were thus prevented. 

Similarly, in April 2010 the Turkish government ordered suspect Iranian Ilyushin cargo aircraft transiting Turkish airspace destined for Syria to land for inspection. A quantity of small arms and light weapons (SALW) was discovered during one of these inspections. 

Developing an ‘information superhighway’ to reduce container trafficking

Another problem confronting policy makers today is smuggling via shipping container. As documented in the SIPRI report Maritime Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, container transportation has created a ‘trade superhighway’, allowing greater volumes of commodities to be moved faster, both at sea and through ports, and at a reduced cost. 

Sealed shipping containers are a key vulnerability in the global supply chain, as they provide traffickers with the ideal cover for moving a variety of illicit commodities, including illicit military equipment and dual use goods which may be used to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The sheer volume of container movements, the lack of a universal tracking or monitoring system, increasingly sophisticated concealment methods, the ease of diversion, and states’ uneven detection abilities add to the problem. 

These vulnerabilities may be best overcome in the longer term by establishing a parallel ‘information superhighway’ dedicated to the consignments and containers themselves. This would allow for more comprehensive monitoring of trade in a manner that would help reduce both risks for governments and costs for the shipping industry.

The challenges posed by flags of convenience and open registries 

Maritime open registries—often known as flags of convenience—operated by private companies working from offshore financial centres are a further area of concern. These registries are responsible for registering more than 80 per cent of ships identified as complicit in the violation of arms and oil embargoes, narcotics trafficking or people smuggling. 

The traditional lack of transparency, regulation and oversight within some of these offshore enterprises challenges state agencies and multilateral organizations seeking to monitor, investigate and control actors and networks engaged in the maritime delivery of sanctioned or embargoed commodities and other forms of transnational organized crime.

It is important to examine the nature of the relationship between the private companies operating the open registry and the flag state on whose behalf they work and how transparency might be improved. For example, flag state government officials are often completely unaware that ships falling under their jurisdiction are engaged in various types of smuggling or are owned by companies under UN or EU sanctions. 

Building informal networks to share information

Various groups and Panels of Experts have noted these two issues as major problems. It is sometimes said that processes associated with globalization have enabled the violation of United Nations and regional arms embargoes. 

However, if used in a coordinated fashion, existing tools, instruments and mechanisms have the power to identify and in some cases stop suspect shipments. 

Effective information-sharing remains crucial. Building informal networks to counter the networks established to transfer military equipment in a clandestine fashion is one way of achieving this goal. 


Hugh Griffiths is a senior researcher at SIPRI and heads SIPRI’s Countering Illicit Trafficking–Mechanism Assessment Projects (CIT–MAP).


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.