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Most ships involved in arms and drugs trafficking are based in world’s richest countries, says SIPRI

More than 60% of ships involved in reported cases of sanctions-busting or illicit transfers of arms, drugs, other military equipment and sensitive dual-use goods that could be used in the development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are owned by companies based in the EU, NATO or other OECD states, according to the first comprehensive study on maritime trafficking released today by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The owners of the ships are primarily commercial shipping lines based in Germany, Greece and the USA, according to the report, which looks at all reported incidents involving larger ships during the past 20 years. 

‘This doesn’t mean the ship owners, or even the captains, know what they are carrying. But it is relatively easy for traffickers to hide arms and drugs in among legitimate cargoes,’ says report co-author Hugh Griffiths.

Drug traffickers lead, arms traffickers follow

The report also shows that the methods adopted by arms trafficking networks in response to the UN arms embargoes on Iran and North Korea were pioneered by drug traffickers in the past few decades to evade detection. These methods include hiding the goods in sealed shipping containers that claim to carry legitimate items; sending the goods on foreign-owned ships engaged in legitimate trade; and using circuitous routes to make the shipments harder for surveillance operations to track.

‘Containerization has revolutionized international trade, but it also provides ideal cover for traffickers. So many shipping containers pass through the world’s ports every day that only a fraction can be inspected. Ship owners and even customs officers often just have to take it on trust that what’s inside the container is what it says on the cargo documents,’ says Griffiths.

Shabby boats for shady deals

The report also shows that in the cases where the ship owners, operators and captains appear to have been directly involved in the trafficking attempt, the ships tend to be older and to be sailing under ‘flags of convenience’ whose ships regularly perform badly in safety and pollution inspections when they enter ports. A ship is considered to be under a flag of convenience when it has the nationality of a state other than that where its real owner is based.

‘Governing maritime trade has always been challenging, but opportunities are being missed to improve surveillance and use existing mechanisms to crack down on trafficking. This is an international phenomenon that requires international cooperation involving the major players in the shipping industry. We hope this report acts as a wake-up call,’ says Griffiths.

Table: The top 12 states where owners of ships involved in reported cases of arms, dual-use goods and narcotics trafficking are based

Owner based in

% of reported drug and arms trafficking cases

% of world merchant fleet owned in the state

1.              Germany



2.              Greece



3.              United States



4.              North Korea



5.              Panama



6.              Iran



7.              Norway



8.              Russian Federation



9.              Belize



10.            Netherlands



11.            Denmark



12.            Japan



Notes: Only commercial ships over 100 gross tonnes that are identified as being involved in reported cases are included in the trafficking statistics. The world merchant fleet ownership statistics are from IHS Fairplay and only include vessels over 1000 tonnes, and are provided for indicative purposes only.

For editors

The report Maritime Transportation and Destabilizing Commodity Flows is written by Hugh Griffiths and Michael Jenks of the SIPRI Countering Illicit Trafficking—Mechanism Assessment Projects (CIT-MAP). The report is a pilot study on all commercial ships over 100 gross tonnes reportedly involved in illicit or destabilizing arms and narcotics transfers over the past 20 years using SIPRI’s newly established Vessel and Maritime Incident Database.