Small arms transfer and air transportation

Small arms may not be the root cause of violence, but they multiply it dramatically. About a thousand people die every day and about three thousand people are injured by gunshots.


The consequences of the proliferation of small arms are: war and conflicts where they account for 60 to 90% of direct conflict deaths each year; uneasy peace, as arms remain in society for a long time after conflict causing high levels of violence; gun crime that can cause as many deaths and injuries as war and conflicts; domestic violence that is more lethal if there is a gun in the home; and suicide attempts that are likely to be fatal when involving guns.


Around 8 million new small arms are manufactured every year, but far more significant is the movement of second-hand guns from one user to another. Guns last for many years and are frequently recycled between conflicts or crimes. In West, East and Central Africa guns have moved from conflict to conflict in the last ten years, fuelling overlapping and uncontained conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Central Africa Republic, etc. as well as gun crime in South Africa.


The transfer of small arms in Africa is a huge threat to human security, peace and stability. AEFJN together with civil society all around the world is working towards greater regulation and control of arms transfer by the United Nations and the European Union. 


Greater control of arms transported by air cargo leads to greater seizure of weapons[1]

Air transportation has played a key role in fuelling the war economies that have devastated much of Africa in recent decades. Air cargo companies are involved in illicit or destabilizing arms transfers and in a range of other conflict-sensitive goods such as diamonds, oil, coltan and other precious minerals.


In the course of preventing the illegal transfer of arms from country to country, an unexpected mechanism, -the increase of security measures in air cargo transport promoted by the anti-terrorism regulation - has revealed itself to be very efficient in controlling illegal arms transfers.


Security control measures for transportation produce an important bottle neck for illicit or destabilising arms and commodity flows. Air and maritime transport must register their aircraft, vessels and associated companies. The transport business is the only non-state actor involved in destabilising or illicit commodity flows required to operate openly. This makes it possible to track them via flight and maritime records and to subject them to controls. 


Existing EU air safety mechanisms have already effectively targeted a wide range of companies involved in small arms flows by banning them from EU air space. Such companies are thus prevented from accessing the EU, the world's largest regulated market. This can force companies to change their behaviour or go bankrupt and could put arms dealers out of business.


AEFJN is asking the EU to support the efforts of African partners to improve air safety through capacity building projects that specifically target unsafe air cargo companies engaged in destabilising commodity flows.


Air cargo planes as facilitators of war economies in Africa[2]

War economies typically involve state, armed groups and private business actors that seek to initiate or perpetuate conflict for economic as well as political gain. In Africa the economic drivers of these conflicts tend to centre on the control of natural resources and the territory required for extracting and transporting them. To control and trade local assets, armed groups rely heavily on external support and supplies. Despite operating in isolated areas, the marketing of local resources and procurement of arms and supplies are based on smuggling and access to global markets. This is done mainly by air cargo carriers due to difficult or dangerous land routes.


ANGOLA. In the diamond-based war economy that dominated areas of Angola for two decades (1992 – 2002), air cargo carriers were closely associated with the transport of small arms, diamonds and mining equipment. In the period 1994-97, UNITA is estimated to have exported $1.9 billion worth of diamonds. Air transport was also the main way of supplying UNITA forces with fuel oil and other commodities essential to the operation of its military and transport vehicles, generators, as well as food, beer and medical equipment.

DR CONGO. In the war economy of the DR Congo[3], from 1997 to the present day, air cargo companies have played a key role in export transactions associated with minerals such as copper, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite (tin ore) and gold.  In all conflicts air cargo carriers have been used to transport and smuggle large quantities of cassiterite and coltan from mining areas under the control of a particular military group, as well as from other rural areas and from the main towns of  Bukavu and Goma in eastern DRC, to international markets, mainly to Rwanda and Kenya. In 2008[4], this represented a traded volume of over 150 tonnes with an export value of over $150 million.  Arms dealers have hired a cargo aircraft to militia leaders to smuggle coltan from the DRC. On top of the transport of minerals, air cargo carriers conduct other business on behalf of militia leaders or other actors. They transport gold from conflict zones, diamonds and diamond traders, and have transported soldiers and military equipment. In some areas under rebel military control, Soviet-era cargo aircrafts have made up to 24 flights per day from tarmac roads serving as improvised airstrips.

LIBERIA. During the various conflicts affecting Liberia in the 1980s and 1990s, the war economy covered all activities relating to the illegal extraction, taxation and export of Liberia's natural resources, particularly timber, rubber, diamonds and gold. The importance of the income generated by these activities for Liberian President Charles Taylor and his associates were recognized by the UN when it placed a trade embargo on diamonds and timber emanating from Liberia. While timber concessions were granted to businessmen with links to maritime shipping companies, key diamond traders in Liberia sanctioned by President Taylor operated air cargo carriers in conjunction with business partners. A US Government report states that air cargo operators who were linked to arms supply and raw material extraction operations in Angola, the DRC and Rwanda were paid in Liberia in diamonds and other valuable commodities. The Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs was used for cover and funds for arms and transportation in violation of UN sanctions.


SIERRA LEONE. Between 1991 and 2001, President Taylor from Liberia sponsored the Sierra Leone rebel group RUF, supplying them with arms and ammunition via air in order to ensure continued RUF control over diamond mines, which provided him with many more uncut diamonds than Liberia.

SOMALIA. In Somalia commodities play a less important role in the war economy, which is structured around the control of key import, export, distribution and transit nodes such as maritime ports, airports, bridges, road junctions and markets. Exports such as bananas and charcoal, transiting these nodes are taxed by militia groups, as are traders and humanitarian organisations seeking to deliver aid.  Militia leaders control the import of the narcotic khat and use revenue generated from its sale to finance small arms purchases.  Air cargo carriers play a key role in the import and distribution of khat, which is consumed by many militia members. Some warlords have a share in the ownership of the air cargo carriers transporting khat to Somalia and also involved in small arms deliveries. Air cargo carriers involved in khat and illicit arms transfers to Somalia had earlier been contracted by Ugandan forces operating in the DRC.


SUDAN.  The ongoing conflicts in Sudan have been partly caused and sustained by competition for control of oilfields. The discovery of oil in the Darfur region and its concessions linked to particular foreign companies in partnership with relatives of members of the government have focused attention on the links between oil contracts, arms flows, conflict and displacement in Sudan. In southern Sudan and Darfur, government forces and rebels have utilized private sector actors as vehicles to earn the needed revenue and establish the required international connections to access military arms and continue fighting. These private sector actors have used both foreign and domestic air cargo carriers to service the Sudanese oil industry via airfields. The oil industry in central and southern Sudan is serviced by some of the air cargo actors named in UN Security Council reports for violating arms embargoes in Darfur. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, air cargo Antonovs flying from the oil company airfield at Heglig have also been used to bomb villages in southern Sudan.


Establishing a complete database of all the carriers and companies realizing this illegal trade, together with strong air security enforcement and a greater capacity in Africa could be an important weapon to fight the illegal transfer of arms and ammunitions.  But even more necessary is the political will to stop this illegal transfer and war economy.


Begoña Iñarra

[1] Report of the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) May 2009

[2] Report of the International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI May 2009)

[3] UN Security Council report and other arms trafficking-related reports. U.S.-based campaign, targeting mineral exports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

[4] According to export data from the DRC Government certifier, known as the Diamond and Precious Metals Evaluation Centre.

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