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UN: Eastern Europe's Arms Trade Violates Sanctions

  • Ron Synovitz

A new UN report says East Europeans have been violating international sanctions for years by supplying weapons to Angola's UNITA rebels. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines East European arms trading networks -- and accusations that some government officials may be profiting from dubious deals.

Prague, 16 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN investigators say Bulgaria is the source of most weapons bought by UNITA rebels in Angola since 1997.

In a report to the UN Security Council yesterday, investigators said many weapons have been shipped from Bulgaria to UNITA through other African nations such as Togo and Burkina Faso.

Technically, Bulgaria has not violated international sanctions with such shipments, because the arms weren't sent directly to embargoed markets. But the investigators say Sofia approved many deals even though the government had good reason to believe that false documents were used -- and that the weapons were likely to be passed on to UNITA.

The UN report also suggests that UNITA purchased ammunition from Bulgaria through a U.S.-Ukrainian export firm called Milteks. It says those deliveries were made by Ukrainian pilots and are thought to have passed directly from Bulgaria to UNITA rebels in Angola.

Russia and Belarus also were criticized in the report for failing to cooperate fully with the UN investigators.

The report held few surprises for Lisa Misol, a researcher with the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch who has been studying Eastern Europe's arms dealers for years. Misol told RFE/RL that what she called Eastern European "gray-market" arms networks include Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia:

"In Burundi, Sudan and Angola -- everywhere we looked [in Africa] -- there were traces of Bulgaria's involvement in arms deals to human-rights abusers. Other countries that we've found to be linked to such arms deals include Ukraine -- in various ways, and Russian weapons. There are other Eastern European and former Soviet republics that are involved in the trade -- not always as the weapons producers and exporters, but often in the role of brokers and middlemen."

Misol says Human Rights Watch is very concerned about conflicts of interest involving several high-ranking Bulgarian trade officials who are responsible for approving weapon export deals:

"There are companies involved in the arms trade that have sitting on their boards of directors government officials who simultaneously have the responsibility to approve arms deals. Those government officials, if the arms companies do well, can earn a commission."

In Misol's view, such conflicts of interest have tempted Bulgarian officials to ignore warning signs of suspicious arms deals. She says Bulgaria should pass legislation immediately that makes it illegal for government officials to serve simultaneously on the boards of arms exporting firms. She says laws also must be ratified to back up a political commitment from Sofia to respect the European Union's code of conduct on arms deals.

"Bulgaria has not made sufficient efforts to check up on the documents that it receives -- and to ensure that they are not falsified. It's really been a major stumbling block and a weak point in the controls. One such document is called the 'end user certificate.' That's what states [who is] buying the weapons and for what purpose. But more importantly, Bulgaria has an obligation to check that the weapons are [actually] delivered to the stated end user -- to the person who signed the contract. And Bulgaria has failed to do that."

Misol also says that Human Rights Watch is now also targeting new NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic in its inquiries into arms sales to countries with poor human-rights records.

According to the UN investigation, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact filled international arms markets with surplus weaponry from Eastern Europe. Russia and some East European countries were forced to reduce their military stockpiles to comply with arms reduction requirements in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Indeed, Russia attempted through much of the 1990s to send Bulgaria some 100 surplus tanks in exchange for writing off part of Moscow's foreign debt to Sofia.

The UN report says the desire of East European nations to join NATO may have led some to sell off their non-NATO standard equipment at a discount, with much of the military hardware going to Africa. Such arms deals are seen as a significant source of hard currency for countries now facing economic difficulties.

The UN report says there is no evidence to implicate the Ukrainian government in the practice of embargo-breaking arms shipments. Still, the investigators have not excluded the possibility that unauthorized shipments to UNITA may also have originated from Ukrainian territory.