The world's leading experts on small arms have gathered this week at UN headquarters to make final preparations for a conference this summer on stopping the illegal trafficking in these weapons. Once again, eastern Europe has been cited as a prime source of the arms fueling Africa's civil wars. Arms experts are focusing on how to control the largely unregulated activities of brokers who are illegally supplying small arms to rebel groups.
United Nations, 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is widely acknowledged that some of Africa's most devastating civil wars of the past 10 years have been fueled by weapons produced in eastern Europe.
But tracking a cargo of AK-47 Kalashnikovs into Angolan rebel territory, for example, can be a complex matter.
In the past year countries producing small arms, such as Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Romania, have provided evidence showing they had proper documentation for deals involving arms that turned out to be illegally trafficked in Africa. But they also are under pressure from the international community to be more accountable in their handling of arms transfers.
The case of East European arms flows to Africa reflects the core issue challenging organizers of the world's first international conference on controlling the illegal small arms trade -- how to determine when legal arms deals become illegal.
The conference is scheduled for July, and delegates from governments and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, have been meeting at UN headquarters this month to draft a program of action for the conference. They say there is an emerging consensus that the brokers of small-arms transactions will be a focus of new controls.
Canada's former foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, is now a leader of a global coalition of NGOs trying to make sure this summer's conference spurs governments to action. Axworthy told a news conference yesterday that the absence of effective controls on small arms transfers to chronic war zones like sub-Saharan Africa have taken a great humanitarian toll.
"We have seen in the last couple of years quite a strong delineation of a new war economy that's building up -- that in so many of these areas the transfer and franchising of natural resources turns into an exchange for weapons undertaken by a vast array of individuals who are really profiting from this kind of human misery."
Worldwide controls are in place for nuclear and chemical weapons and major weapons systems, but efforts to control small arms -- such as assault rifles -- and light weapons -- such as grenade launchers -- have been uneven and ineffective. The UN department of disarmament affairs says that such arms, because they are cheap and portable, have become the weapons of choice in internal conflicts, terrorism, and crime.
Arms control experts say small arms often start out legal, as was sometimes the case of weapons from East European countries headed for Africa. But along the way, they are transferred out of sight of controlling bodies and become part of a web of valuable contraband.
In two separate studies commissioned by the UN Security Council last year, it was found that arms from Eastern Europe ended up in the hands of rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola who were under arms sanctions. The groups were able to pay for the weapons with diamonds and other precious resources plentiful in the two countries. The Security Council studies and additional investigations by human rights groups indicate a complex series of transactions takes place before the ultimate, and illegal, customer receives the arms.
At a news conference at UN headquarters this week, a group of non-governmental organizations sought to explain how guns get to war zones. A British investigative journalist, Brian Thompson-Jones, told reporters that arms brokers often hide the weapons' true destination when arranging deals. In some cases, he said, they lie about cargo. On one occasion he investigated, a load of arms from Slovakia to Ecuador was listed as medical supplies.
Another speaker at the news conference, a British pilot named Mike Selwood, told of an episode in which he unwittingly delivered guns to rebel fighters in Africa. He said he was hired by a private company in Britain to fly a shipment of arms to government troops in what was then Zaire in 1994. But he now believes the guns were taken across the border into Rwanda where they were used in the unfolding genocide there.
Selwood said the transport of arms is often handled by small firms skilled in shifting an aircraft's registration and crews.
"The carriage of small arms is rarely carried out by properly controlled companies and rather by minor companies which distance themselves from the relevant authorities and also distance their operating crews."
The illegal arms broker most often cited in UN Security Council reports is Victor Bout, who was born in Tajikstan's capital Dushanbe and received air force training in Russia. UN officials say Bout went into private business after the collapse of the Soviet Union and set up airline companies throughout Eastern Europe. Today he lives in the United Arab Emirates and operates a network of more than 50 planes, numerous airline companies, and cargo charter companies, many of which have been linked to illegal arms shipments.
The UN panel investigating the violations of UN embargoes to UNITA rebels in Angola cited 37 arms flights, all with false end-user certificates, carried out by Liberian-registered planes operated by Bout in the late 1990s.
Despite his notoriety, Bout remains in business. An arms trafficking expert with Amnesty International, Brian Wood, told reporters that the evidence available on Bout should have been sufficient grounds for the Security Council to recommend the grounding of all his aircraft. Wood expressed frustration at the lack of follow-up to the Security Council expert reports on Sierra Leone and Angola, which contained numerous allegations against Bout.
"This man is still flying as we're meeting today and we know that the United Nations itself contracted one of his aircraft for relief supplies into East Timor."
Some of the organizers of the UN conference hope it will result in a call for a thorough system of small arms controls -- on imports, exports, transit, end-use, and re-transfer of such weapons. Precedents for such controls already exist for the sale of larger weapons.
The U.S. delegate to this month's UN preparatory meetings for the arms control conference is Daniel McConnell. He told UN representatives last week that the United States is in favor of developing a model for regulating arms brokers. He said the proposed regulations could guide countries wishing to develop their own brokering regulations and serve as a basis for harmonizing national laws that currently had brokering legislation.
The United States itself has stringent regulations that require purchasers to sign a statement undertaking not to re-export arms of U.S. origin without the prior authorization of the State Department.
The preparatory meetings for this summer's conference will end on Friday (March 30). The conference is scheduled to run from July 9 to July 20 in New York.
(For more information on this issue, see the web site of the International Action Network on Small Arms at: www.iansa.org)