Global Policy Forum

Embargo on Taylor Must Continue, Says UN Panel


Interview by Akwe Amosu
November 5, 2002

A UN panel of experts established to probe the supply of weapons that fuels the Liberian conflict has just submitted its latest report to the UN Security Council in New York. It's the panel's job to monitor the Liberian government's compliance with the sanctions and arms embargo imposed by the Council on Liberia two years ago and to track attempts to deliver arms illegally to the country. President Taylor needs arms to prosecute his war against the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels.

Tracking illegitimate arms shipments is painstaking work, criss-crossing the globe, interviewing reluctant suspects and trying to uncover a paper trail that usually includes fraudulent End User Certificates, the all-important document that purports to show the final destination of the consignment and allows an arms manufacturer to release their merchandise. The trafficker can thus take delivery of a consignment and divert the weapons to their true destination.

With such deliveries coming into Liberia as recently as August, the panel has recommended that the arms embargo should be maintained against the Liberian government but extended to all armed actors, including the LURD rebels, in the Mano River Union sub-region (comprising Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). "Since the last report in April, Liberia's conflict has spread with violence spilling into Guinea and Sierra Leone," the experts say. "Recent events in Cí´te d'Ivoire [where rebels have been operating since 19 September] underscore how fragile this region remains."

The experts also noted that mercenaries were active in the Mano River area. "The panel received accounts of mercenaries from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, The Gambia, Ghana and Burkina Faso offering their services in the sub-region. Along with these armed men, weapons and ammunition continue to move across borders," the report said.

The panel has four members, among them, Johan Peleman, a Belgian arms and transportation expert. Akwe Amosu met him in Washington to discuss the panel's findings.

What are the primary findings in this round of investigations and in your new report?

We uncovered two End User Certificates, seemingly signed by the defence ministry in Nigeria; but in cooperation with the authorities in Nigeria we found out that it was all forged to allow six plane-loads of weapons to arrive in June, July and August this year in Liberia.

We are talking about 200 tonnes of arms; we've documented in detail those six flights, we've interviewed the crew, we've come up with the documents that were used in Yugoslavia where the arms were sourced; we've spoken to the brokers, we've spoken to the shipping agents, the freight forwarder, the pilots of both the aircraft that were used for the six flights.

What we found was a "double" document trail. On the one hand, seemingly legitimate documents to ship arms from Yugoslavia to Nigeria, including forged cargo manifests, forged routings and flight permissions to go to Lagos, stamps from Lagos airport that the weapons had arrived there.

But on the other hand, we can document that those planes never went to Nigeria, that the arms never arrived in Nigeria but they went direct to Liberia. There we have, for instance - it's in the annexe to our report - a refuelling bill, an invoice for the plane, showing that it was refuelled in Monrovia.

So that's what we've uncovered, a double document trail apparently, not only to convince the authorities in Yugoslavia that they were shipping weapons to a legitimate government but also to convince us, the Panel of experts, that the arms were not going to Liberia.

So what conclusion do you draw from that? Do you just see a group of private business people trying to get around the rules or is there a political hand involved, in this case in Nigeria?

We consider these deals as being set up by a private network, a chain of brokers actually, that have secured the document they needed for a legal shipment, presented that to the arms exporting country and used it probably in another way - maybe there's a part of the documentation that we haven't seen - to get legal documents from Nigeria. However the documents that were used are clearly very different from the regular End User Certificates Nigeria has, they are obviously false documents, with false addresses on them. The company involved in Nigeria, Aruna Import Company, we had phone numbers for them, [but] they were never registered as a company, so clearly they set up a number of, let's say, front businesses - people and businesses that just disappear after this deal has been consummated and again, probably allowing impunity for the brokers; well,it's up to the members states to take that up with their own law enforcement instruments.

The thing that is significant is that there was legal documentation showing flights to Liberia as well; in that case it was mine-drilling equipment from Yugoslavia for a diamond mine in Liberia; that was on part of the cargo manifests we found. So that, for us, is a significant indication that diamonds might still be somewhere in the background when we talk about these deals.

So who was buying these arms and do you think you tracked all the arms coming in or are the shipments you mention just the tip of an iceberg?

They were destined for the government of Liberia; they were landed at the international airport, Monrovia, and they were meant for government forces.

We even see a coincidence between the arrival of the different shipments and the offensives of the government forces against the LURD rebels. For instance, the sixth shipment included rotor blades and an engine for a military helicopter and that was then used to do supplies to the vanguard forces that were closest to the front line, and you could definitely see the results on the ground of those deliveries.

Are they the tip of an iceberg or are we covering all shipments to Liberia? That is difficult to say but we have come across new documentation as well, on cases that we've described during our previous missions - among others, invoices to Liberia from a number of arms dealers with the whole list that had been delivered. On these we see that we basically had all of those shipments covered by our research.

So we think that with the current investigation, we've also found the major pipeline that has been set up currently to supply Liberia. As a matter of fact, a seventh flight was set up for the 29th of September and apparently that was stopped because of what was uncovered.

What about the LURD rebels? Where are they getting their arms and what have you been able to find out about that?

What we have uncovered is that the government of Liberia captured some arms from the LURD that included mortar ammunition and on the basis of the stamps on that ammunition and the boxes that were found, it could be traced back to the United Arab Emirates.

There has then been correspondence, among others, between Liberia and the UAE, but also between the Panel and the UAE, which revealed that the UAE had supplied that mortar ammunition to the government of Guinea in 1998. Now somehow, those arms have come into the hands of the LURD.

We've also asked the government of Guinea to give us an explanation for that and they say that these arms were supposed to have been destroyed in an army depot that caught fire and was burned down a couple of years ago. So the Guinean authorities are now investigating how those arms found their way to the LURD.

But Guinea has been mentioned on a number of occasions as a source of End User Certificates and the illegitimate onward supply of arms into Liberia; are there countries - and is Guinea one of them? - that are persistent offenders in West Africa?

Well in the case of Guinea what we found were all these end user certificates that were issued by a company called Pecos that had been established in Guinea but this was a private network. The problematic thing was, and this has been reported in some of our previous reports, we found in Central Asia - in Kyrgyzstan, in Ukraine, in Russia, in the Slovak Republic, in Moldova, - traces of these End User Certificates that had been used for years, apparently, to supply Liberia, but maybe also other countries under embargo or groups that are not supposed to receive weaponry.

But then Guinea has been informed of the existence of the network, they've closed down the company and we can only hope that they pursue their investigation into the activities of this network and whatever parts remain in Guinea itself, or the sub-region.

At the other end of the pipeline, a Slovak national was involved. He was arrested a year ago, he's now been released on bail, but he cannot travel The investigation is ongoing and these End User Certificates were part of the network of [Russian arms dealer] Victor Bout.

How does the work that you do help to stop arms flowing into Liberia? You say you've never seen a prosecution result from this kind of investigation, so why should the business stop?

Well, in a way it would be an idle thought to think that a UN Inspections Panel - there are only four of us - could stop the illicit pipelines to Liberia. But we definitely make it more expensive, both for the government of Liberia and the arms brokers and suppliers and we hope to do that equally for the non-state actors in Liberia because the embargo covers the whole territory of Liberia.

These are public reports, and by 'naming and shaming', we obviously put some pressure on the UN member states to start acting to enforce the embargos more properly, to maybe prosecute the people that we've identified, or carry on our investigation on their own territory and maybe apply some punitive action, maybe improvement of their own procedures also.

Regarding 'naming and shaming', I think no UN member state likes to be mentioned as a state that has been used to violate international law; so there we do see some improvement, some awareness-building at least; and in the past two years that there has been monitoring of the situation in Liberia, there have been a lot of people that have been questioned, arrested; there are indictments, there are cases in court currently. The problem is, do the member states of the UN have the legal instruments to bring this to a satisfactory end, to putting someone in prison, or fining somebody for breaching the arms embargo?

And do they?

It varies, depending on the member state.

So one of the things you would like to see is member states tightening up their legislation so that they can at least deal with these people when they get exposed.

One of the main issues they would have to deal with is the "third country" or "third party" brokering issue, where a country's nationals or its territory may be used for arms deals or UN sanctions violations; for example a deal might be organised by people using a hotel room on that country's territory, a fax machine there to set up these deals. The country concerned would need to enact the necessary legislation to deal with that sort of crime because, by definition, we are talking about transnational or cross-border activities so national law enforcement agencies, or national authorities have to be able to deal with things that occur on an international level. That's where they should improve their legislation.

There is the much-reported case of Leonid Minin, the Ukrainian arms dealer who was arrested in Italy, but the courts are having trouble making the charges stick because Italian laws haven't been breached; would the kind of legislation you describe allow them to prosecute him successfully?

Indeed, although Minin did not commit a crime, as such, on Italian territory, one would hope that with this kind of legislation he could be charged with the fact that he did violate a UN arms embargo. Documentation on those deals was found on him in Italy; that should be sufficient to bring him to court.

Still on the prosecution issue, the new court has been set up in Sierra Leone to find those responsible for humanitarian abuses and crimes and prosecute them. So far, most discussion has been about Sierra Leonean perpetrators; but is there any reason why, say, Liberia's President Taylor should not find himself on trial in that court, given that you have uncovered evidence that he did supply weapons to the rebel RUF?

Well, you're now asking me to talk on behalf of the UN or the Special Court for Sierra Leone which obviously I can't do. But you would think that the court would also go for cases that go beyond the local level and look for all the accomplices of the RUF or whoever perpetrated these crimes against humanity, and that they would have a mandate to also pursue cases where people have maybe facilitated this, financed it, profited from the activities of these perpetrators. So I think there is a cause for action also on a broader, international level to look at these international trafficking networks too, or whoever may have been involved in them.

The Panel has pointed to the new conflict in Cote d'Ivoire as evidence that the situation in the Mano River Region is fragile; are the weapons you've been tracking ending up in other conflicts?

What you have is the micro level where you have poverty; armed groups, whether government forces, militia, dissidents, mercenaries, or losers from past wars in the sub-region, all not paid, all probably not taken care of, all hungry and they sell whatever they have, including their ammunition and their weapons, so that's the micro-level problem . Then you have a sub-regional problem where there are a lot of uncontrolled arms flows in Africa, definitely in West Africa as well; you have a war ending here, then that becomes a source for a war elsewhere. What we were particularly worried about during our last two trips, were End Users Certificates signed in Cote d'Ivoire; the first one we dealt with and that we've reported on in one of our repots was the one Minin had which was signed by General Guei when he was still head of state; we went to interview Guei and he acknowledged, yes, those arms went to Liberia. "I didn't know there was an embargo," he said!

Then we found another End User Certificate, signed in January 2001. We've annexed it to the current report. We've been asking the authorities in Abidjan about it for almost a year to give clarification on this because the consignment on the document is exactly the same as the one on the end user that General Guei had signed. so we thought it might be the exact order list for Liberia.

What we wanted to know was, who were the brokers involved? Was Cote d'Ivoire interested in buying those arms or did they just sign the document again on behalf of a third party?

From a broader perspective, you might be worried that when authorities in these countries just sign these documents that are then used by private marketeers to ship arms - be it to a legitimate government or a government under embargo - if there are so many of these documents circulating, you know they will end up in the wrong hands, and why not with the mutineers or the dissidents in Cote d'Ivoire?

Cote d'Ivoire's northern border is with Burkina Faso which we know, through your work and that of others, has been at the centre of arms re-supply to Liberia in the past. Now that there is fighting in Cote d'Ivoire, are you seeing patterns that you recognise

Burkina Faso has been mentioned in one of the previous reports of the Panel but this is now over a year ago and we think there has been considerable improvement in the procedures in Burkina Faso. Also we see an improvement in their intentions with respect to the conflict in Liberia.

Obviously our mandate does not cover the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire, but what we are worried about is that indeed, over and over again, we see that the lack of capacity, the lack of enforcement, the lack of air surveillance throughout the whole sub-region is part of the problem.

If you talk about the diamond embargo, for instance, we see an improvement, but the improvement is still not sufficient. In Sierra Leone, they now have a 'certificate of origin' regime which brings the diamonds through a centralised government office and then the diamonds are exported with a certificate of origin. Still they only seem to cover 50% of the production.

That means that 50% of the country's diamonds are still smuggled. and it's the same for practically all the diamond-producing countries in West Africa. So there is definitely a need to reinforce, also on a regional level, the instruments for dealing with cross-border trafficking in arms, or diamonds, or whatever commodities are used to fuel these ongoing conflicts to create more instability.

What we see here, from a geographical point of view, is, regrettably, almost like a chain reaction. You have a conflict in Sierra Leone, that is finally solved; then you have major instability again in Liberia, that has to do with an internal insurgency. You see in a neighbouring country, incursions in Guinea; now you see a conflict in Cote d'Ivoire. It looks as if all these conflicts are indeed linked.

And driving that is the fact that a market needs feeding, profits need to be made?

Well, regrettably, war is business to some of the players involved. We are talking about the private players - brokers or diamond dealers that are engaged in selling these blood diamonds, for instance; but some of the warring factions might also see a benefit in sustaining the instability, the chaos in which this sort of business thrives.

Yes, war is indeed a business and if you want to think about the solution for these conflicts, you have to take this into account as well - not only do you have to come to some political compromise but you have to deal with the fact that it should become more expensive to keep the war going than to have peace, which is currently not the case in any of these conflicts.

You said in a recent film broadcast on public television in the United States, that delivering a load of weapons to the Liberian government has become almost like a calling card, a deal-sweetener to help a businessman win the timber concession or whatever it might be that he wants. Many would see that idea as almost more dismal than what's happening in the arms trade itself, because if ordinary commodities are tied into the trade, it will be much harder to stop.

Yes, indeed, arms seem to be only part of the equation and just part of larger deals that are done on an international level - you could call it the international level, or even linkage between local and regional conflicts and the international trade in commodities. This is why I think that countries in the West, for instance, where the major diamond deals are being done, the timber markets and other commodities are, should feel more concerned with what is going on thousands of miles away - because of these linkages between their markets and these conflicts.

Your recommendation is that the arms embargo on Liberia should remain in place and that it should be regularly monitored. What are your other recommendations?

In terms of arms, we are recommending better cooperation among Ecowas member states in terms of information-sharing on legal arms imports and the sharing of documentation on these issues so that they would more easily find out about the possibility that false End User Certificates are circulated or real ones are being used in the wrong way.

We also asked for restraint from both supplying countries and West African member states in terms of exporting or importing even more weapons into the region. We strongly recommend an arms embargo on all non-state actors in the entire Mano River sub-region because we think that the proliferation of these uncontrolled armed groups or armed groups that are used to stage war in the sub region should come to an end.

In terms of diamonds, there is a diamond export embargo on Liberia that's part of the sanctions; we think it can be lifted, provided that Liberia install an approved 'certificate of origin' regime. Liberia would need assistance from the international community to set up a credible system.

And in terms of the travel ban, we can only notice that the travel ban keeps being violated; this time we did not give any specific cases, but in the past we've shown the use of false diplomatic passports by Liberian officials or people acting on behalf of the Liberian government. Obviously this is the sort of case that needs to be looked into, also by authorities that issue visas for Liberians or people travelling on behalf of Liberia, and also, maybe, at a lower level - hotels, airlines that deal with passengers coming out of Liberia. Those are the basic recommendations.

Have you encountered difficulties collecting the evidence because you're now so well-known and people know that collaborating with you is likely to bring them out into the open?

We mention in our report that several private sources, or Liberians or expatriates have complained to the Panel that for even being suspected of being sources for the Panel, they have been beaten up, maltreated or intimidated, so it is becoming more difficult to gather the necessary evidence, especially when you look at the links or possible sources in the sub-region itself. If you're looking at the international trafficking networks where it's not only Africa but also European countries or nationals who are involved, people there might not be within reach of these intimidating tactics. But it has become more difficult.

But what is the solution?

Well I think that as a UN instrument, what we do should be transparent; obviously we do not have to disclose all our sources, we are careful not to expose people to intimidation and obviously we don't have to disclose all the nitty gritty and methodology that is involved in uncovering some of this trafficking and possible sanctions violations.

But on the other hand, the idea is to have an independent Panel with different qualifications look at the violations or the application of the sanctions in the sub-region and I think that is the way it is set up currently. If it becomes more difficult for us to monitor the sanctions then I guess that's our problem and we'll have to learn how to deal with it. Maybe the attitude of the Liberian government might change in this respect. And they might become more cooperative.

What do you personally get out of all this? Why do you want to do it?

I have an NGO background and I have always taken a great interest in the causes of conflict in Africa inasmuch as they are man-made; and the profits of war - war as a business - is an issue that I've dealt with, as a researcher.

In terms of doing this work for the UN I see it as an honour, on the one hand, but it also gives me much more leverage, and it it gives me much greater access to sources that I would never have had as a researcher.

Plus when you are confronted by the situation on the ground and the humanitarian catastrophe throughout the whole sub-region that has been caused by this instability, this is certainly a good enough motive to carry on with this.

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia
More Information on Diamonds in Conflict

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.