UNITED NATIONS, May 12 (IPS) - The military conflicts raging across Africa, Asia and Latin America have been significantly influenced by the heavy flow of illicit small arms, cocaine and rich minerals.
But, ironically, some of the air cargo companies involved in these profitable - and politically destabilising - smuggling operations are also delivering humanitarian aid and supporting peacekeeping operations, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
In some cases, these companies are delivering both aid and weapons to the same conflict zones, including in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.
The 70-page detailed report reveals that 90 percent of the air cargo companies identified in arms trafficking-related reports have also been used by major U.N. agencies, the European Union (EU), members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), defence contractors and some of the world's leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to transport humanitarian aid, peacekeepers and peacekeeping equipment.
The report, titled 'Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows,' points out that some U.N. missions have continued to contract aviation services from companies that have been named in Security Council reports for wholly illicit arms movement and have been recommended by the United Nations for a complete aviation ban.
Co-authored by Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley, the study cites several such cases, including the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan which has continued to use Badr Airlines even after the Security Council recommended an aviation ban for violating a U.N. arms embargo.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF and the International Medical Corps have been cited for using the services of Juba Air Cargo after the operator had been documented by the United Nations as violating its arms embargo.
The clients listed by Juba Air Cargo also include the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the U.N. Office of Project Services (UNOPS), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Committee of the Red Cross, Concern Worldwide, Action Centre la Faim and the Swedish Free Mission.
Additionally, Ababeel Aviation holds contracts with U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) even though the operator has been accused of violating U.N. arms embargoes.
Asked what role the United Nations could play in preventing such anomalies, Griffiths told IPS: "The U.N. is not very good at policing its backyard. There is a need for an independent institute to do this effectively."
He also said the United Nations should cooperate with the EU in order to solve the problem and also attend an upcoming expert meeting in Brussels on May 14.
The SIPRI report shows how air cargo carriers involved in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations have also transported a range of other conflict-sensitive goods such as cocaine, diamonds, coltan and other precious minerals.
Bromley, a co-author of the report, told IPS the United Nations has an important role to play, but the EU has a unified stance on this matter and has explicitly recognised the problems of air cargo carriers transporting arms in their framework control strategy against the illicit smuggling of small arms and light weapons (SALW).
"The U.N. framework SALW control document (2001) and the Programme of Action does not make any reference to transport and does not recognize air cargo carriers as a problem," he added.
Asked for a response from the United Nations, U.N. Associate Spokesman Farhan Haq told IPS that none of the air operators cited in the SIPRI report are registered as "bona fide" air carriers by the U.N. Department of Field Support (DFS).
"That means they're not listed flight vendors by the U.N. Secretariat," Haq said.
And thus, they cannot, and have not been commercially contracted by DFS for long-term charter in peacekeeping operations, he added.
In terms of how DFS goes about contracting flight vendors, Haq explained that the department has a Quality Assurance Programme, which involves potential flight vendors having to go through a pre-qualification process for registration as flight vendors, followed by an on-site inspection of the prospective air operator.
"These are done to ensure that any air carriers under U.N. sanctions are not considered for registration/operations with the United Nations," he said.
As part of the ongoing process of enhancing safety, quality and the security of U.N. aviation operations, both DFS and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (along with the World Food Programme and the International Civil Aviation Organisation in advisory roles), have established an Aviation Technical Advisory Group (ATAG) comprised of aviation experts from DFS, WFP and ICAO.
The ATAG's main objective is to develop U.N. Common Aviation Standards for humanitarian and peacekeeping air transport operations and ensure that risks are mitigated in DFS aviation operations, and any exposure to potential liabilities is reduced, Haq said.
The report presents a range of inexpensive options which could be adopted to tackle the problems.
U.N. agencies, governments, defence contractors and NGOs could make humanitarian aid and peacekeeping contracts conditional by requiring air cargo carriers to adhere to an ethical transportation code of conduct.
The EU could also utilise its existing air safety regulations to put companies involved in arms trafficking or destabilising commodity flows out of business.
Additionally, the EU could provide specialised training for its civilian and military peacekeepers to better identify suspect air cargo carriers operating in Africa and Eastern Europe.
A coordinated response by the EU and the humanitarian aid community could require companies to chose between transporting arms or aid to conflict zones while air safety enforcement could put hardcore arms dealers out of business, said Bromley.
"Our research shows that companies named in arms trafficking-related reports have poor safety records. Safety regulations represent their Achilles heel, and can do to them what tax evasion charges did to Al Capone," he said.