‘Most Ships Involved in Arms and Drugs Trafficking Are Based in Western Countries’


Human Wrongs Watch

More than 60% of ships involved in reported cases of sanctions-busting or illicit transfers of arms, drugs, other military equipment and sensitive dual-use goods that could be used in the development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are owned by companies based in the EU, NATO or other OECD states, according to the first comprehensive study on maritime trafficking by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

*Image: Emre Dogan | Public Domain

The owners of the ships are primarily commercial shipping lines based in Germany, Greece and the USA, according to the study, which looks at all reported incidents involving larger ships during the past 20 years.

This doesn’t mean the ship owners, or even the captains, know what they are carrying. But it is relatively easy for traffickers to hide arms and drugs in among legitimate cargoes,’ says report co-author Hugh Griffiths.

The majority of ships involved in reported destabilizing military equipment, dual-use goods and narcotics sail under so-called flags of convenience and are registered in flag states with limited regulation and control of their merchant fleets. Nevertheless, the ship-owners are mainly companies based in European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states.

Drug Traffickers Lead, Arms Traffickers Follow

The report, released on January 30, 2012, also shows that the methods adopted by arms trafficking networks in response to the UN arms embargoes on Iran and North Korea were pioneered by drug traffickers in the past few decades to evade detection.

These methods include hiding the goods in sealed shipping containers that claim to carry legitimate items; sending the goods on foreign-owned ships engaged in legitimate trade; and using circuitous routes to make the shipments harder for surveillance operations to track, it adds.

Containerization has revolutionized international trade, but it also provides ideal cover for traffickers. So many shipping containers pass through the world’s ports every day that only a fraction can be inspected. Ship owners and even customs officers often just have to take it on trust that what’s inside the container is what it says on the cargo documents,” says Griffiths.

Shabby Boats for Shady Deals

The report also shows that in the cases where the ship owners, operators and captains appear to have been directly involved in the trafficking attempt, the ships tend to be older and to be sailing under ‘flags of convenience’ whose ships regularly perform badly in safety and pollution inspections when they enter ports.

A ship is considered to be under a flag of convenience when it has the nationality of a state other than that where its real owner is based.

Governing maritime trade has always been challenging, but opportunities are being missed to improve surveillance and use existing mechanisms to crack down on trafficking. This is an international phenomenon that requires international cooperation involving the major players in the shipping industry. We hope this report acts as a wake-up call,” says Griffiths.

The report Maritime Transportation and Destabilizing Commodity Flows is written by Hugh Griffiths and Michael Jenks of the SIPRI Countering Illicit Trafficking—Mechanism Assessment Projects.

It is a pilot study on all commercial ships over 100 gross tonnes reportedly involved in illicit or destabilizing arms and narcotics transfers over the past 20 years using SIPRI’s newly established Vessel and Maritime Incident Database.

Maritime Transport Dominates World Trade in Licit and Illicit Goods

Maritime transport dominates international trade in licit and illicit goods. It accounts for the majority of seizures and suspect shipments of military equipment and dual-use goods (goods that have both civilian and potential military applications, including in the development of weapons of mass destruction) originating from or destined for embargoed states such as Iran

and North Korea.”

It is the primary means of delivering shipments of conventional arms to actors involved in conflicts in Africa, according to SIPRI, which is is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament.

Sea transport plays a major role in global flows of narcotics and associated chemical precursors, SIPRI reports, and adds that it is also the main mode of transport for other illicit and potentially destabilizing commodities, such as smuggled tobacco, oil and counterfeit goods.

More Difficult to Monitor and Control

One reason why maritime transport offers the greatest scope for trafficking of destabilizing commodities is that it is more difficult for states to monitor and control than any other means of international bulk transport, according to SIPRI.

Jurisdiction over merchant shipping in international waters rests with a ship’s flag state and, as a result, ships suspected of carrying destabilizing commodities cannot be boarded—and the commodity seized without the prior agreement of the flag state.”

The most common ship types used in reported destabilizing military equipment, dual-use goods and narcotics transfers are general cargo and container ships. Ships involved in cases where the ship’s owner, commercial operator or officers appear to have been complicit in the transfer have an average age of over 27 years, according to SIPRI.

Arms Traffickers Adopting Techniques Pioneered by Drug Traffickers

They tend to have poor safety and environmental inspection records or to have been involved in previous accidents or pollution incidents. A majority of the flags of convenience under which these vessels sail have been consistently targeted for inspection by port state control (PSC) regimes on the basis of poor performance in previous inspections.

Arms proliferation networks are increasingly adopting techniques pioneered by drug trafficking organizations that integrate their logistics operations within the global supply chain through the use of sealed shipping containers that are carried aboard vessels owned by mainstream shipping companies engaged in licit trade.”

Such techniques, SIPRI explains, represent the most cost effective method when traffickers are confronted by well-resourced and coordinated surveillance operations supported by international agreements such as United Nations arms embargoes and counter-narcotics conventions.

There are significant differences between the frequency with which different types of commodity involved in destabilizing transfers are seized when detected. While almost all reported cases involving narcotics and precursors end in seizure of the commodity, seizure rates for destabilizing military equipment and dual-use goods transfers are highly dependent on the countries involved.

Significantly, more than half of reported destabilizing transfers to or from Iran and North Korea have resulted in seizure, but the seizure rates for shipments ultimately destined for embargoed states, regions or groups in Africa have been very low.

Established in 1966, SIRPI cooperates closely with several intergovernmental organizations, notably the UN and the European Union, and regularly receives parliamentary, scientific and government delegations as well as visiting researchers. It provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public.

*Image: Emre Dogan | Public Domain.  Important: This image does not imply at all any direct or indirect statement by Human Wrongs Watch regarding any kind whatsoever of involvement of this ship in any of activities cited in this article.

2012 Human Wrongs Watch

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