Turtle Bay

Website offers new transparency on shadowy transport networks

Last year, the U.S. security contractor Dyncorp hired a South Africa-based air transport company, Aerolift, to transport African peacekeepers and relief supplies to Somalia in defense of the country’s U.S.-backed transitional government. Three years earlier, the same Aerolift aircraft supplied large quantities of weapons to al-Shaabab, the Islamist insurgency seeking to overthrow Somalia’s transitional government, ...

Last year, the U.S. security contractor Dyncorp hired a South Africa-based air transport company, Aerolift, to transport African peacekeepers and relief supplies to Somalia in defense of the country’s U.S.-backed transitional government.

Three years earlier, the same Aerolift aircraft supplied large quantities of weapons to al-Shaabab, the Islamist insurgency seeking to overthrow Somalia’s transitional government, and impose sharia, according to an investigation by a U.N. panel.

The case, which was documented by a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), illustrates how international transport companies mix illicit arms smuggling with legal weapons deliveries and humanitarian assistance.

Arms contractors that supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons or funneled Serbian arms and ammo to former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who is currently facing war crimes charges, have gone on to provide military supplies to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq or provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and Haiti.

SIPRI has now launched an online tracking database, EthicalCargo.org, that can help humanitarian aid organizations trace a transport firm’s personnel history to see if they have been involved in illicit trade. The site also provides information on a carrier’s safety record. The Swedish non-profit will make the information available, at no cost, to reputable humanitarian relief outfits. The full site will not be made available to the general public because of concerns that arms merchants will use it to determine what steps are being taken to uncover their past activities, putting them in a position to better cover their tracks. For instance, many companies have simply changed their name, to conceal their history.

Hugh Griffiths, who is overseeing the project, says too little is known about the past histories of carriers that supply the world’s peacekeeping and peace-building ventures. Often information only comes to light when there is an air crash.

Griffiths said that he recognizes that humanitarian aid agencies may be required to rely on companies with a questionable past in order to deliver life saving relief supplies to the field. "Compromise is the name of the game in conflict zones; you can’t have people dying of starvation" he said. But he said the group’s database includes "crash incident reports" and other information that will shed light on a carrier’s past. For instance, a quick check of Aerolift’s safety record would have shown it is a "very unsafe company."

Aerolift, for instance, had "an extremely terrible safety record," which included the February 2009, crash of an Antonov 12 at Luxor, Egypt, according to SIPRI. Three weeks later, an Aerolift aircraft, contracted by Dyncorp, crashed after takeoff from Uganda, killing all 11 people on board, including three high-ranking Burundian peacekeepers.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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