Sunday, December 28, 2003

Revelations on Iran’s arms procurement, and on the extent of Libya’s secret weapons program, have recently exposed illicit arms-trafficking pipelines stretching across the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. In the United States’ownhemispheric neighborhood, an Organization of American States investigation linked an arms transactionbetween Nicaragua and Panama to brokers catering to the “Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia,” a terrorist group by OAS definition. Significantly, one of the middlemen in this transaction was also connected to a Lebanese operator detained in Europe and under investigation by several nations for his ties with al Qaeda and suspected role in attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Moreover, a December 2003 United Nations report on the implementation of sanctions against al Qaeda underlined the role of middlemen moving weapons and money on behalf of terrorists. The U.N. investigators noted the growing need for an international treaty to control arms brokering and sanction-busting. Yet the United States has been adamantly opposed to such a treaty and to the creation of a U.N. specialized unit that could keep track of and “blacklist” traffickers across the world and their unsavory clients.

Since the 1990s, investigations have exposed well-honed arms smuggling pipelines and networks operated by globe-trotting brokers, transport agents, dealers and assorted facilitators. Whatever the fate of the ultimate paymasters of covert arms deals, the supporting cast of middlemen and peddlers has remained largely unscathed and outside the reach of the law.

Unlike arms manufacturers, dealers and exporters, brokers are uniquely unregulated. This is because only 16 countries in the world have laws that specifically target and hold accountable those middlemen who have consistently made a mockery of sanctions and arms trade controls.

Scant oversight, combined with governments’ ineptitude or reluctance to bust illegal operators, has allowed arms peddlers to circumvent even the limited controls that already exist. For example, brokers have long been able to avoid accountability by establishing their bases in countries with extremely lax export laws. They are skilled at using fraudulent shipping documents and clandestine transport routes, such as off-the-beaten-track airstrips, roads and seaports. They are also masters in greasing their way with corrupt officials.

Shadowy as they might appear, arms middlemen have left detectable traces in their wake and seem to constitute a steady cast of characters. Indeed, some of the most notorious brokers have become “household names” in investigative circles. But the international community has been slow to react. Recognizing the perils of such inaction, the United States pioneered a law to control the activities of arms brokers, transport agents and financiers in 1996. To date, this law remains the best and most far-reaching in the world. However, it has also remained largely unenforceable due partly to a lack of cross-border cooperation in investigations and extradition. U.S. officials point out that in order to lend the 1996 statute some teeth, other countries should either adopt similar statutes simultaneously, or sign an international treaty providing uniform standards to law enforcement. The European Union recently took a step in the right direction by adopting a common position to control arms trafficking, but regional initiatives do not cover enough territory to effectively meet such a global threat.

Given these sobering facts, it would have been reasonable to expect that the United States would lead the charge and galvanize other states to rein in illicit operators. Instead, Washington has either ignored or actively opposed a blueprint for action that nongovernmental organizations, experts and the U.N. provided. This blueprint included the framework and language for an international convention to control arms brokers, as well as detailed recommendations for the creation of a specialized Security Council sanctions unit staffed with arms, financial, police and customs experts, who would be charged with issuing early warnings, and keeping track of and exposing illicit arms transactions.

The United States “nay-saying” rationale stems partly from its all-too-apparent disdain for any initiative smacking of multilateralism, particularly when United Nations-led. But it is also a response to the pressure exerted by the U.S. pro-gun lobby to steer clear from any action that might prevent the free flow of arms. It is not by coincidence that the U.S. opposition to a brokering treaty was most vocally articulated during a 2001 U.N. conference aimed at preventing and stemming the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Despite reprobation from Washington’s closest allies, the U.S. positionremainsunchanged.

It should not be so. The United States has much to gain in ensuring that other countries fall into line with their controls. An international treaty would foster a shared understanding of the challenge posed by illicit arms middlemen across domestic borders. It would also prompt cooperation and empower law enforcers and judiciaries to respond to the clearly linked transnational threats of arms trafficking and terrorism.

Loretta Bondi is director of the Cooperative Security Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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