Sunday, November 14, 2010

hoisted from comments

From comments on this post, Against Viktorfeed:
*sigh* When is it going to get recognised that you can't spot an arms flight just by who used to own the aircraft. Jubba Airways isn't some unknown cargo entity - it's one of the main commercial passenger carriers into Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. Are they a bit dodgy? Probably. Do they have dodgy planes? Yes. Does the fact that their dodgy planes may have been formerly owned by arms traffickers mean they're arms traffickers themselves? No.

To illustrate this whole *you can't spot an arms flight through the ownership of the plane* thing: Amnesty recently reported that arms were being flown from Bulgaria into Kigali in late 2008, just as Kigali was ramping up support for the CNDP in eastern DRC, on a *standard Air France passenger flight*. Which I'm pretty sure wouldn't have shown up on the 'Viktorfeed'.

The key question is always who owns the cargo, and (for charter flight), who is *chartering* the plane. Not who owns or even operates the plane.

I've never been entirely confident on this point. Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see some qualitative data to support the Air France example. One swallow does not make a summer and one case study - already 18 months old when the AI report was published - is not in itself suggestive of a trend.

It's also interesting to note that AI themselves go with the dodgy operator theme where it matters - on the front cover of the report - which features a dodgy aircraft belonging to a dodgy operator.

Dodgy operators using dodgy aircraft get knowingly involved in arms trafficking. Air France does not. While the charterer is key, monitoring the activities of certain dodgy operators is a step in the right direction. Keep at it, Yorkshire Ranter, one can learn far more about arms movements through monitoring dodgy operators than one can through Air France.

Chris said...

Slightly off topic, the arrival of Viktor in the United States was the second item on NPR news yesterday.

Is your work here done?

M said...

"Dodgy operators using dodgy aircraft get knowingly involved in arms trafficking. Air France does not."

Fair point (although it seems entirely plausible that some national airlines - not necessarily Air France! - traffick arms on behalf of their governments).

But the Air France example is probably a bit of a red herring.

1) It seems reasonable to suppose that in general arms trafficking by air gets done by small operators flying Soviet transports. But it's not at all clear you can tell *which* of the clutch of small operators flying into any given undesirable location is carrying arms (and still less which of their flights is carrying arms) just by mapping where the flights are going and who's operating them. This is because it's the creaky operators which are the ones flying *everything* into 'difficult' locations; whether you're in Goma in 1994 or Mogadishu in 2010. In short, it is precisely in dodgy locations that the 'dodgy operators' cluster, and so the false positives will crowd out the real ones (and will, of course, also overlook the small proportion of dodgy arms flights carried on 'respectable' airlines). The Air France case is an extreme example (i.e. a *very* respectable operator) simply to illustrate the point.

2) The second question is whether a plane's ownership history can help you to spot an arms flight. I haven't seen any convincing evidence that planes formerly owned by associates of Bout or Damjanovic are a marker of arms trafficking. Again, it seems likely that they're a marker of cheap operators flying close to the wire financially, technically, legally; so may be statistically more likely to carry dodgy cargoes; but not enough to draw conclusions about any given *flight*.

A good example might be the famous North Korea/Bangkok plane. Is Zakharov a dodgy operator? Probably. Does Zakharov's involvement tell you who was behind the arms transfer, or where it was headed? No - it seems that the people who organised the flight were totally separate charterers concealed behind Virgin Islands/New Zealand shell companies.

3) "Dodgy operators get involved in dodgy flights, respectable ones don't."

That may be true - especially for charter cargo flights. But again, the false positives problem predominates. And the dodginess of the operator doesn't help very much for maritime shipping - much overlooked in arms trafficking studies, even for Africa. A dodgy operator will 'get involved' if the arms transfer involves driving a load of tanks onto the deck of your ship, but may not be involved at all if it's an anonymous container-load of small arms.

4) The sousveillance network that *might* work could be a plucky plane spotter network on the ground, spotting actual green boxes going onto planes. Now *that* would be interesting. In the UK, Nukewatch have done it for years to report on movements of warheads by road and rail around the UK. Trouble is, of course, that for international arms trafficking you can't just sit at Ostend or East Midlands any more and post your pictures on - even just to get the supply or transhipment side, you're going to need spotters at Benghazi, Tianjin, Minsk, Kazan...

4) One thing the Amnesty report points out is that in the majority of cases where arms are being transported to undesirable places, the transport operators *themselves* aren't doing anything illegal. So either we lobby for due diligence requirements that will tie transporters into taking legal responsibility for their cargoes, or we look at the intermediaries who *definitely* know what's being moved and for whom - the charterers and freight forwarders.

ps. would love for there to be reliable quantitative or qualitative data on arms trafficking trends!

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