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Clean cargo carriers

April 22, 2010

A Swedish think tank has launched a new Internet portal to help aid agencies and peacekeeping missions ensure that they do not use unethical air carriers engaged in activities such as arms smuggling.

A cargo plane sits at Berlin Schoenefeld's Airport as it is in the process of being loaded
Finding an ethically sound way to transport goods is not always easyImage: AP

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said its new information web portal www.ethicalcargo.org, would "prevent arms and drug traffickers from accessing significant humanitarian aid and peacekeeping funds."

Some 90 percent of the air cargo carriers identified in arms-trafficking have also been used for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations by the United Nations, EU member states, NGOs and NATO, according to a report published last year by SIPRI.

"In some cases, air cargo companies have delivered both aid and weapons to the same conflict zones," the think tank said in a statement.

Many carriers identified in UN sanctions reports because of their involvement in transporting arms or other illicit goods to and from Africa are now doing big business carrying aid to Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Griffiths.

An Afghan man and a German peacekeeper, right, carry international aid
Providing logistics for missions in Afghanistan is big business for someImage: AP

Outgrowth of privatization

Outsourcing has exacerbated the problem. Peacekeeping missions tend to rely on big defence contractors to organize logistics. These firms in turn tend to employ air brokers, who are generally not concerned with the ethical credentials of the carriers that they employ.

"There has been a logistics revolution in the last 20 years - where price has become the only condition. The carriers smuggling arms to Africa are just doing business. If humanitarian conditions are put in their contracts, companies are likely to respond to this," said Griffiths.

"We are trying to turn market forces on its head. If the international organizations create a demand for air cargo carriers that meet these new standards they will respond very quickly," added the coordinator of the Internet initiative.

But the awareness-raising operation will concentrate at first on humanitarian agencies, according to the project leader, before moving on to target the major culprits.

"The humanitarian aid community is more responsive to this kind of thing. They are trying to do things right. The main users of these companies, such as the multinational defence contractors, who are primarily the ones providing services to Afghanistan and Iraq, are much more sluggish." Griffiths told Deutsche Welle.

Red Cross response

Two red cross workers and goods being loaded into an aircraft
The Red Cross will refer its air brokers to the ethical websiteImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The German Red Cross (DRK) said that it had terminated business with a carrier blacklisted by the 2009 SIPRI report. DRK spokeswoman Svenja Koch said the NGO had last year unwittingly used the company's services for a relief operation to Zimbabwe during the cholera epidemic. She added that the Red Cross's Berlin-based broker had subsequently been instructed to remove the carrier's name from the list.

"It is very difficult to find out who is behind a charter contract. All we knew is that we were chartering a Russian plane," said Koch.

The DRK spokeswoman said that she would be drawing their brokers' attention to the new web portal so that everything possible could be done to avoid using unethical carriers.

Other German relief organizations, such as BEGECA, which coordinates cargo shipments for Germany's Christian aid organizations and other social projects, welcomed the initiative.

Logistics spokesman Reinhold Luecking said that BEGECA rarely contracted air cargo firms directly and only worked with first-class logistics companies specifically instructed only to work with companies that are completely above board.

"It is in our interest to work with respectable and honest partners and we are also legally obliged to do so. We subject the contracting process to scrutiny. But you can never know everything and we are grateful for any additional sources of information of this kind," Luecking told Deutsche Welle.

The new website provides an emergency 24-hour hotline, a database, model codes of conduct, best practices and contract negotiation techniques for humanitarian and peacekeeping organizations.

Aid agencies can also access legal material such as template clauses that can be included in contracts giving them the right to cancel a contract if a carrier violates ethical transportation policy requirements.

Greater safety risk

Yemenis buy and sell khat, a mild stimulant popular in this Arabian Peninsula nation
Carriers that traffick khat also pride themselves on some reputable clientsImage: AP

In addition to ethical concerns, SIPRI's web portal also contains safety information about cargo carriers. One company, Bluebird Aviation, has crashed three times in the last six years.

The firm is also named in a UN report as a regular carrier of the narcotic drug khat, flying 250 deliveries a month to Somalia. This same air carrier lists the German, British and US embassies among its current clients on the company's website.

A German Foreign Ministry spokesman has confirmed that a German embassy had used the carrier on one occasion in 2008, but stressed that there was no regular cooperation with the company.

Supporting the drugs trade

SIPRI's Hugh Griffiths told Deutsche Welle that booking that kind of airline to transport humanitarian goods was tantamount to supporting the drugs trade.

"The narcotic khat is not an illicit drug in Somalia, but it is entirely controlled by the warlords and is used as a form of currency. It is what the warlords used to control the factions," he said.

And carriers engaged in illicit activities run a greater likelihood of having a poor safety record, according to Per Byman, who is in charge of humanitarian missions for the Sweden's governmental aid agency SIDA. SIDA funds the portal along with the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

"The aircraft are poorly maintained. There is a greater risk of these planes crashing and people dying. I know several UN cases where people lost their lives in this manner."

"In addition aircraft like these can be subject to revenge attacks. There is not much research about this, but it is obvious that a company involved in illicit activities is more at risk of being subject to hostilities even if we don't know at the moment exactly how high this risk is," said Byman.

Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Rob Mudge