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What Mauritius Can Teach Us About the Global Arms Trade

Originally published in The At War blog. The blog typically catches up with black-market arms when they are already in use, as they are in Syria and Libya. We’ve also reported on weapons deals before they become the implements of revolution.

Kathi Lynn Austin is a former United Nations weapons inspector. She is also the executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, an advocacy group that she founded, “dedicated to investigating, documenting and bringing to justice major arms traffickers, war profiteers, and transnational criminal networks that fuel conflict around the globe.” The views given here are Ms. Austin’s alone, but we have asked Ms. Austin to contribute because as a trafficking expert she can help tease out the ways illegal arms traffic is sustained. — At War

So, you’d like to set up an illegal weapons network in the post-Sept.11 era. But where to begin? I recommend a trip to the idyllic island nation of Mauritius.

Benedicte Kurzen for The New York TimesFor decades, Mauritius been one of the planet’s most elite island getaways. Lately, it has fallen prey to black market gunrunning.

Granted, this tropical holiday destination isn’t even close to places known for revolts and insurgency. But Andrei Kosolapov and Sergey Denisenko, two former associates of the convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, are accused of trying to start an arms-trafficking enterprise based there. It turns out that Mauritius is a place where all the tried-and-true techniques of black-market gunrunning have been used. It has also been a venue for pioneering a few new maneuvers.

The success and longevity of a gunrunning ring usually rests on cleverly exploited loopholes in domestic and international law. Here is a primer on some of the methods and the legal gaps:

Never Identify Yourself as an Arms Broker

The technical term “arms brokers” refers to the intermediaries between supplier and shooter. Out of the approximately 52 countries that have any laws to regulate arms brokers, only a few, like the United States, have robust definitions to identify the full array of middlemen including dealers, transporters and financiers. Before these laws started showing up on the books in the late 1990s, traffickers cultivated their “Lord of War” image to attract clientele. Afterward, it was all about the disguise. Viktor Bout still insists that he was only in the transport business — the same assertion used by his former associates in Mauritius.

Seek New Frontiers

If your unsavory reputation catches up with you, or you feel overexposed, move to a place where nobody knows your name. A classical technique made easy — since the absence of international registration and licensing for arms brokers means that unsuspecting countries like Mauritius are often unable to distinguish between legitimate and rogue operators on their turf.

Hide Under the Cover of Legitimacy

In the immediate period after the cold war, gunrunners cozied up to autocratic regimes with poor human rights records in countries where registrations and protection easily could be bought. Since Sept. 11, traffickers prefer to stay under the radar. Heralded as the best-governed African country five years in a row, Mauritius’s clean reputation is seductive. Had there existed a global watch list on sanctions busters and operators on national blacklists, then Mauritius could have been forewarned.

Hide the Beneficiaries and Money

To remain in the shadows, traffickers traditionally require an economic superstructure conducive for shell games. With its offshore banking center, drop-box office addresses and seasoned holding company paper pushers, Mauritius may have unwittingly guaranteed the expertise required for traffickers to construct a complex screen to hide their illegal assets and sales. Financial centers usually fail to run compliance checks on all of a client company’s shareholders and directors. And even when nefarious activities are detected, illicit entities are rarely reported to relevant law enforcement agencies.

Don’t Forget, a Little Corruption Goes a Long Way

When it comes to influence-peddling and covering your back, nothing is better than having a minister, department head, police officer or other powerful benefactor in your pocket. Mauritius learned its lesson on this point. Since discovering the alleged illicit arms trade on its turf, the government has allowed the Independent Commission Against Corruption to conduct a money-laundering investigation inside its ranks. It also called on the Commissioner of Police, the Financial Intelligence Unit, and the Financial Services Commission to conduct official inquiries.

Choose Your Method of Transportation

Arms smugglers used to fly cheap Russian cargo planes to transport goods, most notably in African war zones. Since the decline of the former Soviet fleet, there has been a switch to “westernized” aircraft. Traffickers also have learned that smaller passenger aircraft are easier to obtain and arouse less suspicion. South African, European and American aviation brokers got a wake-up call when their links to the Mauritius case were exposed. But this is still an area ripe for fraud. Governments need to improve vetting procedures in the transportation sector and seal up regulatory cracks in civilian carrier controls.

Secure an Air Operation Certificate of Convenience

An age-old tactic: make sure your operation is transnational, because few governments expend resources on investigations that require law enforcement cooperation over multiple national borders. The key to the Mauritius case was an “air operation certificate” that traffickers could use to lease American and South African planes for potential operations in Iran, Sudan and Congo. The denial of a certificate is likely to be only a temporary setback given the abundance of shipping and aviation flags of convenience in other jurisdictions.

Deliver the Goods, No Matter the Particulars

Weapons and bullets are ubiquitous with no shortage of willing providers — or buyers. But you need to make sure that you don’t get caught red-handed supplying a heavily monitored conflict zone. Traffickers must be ready for danger and skilled at covert operations, especially for logistics and transportation. This is the most vulnerable stage of an illicit arms supply chain. Since gunrunners are relied upon by governments for clandestine national security operations, they remain uniquely unregulated and almost never penalized for illicit actions abroad. Operating in zones of chaos and lawlessness, where, understandably, regulation — much less real governance — are almost absent, they are almost never charged with aiding and abetting atrocities or war crimes.

Enjoy Prime Real Estate and Have a Quick Exit Plan

Big-time traffickers seldom base themselves in the war zones they service. Picturesque Mauritius offers not only the sway of Indian Ocean breezes and a lavish lifestyle, but also easily obtainable residency permits and lucrative tax incentives with few questions asked.

This guide is not for the arms middlemen. The people running guns already know all of these tricks of the trade. And the flow of illicit arms to war zones is obviously not the fault of a tiny place like Mauritius. It was just one small, and mostly unwitting, actor in a shadowy global enterprise.

But listing the loopholes shows many of the options traffickers have. It also reveals that current arms regulations need tightening.

So how do you address such a large issue? A big part of the problem comes from the lack of legislative oversight. There is no international regulatory framework for conventional weapons transfers, so stronger policy would be a good place to start.

But sketched-out policies are just that. And in July, world leaders failed to finalize a draft arms trade treaty. The importance of such a global pact was powerfully argued last month in an editorial in The New York Times and an opinion piece in The New York Times Magazine by a former child soldier, Ishmael Beah.

If the current treaty text were to pass, it would set the highest possible international standards when it comes to governing arms brokers. That sounds good, but the norms called for are only voluntary. They would allow governments to legislate brokers as they see fit — failing to patch up the loopholes and smooth out uneven domestic laws:

Each State Party shall take the appropriate measures, within its national laws, to regulate brokering taking place under its jurisdiction for conventional arms under the scope of this Treaty. Such controls may require brokers to register or obtain written authorization before engaging in brokering transactions.

Translation: No unified standard.

So, let’s review. There are clear deficits to the current arms trade laws: No robust definition of arms brokers; no inclusion of transporters; no compulsory registration and licensing domestically or internationally that would flag illicit actors and strengthen enforcement cooperation; no legal reach across multiple national borders; no call for criminalization of breaches or penalties to act as deterrents.

For all of this lacking, what do you get? A long list of loopholes, exclusions and weakly enforced measures that allow traffickers to continue to fuel global conflict with each illegal weapon they sell. A mostly unfettered paradise for the arms middlemen, wouldn’t you say?

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