Frontline World


Sierra Leone, Gunrunners, May 202



Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story, including responses from the reporter.

James Raskin - Oakland, California
I don't understand why it is considered illegal for the Ukraine to sell small arms when the U.S. is responsible for nearly 60% of all arms sales worldwide, and has a nasty habit of not only selling arms to countries with checkered human rights records (Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Colombia), but in arming both sides in regional conflicts. What makes the Ukrainian arms sales "illegal" and U.S. arms sales legitimate? This to me is clearly why the State Department is reluctant to pursue this issue. What the Ukraine is doing in Sierra Leone is deplorable, but let's remember that during the Cold War the United States delivered over $1.5 billion worth of weaponry to Africa, including Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, and Zaire. It's time for all nations to stop arming the world and to start working toward sustainable solutions that will stabilize these countries torn by violence and make the planet safer for everyone. I guess the key problem here is that there is no profit in that.

Reporter Rick Young responds:
Dear James,
You are right that the U.S. is the leading exporter of arms, including small arms. We researched these exports quite a bit, and while undeniably some of these exports over the years have ended up in conflicts (e.g., M-16's left in Vietnam have made their way to Colombia), we were interested in tracking shipments that were now going into embargoed war zones. In other words, "illegal" shipments. We were particularly interested in looking into the illegal trade fueling conflicts in Africa, a continent devastated by warfare over the past decade. As we looked at the source of weapons fueling these wars, we found that most supplies were coming from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That's largely a factor of economics. The ubiquitous AK-47 is much cheaper than the M-16. Also, the US does have some of the strictest export controls. During the Cold War, there were plenty of state sponsored covert and overt arms deals. And clearly, these supplies continue to circulate from war zone to war zone. Even legal sales can easily turn up as illegal sales down the road. Since the end of the Cold War, the arms industry has been privatized and more independent actors are involved and the trade is more difficult to keep track of. There is a whole range of legal, illicit and illegal activities. According to the Small Arms Survey (a great source worth checking out) small arms sales are a $4-6 billion annual industry. Less than 20% of the trade is illicit sales.

Charles U. Gbadouwey New Orleans, Louisiana
Thanks for the great introductory program on the gangsters and gunrunning that continue to bring untold havoc and sufferings to the peoples of Sierrra Leone and Liberia. As a Liberian currently living in the United States, I have witnessed firsthand the destruction, anarchy, and mass destruction of lives and property that this practice has caused. I do hope that those in position of authority in America address themselves to this horrendous practice and its key players, including Charles Taylor of Liberia. We must all remember that whatever happens in a remote village of Africa may eventually come about to haunt all of us, as the afghanistan's example clearly shows. Criminal behaviour knows no boundaries. Again, thanks for bringing to the american audience this horrendous practice.

Martin Hutchison Boise, Idaho
Regarding your show on UN investigations of gunrunning, why didn't you point out that disarming the citizens makes them vulnerable? Or why the UN wastes it's time collecting guns instead of going after the evil men who use them? This was a very biased show, leaning so far to the left it fell over.

Falls Church, Virgina
The FRONTLINE/World presentation about Gunrunners was extremely educational for me. As an asylum officer, I have listened to many horrific stories by Sierra Leone applicants and have ever been able to understand how all these weapons got into the hands of the rebels. The video coverage of Freetown and Monrovia were also very instructional as the total devastation had never really sunk in from just hearing individual tales. Now I have a better appreciation of the evil that has been nurtured by these gunrunners and used by the despotic Charles Taylor. Congratulations to the State Department investigator and the Italian police as well as the UN for tracking the broken arms embargo.

Rocco Puopolo - Chicago, Illinois
I was in Sierra from 1995 to 1999 as a Catholic Missionary, stationed in Kenema... Your report confirmed many of my hunches; hunches about who supplied the arms, who profited, and why nothing much was done about it... What I do know and witnessed was the distruction of a country filled with hope after the 1996 election and the frustrated hopes of ending the civil conflict. But the actors and factors to bring an end to that war were always outside our reach, outside the country, manipulating the country and the "rebels" Nobody won that war. Everybody lost... And now we know here in the US what terrorism (and that is what the civil conflict in Sierra Leone was all about) looks like... We in Sierra Leone were a country held hostage to terrorism from 1997 to 1999.

Thank you for stretching the conversation beyond illicit Diamonds to Timber.... The Gola Rain Forest which borders Liberia and Sierra is threatened, maybe, as we speak, no more...

But who is going to begin to talk about OIL!!!! or will we just stand by and watch that be exploited as well....... It continues to be a shame that countries like Sierra Leone cannot advance and develop due to that kind of exploitation... Yes, there may be faults and corruption within, but it does not pale to the corruption of greed on the part of the many outsiders who come in ......

Keep up the good work.

Maria Carter Seattle, Washington
I understand that the Sierra Leone story was about the sale of arms to African countries, but I still think it needed a little perspective. The story seemed to imply that if countries simply stopped selling arms to Sierra Leone, then the fighting would end. This solution does not address the roots causes of their grievances. The internal conflict was there before the arms; the arms did not create the conflict. How is preventing the sale of arms to rebel groups in Africa going to help the real issues... poverty, starvation, oppression? I understand that if they don't have arms then it becomes less easy to kill and engage in warfare, but what does that imply? Africans are just simply killing each other for no reason, and we should restrict their right to arm themselves because they are prone to violence? NO! Whether one agrees with their methods or not, they are fighting for a reason... and figuring out what that is, is what deserves international attention.

Anonymous Washington, DC
This program repeatedly calls Minin and Rabinovich "Ukrainians" and their associates "Ukrainian mafia" when in fact these people are neither citizens of Ukraine nor ethnic Ukrainians. Such deliberate misinformation and vilification of Ukrainians leads to their association with "mafia" by many Americans, who, in turn, are afraid to talk, become housemates, befriend, marry or offer jobs even to highly educated Ukrainian professionals, as my personal experience illustrates.

It is apparently OK to present Ukrainians as exclusively "evil" and promote discrimination against them. How can one trust other parts of this program which tackles an extremely important issue?

Reporter Rick Young responds:
While both Minin and Rabinovich now have citizenship in Israel, both were born in Ukraine. Minin grew up in the Black Sea port of Odessa, where, in the 1990's, he ran an oil trading business. According to international intelligence files, Minin was known to be associated with organized crime activities and individuals. In fact, the files identify Minin as a leading figure in the Ukrainian mafia. Both Minin and Rabinovich were kicked out of Ukraine in 1999, though Rabinovich was able to return and continues to run numerous businesses from Kiev. He too is identified as having ties to Ukrainian organized crime according to intelligence files we obtained.

Amy Weir - Chicago, Illinois
Mr. Raskin's points are a completely over simplistic representation of the issue at hand. If Mr. Raskin buys gasoline for his car, then Mr. Raskin helps make it possible for Saudi Arabia to buy arms. Moreover, it would be perfectly acceptable for Sierra Leone to buy weapons, were there not an international arms embargo in place.

And, perhaps Mr. Raskin has forgotten that the UN has been and still is engaged in Sierra Leone, along with Britain.

What is most disconcerting about Ukraine has to be the looming question of "what else have they sold and to whom?"

Many thanks to Johan Peleman for sharing this story with the world.

Dave Dix - Minneapolis, Minnesota
James Raskin makes a good point. Why is Frontline pointing fingers at the rest of the world and ignoring the "axis of evil" of the US-Israel-European arms cartel? Could it be certain corporate sponsors of PBS would not approve?

Eva Sawicka - Glenview, Illinois
I enjoyed tonight's program and hope there will be more to follow. I was impressed with Mr. Peleman's investigation in Sierra Leone. Thank you for focusing our attention on Africa. There should be more of Mr. Peleman on American TV.

Luther Harrison - Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
I think regarding "Gunrunners" it's the old divide and conquer technique. Keep a society bombarded with violence and terror, that eventually no one knows what is going on. It's a strategy that is as old as humankind.If you can get a person to hate him/her self the rest is easy. Then he/her can kill his brother much more readily, not to mention people that do not belong to his familiar circle.

Claude Godfrey - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Though I think that Mr. Raskin might be making a point, I still do think the U.S has to make a stand agianst Ukraine and other countries dumping their ample killing machines in other countries for a profit despite the enormous loss of human lifes in these regions. A warning from the U.S was not enough to desuade the Ukrainian goverment into keeping it's out of control greedy hustlers from making a profit at the expense of other people's sufferings. The U.S should have threatened to cut all diplomatic and economic ties with Ukraine if the incident was ever repeated again. But i guess hospitality and goodwill does not matter to politicians who spew honey on people's faces and pour aid on their backs when they aren't looking.

I think the U.S turning a blind eye to the gun runners who they could have stopped before they had the chance to deliver their deadly cargo to these regions was a very stupid and selfish idea. Not only did these weapons do harm physically to the people of these regions but it destroyed every aspects of their lifes.In time if they continue to turn a blind eye to these gun runners, who know if they might want to expand thier buisness to include more potent killers like germ, chemical and nuclear weapons, it is than that the fat cats in washington might pay attention since it might now be a danger to "global stability."

Sla Sedemkalaka - Brooklyn, New York
I must say your segment on Sierra Leone was very biased and one sided. People all over the world should have the right to bear arms. Given the history of European Colonialists in Africa, They had arms and they used them on the indigenous population. West Africans should have the right to bear small arms, just as any American should have this right. The World is a very dagerous place, people should be allowed to defend their land and property, without fear of U.N. sanctions. The U.N. arms embargo is wrong! The U.N. should not tell African Nations that their peoples should not arm themselves. You should not give the impression that people with small arms are all killers and murderers. This view is incorrect. FRONTLINE should broadcast another show about weapons to restore your reputation as being bias againts people or West African governments that want to defend themselves.

Roxanne M. ≠ New York, New York
You and I must have been viewing two completely different programs, Mr. Sedemkalaka. I did not find that Frontline/World's segment on gunrunning and its effects in Sierra Leone was at all biased or one-sided, as you put it. On the other hand, I found the program to be an incisive lesson for the vast majority of Americans, whom I am sure do not know anything about the situation in Sierra Leone (and perhaps have no reason to care). I think the Frontline producers and and the UN investigators, particularly Mr. Johan Peleman, can only use the tools they have at hand. I don't expect them to sit down with rebel leaders or corrupt, self-serving national leaders to discuss these issues. Isn't one Daniel Pearl is enough.

Reporter Rick Young responds:
Dear Sla,
Whether the international community should impose arms embargoes is an interesting policy question, but evidence to date suggests that the embargoes are not really working anyway. Take the case of Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia. He has argued that embargoes are keeping his government from defending the country from rebel assaults, though the UN investigators found that Taylor has had little trouble getting arms illegally. Over the past decade, both arms sales to Africa and the number of civil and regional conflicts there have proliferated at an alarming rate. Many researchers see a connection between the availability of arms supplies and the continued warfare. That's not to suggest that arms are the cause of the problem. But many researchers, and clearly the UN, believe the unbridled flow of weapons into Africa have exacerbated the problem. I would also point out that ECOWAS, the regional economic and security organization for West Africa, has for a number of years maintained a moratorium on arms transfers to West Africa. That indicates a recognition and desire on the part of West African governments that arms flows should be better controlled.

Keith, Wynings - Gainesville, Georgia
I was torn in to many directions with this story, on one hand you have the runners who have nothing but government backing. Then on the other hand you have the buyers, who seem to have the same government backing. It would be aparent to me that this is a no win situation for the UN, if current restrictions on UN policy stay in place

Reporter Rick Young responds:
Dear Keith,
I think you've grasped the dilemma and frustration of many involved in trying to put an end to illegal small arms shipments. One of the big problems with UN policy is that the organization has no enforcement authority. All it can do, and has done, is investigate sanctions busting activities. As Johan Peleman, the UN arms investigator, points out, they have no subpoena or arrest authority. In most countries, violations of UN embargoes are not even criminalized. That's true here in the US, unless Congress passes specific legislation on specific embargoes. So itís up to individual countries to enforce embargoes -- Italy is trying to do that now by prosecuting Leonid Minin -- and itís up to the UN to put pressure on countries that supply weapons and those complicit in the illegal trade. Even the best export controls are only as effective as the enforcement that is administered.

H.V. Burrus
I'm reading the Robert Ludlum novel, The Prometheus Deception, which deals with a similar theme. Your Web story is incisive and frightening. In this case it's difficult for fiction to keep up with the complex and multi-layered machinations of these real world protagonists.

Melissa Bledsoe
I disagree with some of James Raskin's points. While the U.S. has its own interests to protect, the Ukrainian case seems to be one of clear-cut violation of arms embargoes -- versus the sale of arms generally. Moreover, it is time for the United Nations to revisit its role. How can it pass arms embargoes, knowing that member states themselves may be in violation of those embargoes? I have to admit that I am not a "policy wonk" or expert on foreign affairs, but my experience reading this site has caused me to question the current foreign policy. One death by illicit arms is too many; millions of deaths are a damning commentary on Western complicity.