Peleman, one of the world's most prominent arms-trade investigators,
has served on several U.N. expert panels and specializes in
the financial aspects of war. In a series of interviews between
October and December, 2001, Peleman shared his views with FRONTLINE/World
producer Rick Young on the larger implications of the illicit
international trade in small arms. Drawing on his years of experience
following the flow of weapons and investigating the money and
paper trails of wars across Africa, he explains the dangers
that failed African states pose, and the lessons they offer.
The United Nations and the nation-states into which the world
is currently organized, he warns, are systemically incapable
of stopping the warlord rule and growing chaos in Africa --
a political state of affairs not seen since the 17th century.
Regulating arms brokers -- or "middlemen" -- is key to stemming
these wars, Peleman says, and will be one of the main challenges
in controlling the global movement of small arms for the foreseeable
future. By contextualizing the extraordinary legal case against
Leonid Minin, he explains what can be done to stop unscrupulous
brokers and correct the lethal flaws in the current international
NOT MY PROBLEM: THE EXPORTER'S PERSPECTIVE
Ukraine, government officials told us that, from their perspective,
Ukraine did everything legally required regarding the arms Minin
exported to Liberia.
I would fully agree with that. ... Even more than that, they
followed the international procedures for an arms deal. They
went beyond it, sending someone with the plane. They even went
beyond that, having a document signed by the client, in this
case Côte d'Ivoire, that the ammunition would be used
... within the terms of the embargo or the moratorium on small
arms in West Africa. So this was an additional guarantee. Strictly
speaking, they followed the right procedures.
they know whom they were doing business with?
That's something you have to ask them. ... As long as these
sorts of practices are allowed by most countries in the world
in the international arms trade, you will find them abused.
If you allow an offshore-registered company to broker lethal
equipment, you are vulnerable to abuse. Ukraine is no exception.
officials say, "We're a poor country. We don't have the resources
to go checking into who's really behind these companies. What
do you want us to do?"
It's an answer that many officials in many countries will give
you. If you would go and check who's behind Technical Engineering
and Services [a broker for Minin's shipments], you would just
find the names of two individuals. And if you don't have them
in your records as being wanted in your country, there's not
much you can do about finding out more about them or screening
them. Moreover, I guess, from the Ukrainian point of view, the
shipment that we are talking about [113 tons of ammunition]
was probably peanuts. It was a relatively small volume of ammunition.
Obviously, I would like to see more scrutiny in the entire international
arms business. But from the point of view of authorities, as
long as you follow international procedures, it is legal. I
think every country in the world that produces arms or has large
stocks of weapons must have thousands of permits each year that
need to be checked, usually from a desk, by an officer on the
proliferation desk who just screens whether the country of destination
is under an embargo, whether all the documents are there. They
may ask for an additional stamp on one document or another.
Most countries deal this way with an arms transfer; Ukraine
did the same. They did follow the international procedure. What
you can say is that the international procedures on the arms
trade may not be sufficient to root out the sort of arms trafficking
we see here. ...
I think Ukraine only has a few embassies in all of Africa. And
like many Eastern European countries, they still have enormous
amounts of weaponry that they no longer need. They are short
of foreign currency and business opportunities, so they try
to sell these weapons. And as long as the procedure is followed,
I'm sure they have thousands of permits every year that find
their way to client countries, through brokers very often. And
I guess, of those thousands of cases, you will find a number
of cases that are illegal.
PROLIFERATION OF BROKERS
how should they make sure they know whom they're doing business
It's very difficult to say. At least, screen the broker or make
sure that everyone who's involved with an arms transaction should
be known to the authorities. And then the next step would be
to develop some sort of blacklist, particularly of individuals
-- not of companies, because company names can be changed overnight.
And then try to find out and make the list exhaustive, comprehensive
enough so that it would include most of the known arms traffickers,
especially in Africa. But then again, this is not a foolproof
system. There's thousands of brokers worldwide. It's very easy
to register as an arms broker. So even that would not exclude
what is the likelihood that the trade will be controlled from
the producing end, by confirming who the brokers are and setting
up these regulatory systems?
Well, there's a number of issues that are being discussed on
an international level. For newly produced weapons, for instance,
marking weapons as traceable back to the producer is something.
But even there, you would only find out when it is too late,
when the arms are already in the hands of nonstate actors in
many cases. If you have an embassy in a country that is purchasing
those weapons, you can follow up and see whether they are really
used by the armed forces of that country. You could even do
periodic checks: After three, six months, are the weapons still
there? Are they being used? You could also check: Is this the
type of ammunition or weaponry that is being used by that country?
Have they been a client before?
One of the main solutions would be to deal with the issue of
the brokers. Make a list -- a white list this time -- of registered
brokers that are well known, that do not have their companies
registered offshore, that are transparent at least to the governments
that are dealing with them. And let the state retake control
over the arms business instead of letting it proliferate in
the hands of private parties, because there the problem becomes
increasingly complicated. ...
One significant document that was signed last year was the firearms
protocol, part of an international convention on transnational
organized crime. That explicitly mentioned the words "brokers
and shipping agents," which is important because they are really
vital in the legal arms trafficking business.
I think we will have to wait for a firm solution until the rich
part of the world starts to feel the consequences of the uncontrolled
flows of arms, which means that the arms will turn up more and
more in Western societies, that there will be more violence
caused by firearms on the loose. This is probably when the problem
will be taken more seriously, when the issue of brokers and
shippers will be firmly and finally dealt with. ...
LAWS REMAIN UNWRITTEN
know who the players are. You have said there are about 50 of
them in Liberia. Why don't we just go get them and prosecute
It's not that easy. Most of the member states of the United
Nations have excellent export regulations for arms. But they
have no legislation whatsoever on brokers, go-betweens, middlemen
that work from a hotel room in -- let's say, Paris -- to set
up a complicated deal between a country in Eastern Europe and
a country in Africa without the weapons even going through Paris,
without the money even going through France.
So, in France, where the arms dealer sits with his fax machine
and his telephone, there's nothing that can be done about his
actions, because he's only phoning and faxing. He's not shipping
weapons through France. He's not obtaining money in France for
those deals because he sets that up elsewhere.
Very few countries have the sort of legal instruments to deal
with exactly those middlemen or brokers. And they are the ones
you should focus on. Plus, of course, the fact that almost every
country in the world uses that sort of middleman for its own
arms deals. And when you look at the Small Arms Conference at
the U.N. level, which was held in July 2001, there was some
progress in wanting to do something about this small-arms problem.
But when it comes to making real recommendations and heavy-duty
commitments to stop this or that, most countries don't want
this practice of middlemen to end. They don't even want to regulate
it. They don't even want to start processing legislation that
would enable them to go after this go-between who uses their
territory to organize his deals abroad but is nevertheless the
brains of the operation, who cannot be caught under current
MININ AS A TEST CASE
there's now a case in Italy that's testing exactly that.
Indeed. There is the fact that Minin was living in Italy, although
he was traveling a lot, and using Italian territory to, let's
say, organize his arms shipments. Although the weapons never
went through Italy -- the money payments went through Cyprus
and an account in the United States, and the plane may not have
even gone through Italian air space -- the prosecutor in Italy
still felt up to the challenge of prosecuting Minin for exactly
that, for violating U.N. sanctions, which is also quite unique
because sanctions have existed for a very long time. ...
what is the significance of the prosecution of Minin?
I think it's a unique and very important case. Not only for
the United Nations to strengthen the instrument of sanctions,
but also to show other member states that, despite the fact
that these weapons deals may be very complicated and despite
the fact that the facts and the drama are countries away from
where the investigation takes place, you can actually set an
example and do something about it, and take United Nations embargoes
you find any irony in the fact that the Leonid Minin case came
about because he was having a party with drugs and prostitutes?
Yes, there is some irony in it. How Minin was eventually arrested
is well known. A prostitute goes to the police to complain that
her customer has not paid. When the police go to Minin's hotel
room, they find him surrounded with other prostitutes. They
find cocaine on the table. They arrest him for a minor offense
and only later find out who the man really is. They search his
premises, find all those documents. And then they start to take
an interest in the case. It's indeed a very minor offense that
led to these events. ...
ARMS SALES AS BUSINESS STRATEGY
there other, larger forces encouraging this illegal small-arms
trafficking? Is it just the bad guys out there doing bad things,
or do you find legitimate business involved too?
Well, it is a profit-driven industry, arms trafficking. It is,
to a great extent, done by private individuals that set up their
own operations without any, or without necessarily any, government
or secret-service backing. It is profit driven, although in
Africa, with the presence of so many natural resources and commodities,
you very often see that investments or extractive industries
are at the same time involved with, or at least sponsoring,
the forces that be -- be they rebels or dictatorial governments
-- for the benefit of their investment. And this is where the
sometimes bigger, legitimate interests coincide with the interests
of the gray area and the black trade in weapons.
what you're saying is, it's just another business enterprise.
Indeed. You see it in many countries all across Africa, large
commodity deals often go hand in hand with the supply of lethal
equipment, the supply of, for instance, mercenaries or trainers.
So, if you are doing business with a party involved in a conflict,
and he becomes your strategic partner, it becomes important
to you as an investor that he wins the conflict. So, you start
to support him and sponsor him in every way. And when the final
victory is there, you're both victorious. That's the idea. We
may be seeing a similar arrangement in Liberia with the case
of Minin as a timber investor who then trades in weapons. I
couldn't speak about his other business opportunities, but it
is a pattern that we have come across several times.
all the time you've spent investigating, do you ever find anything
surprising about the business of arms trading?
What is still often very surprising to see -- not necessarily
in the case of the conflict in Liberia or my work for the panels
in Liberia or Sierra Leone -- is when I learn that [the dealers]
are the main supplier to this or that rebel movement, and, at
the same time, they're supplying the other side of the war.
This shocks me, in the way that ideology or politics are not
at all involved. And it shocks me in that, if I can find out
who's supplying these rebels or this government, they themselves
can find out as well. So they very often knowingly do business
with the very person who's supplying their enemies. That is
sometimes very surprising to see. ... Many of the conflicts currently
in Africa are insurgencies of gain, I'm afraid to say. ...
CRIMINALS AS WAR-ZONE FOREIGN INVESTORS
is the significance, not just of Minin in Liberia but of organized
crime coming to Africa and getting involved in this [illegal
Well, this is, of course, the tragic thing. What you have in
West Africa is a number of disintegrated states. The state is
just not powerful enough to exert its control over the entire
territory. And it's basically challenged by a bunch of ragtag
rebels with guns that terrorize the country for more than 10
years. As a consequence, not only does the state collapse almost
completely but also the whole society disintegrates.
You have a phenomenon of child soldiers that go and kill their
own parents, their own kin. This is really the disintegration
of the fabric of society. It will be very difficult to rebuild
this. And what you then see is that the investors that take
an interest in those economies of collapsed states are themselves
also players in the criminal field. So that only worsens the
You have very dramatic situations already, where states are
collapsing or completely out of control. Then, they invite,
actively or passively, the sort of investors that breed on this
lack of oversight, on this lack of control, on this lack of
interest in the background of the investor. You have presidents
that then attract investors that are just out to make a few
quick millions in those countries, mostly at the expense of
the local population or the long-term economy of that country.
And that, of course, is a very dramatic situation. You have
state collapse on the one hand and, at the same time, real mafia
organizations and organized crime being attracted to this kind
I think the striking thing is that, in a disintegrated society
with so many weapons around, so many different groups and rebels,
so much banditry, and no real political agenda -- a completely
collapsed state -- in this context of violence, you also have
the real professionals of violence: organized criminal groups
which do their business deals on the basis of violence and intimidation.
They find a very comfortable environment in those war zones.
And they try to use these war zones, probably for laundering
their money, to set up commodity deals. And they basically abuse
those countries in order for their money to become part of the
Having a big investment in a country like Liberia may be a way
to convert your illegally obtained money into commodities and
deal with them legally on the international markets, no questions
asked. You get a diplomatic passport from that country. You're
considered an important businessman. This is the real danger,
You already have completely disintegrated societies: no banking
system whatsoever, an economy that is completely a cash economy.
Diamonds there are very significant, of course. Diamonds are
usually dealt with completely in cash. They're just converted
into dollars, easy to travel with. There is an additional danger
that this will further the collapse of those states.
WESTERN RESPONSE TO COLLAPSED STATES
meanwhile, the West does what?
Well, the West agrees, among others, through the United Nations,
to put investigators in those countries and find out what is
happening, not knowing what the investigators will find and
then being surprised at the outcome of the investigation. The
wider consequences of it [collapsed national states] is that
what you see here is really the rawest form of capitalism. Commodity
deals are settled with intimidation and violence, with weapons.
This is how globalization is proceeding in weak states, in a
continent like Africa, which is probably not up to the challenges
It has no real banking system yet to control money flows. It
has difficulties even tracking the planes that are using its
air space. No wonder we find tens of illegally registered planes
flying into an airport with one tail number, just painting another
number on and departing to do some sort of an illegal deal.
It may not only be weapons; it could be smuggling cigarettes
or diamonds or whatever.
So, here you see the consequences of a rapidly developing global
economy in an environment which is not up to these rapid developments.
with all due respect, the West's response is to send in some
investigators and write a report that says, "This is happening,
and 'shame on you.'"
Well, what I'm telling you here is almost philosophical. It's
a wider speculation on what is really happening there. It's
a wider analysis of "What are you seeing here?" This, of course,
is not within the mandate of a panel like our [U.N. expert panel].
We're supposed to come back with factual evidence: Who does
it? When is it done? How can it be stopped?
The wider picture of what to do about the fact that underdevelopment
in its worst form, state collapse, is going hand-in-hand with
violence and war is not a question we are dealing with. This
is something much more difficult, with much wider implications.
And that needs to be looked at in a longer term, I think.
There's a lot of challenges here to go and reconstruct these
societies, both to reconstruct state power to exert control
over the territory and also to get rid of all these groups --
bandits and rebels -- that are controlling certain parts of
the territory. But the society must also be built from the bottom
up. Even the family must be rebuilt from the bottom up. These
children must be reintegrated -- those who have been kidnapped,
have become child soldiers, have been given a Kalashnikov to
kill their own kin.
How do you reintegrate these people back into their societies?
So, this is a wider challenge that is not within our mandate,
and we can hardly recommend anything long-term like that. That's
not our job. ...
got a call one day to investigate why arms embargoes and other
sanctions weren't working. Then you started to scratch around
a little bit. It seems that what you have begun to uncover,
or chase after, are just symptoms.
Indeed, the arms deals that we're looking into -- the diamond
trafficking going on there, those strange characters showing
up as big businessmen in Liberia -- are considered organized
crime figures by police services worldwide. But big businessmen
in those countries are just a symptom of a wider phenomenon:
These countries are in such bad shape that you can hardly still
speak of a country or a state.
You also see that the conflicts are contagious. If you look
at the wider picture, if you go into the chronology -- first
this happened, which resulted in that conflict, and this resulted
in the other one -- you see a conflict starting in one country.
It then ends up in factionalism. The country is controlled by
different warlords who control small parts of whatever lucrative
territory there is.
Then it spreads into another country, as if the borders have
no meaning. This is another symptom that the state is something
which doesn't really exist. For a long time, throughout the
war in Liberia -- basically from the early '90s on -- the international
community did recognize a transitional government in the capital.
But the only thing the capital in that transitional government
controlled was the foreign debt of the country. Practically
all the refugees that had fled from those warlord-held areas
went to the capital. ...
Apart from that, the whole country was run by warlords which
did their different deals with multinationals, who just kept
on shipping commodities out of the country. The state as we
know it in international relations -- a government in a recognized
capital -- still existed symbolically, but basically the borders
were no longer there. ... What you see here also is almost the
collapse of sovereignty under the weight of these conflicts.
WORLD MAP OF STATES AND GROWING BLACK HOLES
so far, it seems that the response of the West has been to deal
with the symptoms through sanctions and embargoes.
Yes, I agree. It's just doing something about the symptoms.
But you should also look at it this way. The international community,
the world as we know it, is a world of states. And we know that
the world of states has been so defined for 350 years. If you
look at the world map, it's a map full of states.
There are no other entities but states. The United Nations deals
with nation-states. They are the only recognized members of
the United Nations. The world doesn't know how to deal with
any other entities -- black holes on the map, if you want --
state entities that no longer exist, which are not clearly defined
and demarcated within a certain territory where a central authority
has sovereign control over its borders and its territory.
If the state ceases to exist, as it has in Liberia and, to a
certain extent, in Sierra Leone and Somalia, maybe some places
in the Balkans, where whole regions of territory are basically
run by groups that could only be described as bandits or warlords,
that's a phenomenon the world has not had to deal with for hundreds
So, what are the instruments available to deal with those areas?
... This is way beyond the mandate of the work I was hired for
by the United Nations as an arms trafficking expert, but the
United Nations can send mediators and organize peace conferences,
but the main players are representatives of states, and they
have no instruments to deal with places like that. ...
would you explain to viewers in the United States why they should
be concerned about the disintegration of societies in West Africa
and arms coming from Eastern Europe?
Well, if you mean, Does it have a direct impact on their lives?
I think probably not. Certainly not in the short term. In the
long term, the disintegration of states in West Africa may be,
let's say, an example of what could happen in the inner cities
of big countries elsewhere -- with the massive availability
of weapons, with economies being liberalized more and more and
more, with the private sector becoming stronger, and state overseeing
bodies becoming weaker.
This is a phenomenon of which we are only seeing the extremes
in Africa. And there it leads to the disintegration of society.
States like the United States or states in Europe or elsewhere,
of course, have a much longer tradition and do still exert control
over their entire territories. But still, I think these extremes
can teach us something about the wider phenomenon of what is
happening if you let private market forces -- granted, in their
lowest possible form in conflict zones in Africa -- if you just
let them play themselves out without any state control, this
is what might happen.
This is just an example of what may happen if you allow weapons
to proliferate the way they do in some bigger cities in heavily
populated areas. Sometimes, the state does decide to withdraw.
There are many examples of megacities worldwide, including in
the United States, where the police consider some areas no-go.
This is the withdrawal of the state. What you see happening
there is a disintegrated part of society where, indeed, the
social fabric completely breaks down. And the only ways people
communicate and transact with each other is through intimidation
GRADUAL APPROACH TO STOPPING THE WEAPONS FLOW
stop the weapons from getting into these war zones, should it
or could it be a matter of law enforcement just having the will
to go after these middlemen, to make an example of them, put
some of them away and stop the trade?
Yes, it could. It's a matter of law enforcement but also a political
decision, of course, to follow and strongly implement decisions
that are taken at the United Nations level -- in this case,
to implement them in national legislatures, which is done automatically
in most countries. But, then, to really go after the wrong-doers,
On the other hand, I don't have the feeling that the most sharply
developed intelligence agencies, let's say, in Western countries
or in the former Soviet Union, that they know all that much
about what is going on in Africa. Africa is not high on the
agenda. There are no classrooms full of analysts and secret
agents looking into the situation in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
These countries are just not important enough on the national
agendas of those states, I'm afraid. I don't think that in all
those cases that we have mentioned, even a big country like
the United States would have all the elements necessary to pursue
someone in court.
U.S. State Department report in July of this year basically
said "name and shame" has done nothing to impede the flow of
weapons: that this is a matter of law enforcement, that all
we're really doing is telling people what they already know.
We know who is out there doing it, and we're not really accomplishing
It's true to a certain extent. Even when we met with some of
Victor Bout's [associates, they really challenged us. ... "Well,
then, catch us. Ground one of our arms trafficking planes."
The man I'm referring to is Pavel Popov in Moldova, who had
set up sort of a front company for Victor Bout to issue false
flight plans for him. He basically had the idea that U.N. investigators
could arrest people and ground planes and all that, which is
not the case. Even so, he was very defiant, saying, "Well, if
you know everything, then why don't you catch us?"
They basically laugh about it. As long as the United Nations
takes action, puts experts in the field and issues reports,
and the countries where these individuals are doing their business
do not act, then, indeed, few things can be done. Of course,
the United Nations is only as powerful as U.N. member states
allow it to be. And the United Nations, as such, cannot arrest
people, has no subpoena rights or whatever. It's up to the individual
member states to act.
must be very frustrating.
No, it's not. On the other hand, we do make it more expensive
for arms dealers. We should not have the idea that we're out
there writing a report that's going to end the war or stop the
whole problem. It's much more complicated than that. That would
be being a bit over-ambitious, I think.
But, we can do some things about it. We do know that these reports
wake states up. Intelligence agencies may start working on the
elements that are given in those reports. NGOs in many countries
may pick something up and do their own research, or run them
through their national media and put some pressure on their
national parliaments. So, reports like ours can have many different
consequences that do have some impact. But, indeed, there are
very, very few cases of people actually caught in the act, where
information obtained by the United Nations leads to people being
questioned and convicted. Very few cases.