Issue 11 - Article 13

Stoking fires with arms in Burundi

May 1, 1998
Joost Hiltermann, Arms Division, Human Rights Watch

Burundi is an example of how the unchecked and unrestricted proliferation of small arms amplifies and may engender patterns of gross human rights violations. The civil war is being fuelled by arms flowing steadily through extensive networks that deliver weapons from production line to front line. During 1995-96 Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigated these networks collecting eyewitness accounts – sometimes becoming an eyewitness itself.

The far-flung suppliers

HRW was able to document the supply of weapons by traffickers from former Warsaw Pact states to Burundi directly or through operators based in Ostend, Belgium.

Ostend therefore looms large in HRW research with, for example, the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and rail routes in and out of South Africa. A close look at these corridors has allowed the identification not only of private networks and free-lance operators, but also specific government responsibilities. The Russian Federation, China, North Korea, the US and France have provided direct military assistance or training to Burundi at a time in which the serious human rights situation in the country should have given them pause. The US and France claim that their assistance stopped in 1996. Rwanda, Tanzania and the former Zaire have allowed rebels to establish bases in their countries, and together with Angola, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda allowed their territories to be used as trans-shipment points.

Odd travelling companions: arms and relief goods

HRW’s report shows that at least 13 covert shipments of weapons (3 of which were in violation of regional or international arms embargoes) by China were delivered to Dar es Salaam. The Chinese operators tried to conceal the shipments by mis-labelling final destinations and disguising the weapons under various rubrics. “Farm implements” concealed a shipment of 152 tons of Chinese weapons delivered to Dar es Salaam destined for Burundi in 1995. That shipment also illustrates how cargoes that serve opposite purposes may end up as strange bedfellows. The weapons were loaded on the vessel ‘Shun Yi’ which was also partially chartered by the World Food Programme to carry humanitarian supplies for refugees in Central Africa. After the weapons were discovered in Dar es Salaam, government authorities prevented the cargo, including WFP’s humanitarian supplies, from being off-loaded, delaying the delivery of food aid for several months. In another case an aircraft, the ‘ELAJO’, belonging to a Belgium-based company, was impounded in August 1996, by local authorities in Goma, Zaire, after it was found to be carrying items of military clothing, destinated for Entebbe, Uganda. This was carried alongside relief goods belonging to UNHCR and NGOs CARE (Australia) and Oxfam (UK). Oxfam then exposed the company’s activities. The ‘ELAJO’ had also been involved in arms deliveries to the Rwandan former military forces and militia in Zaire, and to Burundian government forces.

Although WFP and other humanitarian agencies have set up safeguards to prevent similar occurrences, the difficulty of verifying what ‘travel companions’ share carriers with humanitarian cargoes continues to offer opportunities to traffickers. HRW recommends that humanitarian agencies strictly enforce these safeguards and abjure the use of cargo operators known to carry military material. Even if the inclusion of goods on a vessel that is also carrying military equipment does not necessarily provide the latter with a humanitarian cover, it can be perceived to be so. As a result, the humanitarian effort and its staff may come under threat. It is also recommended that lists of contract violators be made public.

A climate of impunity?

The suppliers’ activities have grown more varied and their list of clients longer. Some of the same operators who, out of Ostend, served the Rwandan combatants and were exposed by HRW in 1995, later also catered to the Burundian belligerents, as did a South African company. Similarly, a group of traffickers who in 1994 were found by the HRW investigator, to supply arms and equipment to Renamo rebels in Mozambique, was later discovered by her to be conducting business with Burundian Tutsi militia.

Crossing borders with extreme ease, the arms traffickers have truly multinational networks and pipelines. The Ostend operators, for example, reside in Belgium, collect their cargo from eastern European suppliers and deliver to clients across the world. The Chinese deals referred to were carried out mostly under the aegis of a wholly modern Sino-Tanzanian joint venture, with Tanzanian and Ugandan military forces escorting the goods to their destination.

A vicious circle

International neglect of arms trafficking and its connection with human rights violations is due in part to the failure to understand the impact of even a small supply of arms in regions such as the Great Lakes. It is also due to the reluctance of states to interfere with profitable business. But arms trafficking and abuses are perversely interlinked. Unchecked weapons supplies provide the tools of abuses. In turn, the sense of insecurity engendered by such abuses fuels a fresh demand for arms – this vicious circle continues generation after generation.

Some good news?

In December 1997 the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning arms flows to Burundi and echoing the principal recommendations of the HRW report. These include an international arms embargo against both sides in the conflict; the deployment at key airstrips and crossing points of UN or OAU military observers with the technical expertise to report on weapons’ flows; the implementation of transparency mechanisms to help track sales and acquisitions of weapons; and the reactivation of the UN International Commission of Inquiry (UNICOI) on arms trafficking in the Great Lakes, and the extension of its mandate to include Burundi. In April 1998 the Security Council reactivated UNICOI but did not extend its mandate to Burundi. NGOs are pressing to have this dangerous omission rectified.

The public exposure of the role of Ostend in the HRW report, prompted a debate in the Belgian parliament and a proposal for reform of national legislation in the Senate. The new legislation would forbid brokers and facilitators from transferring arms in contravention of Belgian national law, even if the arms in question do not pass through Belgian territory. In addition the Minister of Defence has proposed to use military experts to help trace illegally-transacted arms and spare parts. The Ministry of Cooperation and Development will host a major conference on light weapons proliferation in October 1998.

Much more needs to be done to change the climate of impunity into one of accountability. Domestic and international arms-trade controls need to be tightened. Transparency, through binding codes of conduct on arms transfers and registers for light and small weapons (RRN Newsletter 8 and news item on page 18 of this issue), should become a matter of urgency both at national and international levels. Most of all, existing laws need enforcing. With chameleon-like tactics, the traffickers have learned how to go about their business. The international community should too, and halt them.

A fuller report Stoking the Fires: Military Assistance and Arms Trafficking in Burundi, is available from HRW. A website brings together development, relief, human rights and public health NGOs to exchange information on small weapons proliferation. Contact Prep Com staff at:
Monterey Institute of International Studies
Tel: +1 (408) 647 6676


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