Over the past weeks two cases of suspicious arms transit attracted international media attention. The first was the accidental catch in Finland of 69 Patriot missiles on board of the British-registered Thor Liberty in late December 2011. According to the bill of lading the ship was on its way to Shanghai, China from the German port of Emden. Heavy storms had forced it to stop in Kotka, Finland, where officials were alarmed by the contents and its destination – China is under an EU arms embargo – and arrested the Ukrainian captain and his first mate. Within days the case turned out to be an example of very sloppy paperwork, as the missile consignment turned out to be an official German government sale to the government of South Korea, with the rest of the shipment being anchor chains and paper machine parts for China. You would think that a government-to-government arms deal would be dealt with more professionally and that the German customs would already have raised questions concerning the bill of lading at the time of departure.
At least the Finns were taking their job more seriously. Much more serious than their Cypriot colleagues a few days later. Just after Finland had cleared the Thor Liberty to continue its trip, on 10 January the Saint Vincent flagged Chariot cargo-ship docked in the harbor of Limassol, Cyprus, again following bad weather. The ship was reportedly carrying between 35 and 60 tons of munitions and explosives bound for the port of Latakia in Syria, where thousands of people have been killed since March in a government crackdown on dissent. The ammunition was sent by Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned arms exporting company.
Again, Syria is a banned destination for EU arms exports since May 2011 and this time there was no doubt about the quality of the Russian paperwork. Enough reason for the Cypriot authorities to be as thorough as their Finnish colleagues and to arrest the captain and confiscate the ammunition.
Instead they didn’t even check, because, as the government said, “it was unable to physically check the four containers on board due to a lack of space to maneuver, but after consultations with the owners, [who apparently ‘promised’ to deliver the problematic cargo to Turkey instead – FS] the vessel was given the green light.”
It is mind blowing how the Cypriots have been willing to accept the owner’s assurances about the destination change and allow the ship to refuel. The compromise has also infuriated Turkey, which does not even accept cargo vessels directly from Cyprus, and in addition is currently one of the fiercest opponents of the Syrian regime. Cyprus must have known that chances that the ship would still go to Syria were extremely high. Several sources have meanwhile assured that the Chariot has indeed reached its original destination Syria.
However, a Cypriot government spokesman explained that “the rules and decisions of the Council of the European Union governing restrictive measures in relation to the situation in Syria were taken into account. It was ascertained no EU measures were violated”.
Several campaigners on arms trade are not so sure about that, and for that reason a number of European organisations are currently pushing their governments to ask the Cypriots to clarify their handling of this case with regards to the EU arms embargo against Syria. And, if needed, to close loopholes in transit and embargo regulations to prevent similar cases from happening in the future.
[FS, 17 Jan 2012]
PS 13 February 2012: Meanwhile both Dutch and UK governments have replied to written questions raised by MPs. Both governments indeed consider the Cypriot handling was in breach of the EU arms embargo against Syria.