A Swedish research institute that tracks illegal arms and narcotics trade has established the world's first Internet-based information clearinghouse to help stop humanitarian and peacekeeping organizations from hiring air cargo carriers suspected of trafficking illicit goods. 

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, better known as SIPRI, launched a pioneering information website after reporting more than 90 percent of global air cargo carriers accused of trafficking illicit goods to and from conflict zones, have also been contracted by U.N. agencies, European Union and NATO member states, defense contractors, and leading humanitarian organizations to transport aid, peacekeepers, and equipment.

SIPRI says in Africa, air transport companies named in U.N. Sanctions Committee reports as having made illegal arms shipments to Angola, Chad, Congo Kinshasa, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, have all been hired to deliver humanitarian aid or to provide logistical support for various peacekeeping operations.

SIPRI Project Leader Hugh Griffiths tells VOA the new website, EthicalCargo.org, is an attempt to raise awareness of these companies and to change a long-established business model.  

"The key word is 'business', because these gentlemen, who own the companies named in arms trafficking-related reports, are simply businessmen," said Griffiths. "And for many years, whether it was a lack of awareness or because there were not many companies available on offer or willing to fly to conflict zones, the only criteria of humanitarian aid and peacekeeping organizations was one of price.  So, that meant ethical considerations, moral considerations just did not come into the picture."

In addition to trafficking arms and narcotics, some air cargo companies used by humanitarian organizations are also said to be  playing a key role in the extraction and transfer of precious minerals, particularly from Congo Kinshasa.  Home to one-third of the world's cobalt and one-tenth of its copper, diamonds, coltan, tin ore, and gold, Congo Kinshasa is hosting a number of resource-driven local conflicts that have involved air cargo carriers.

Griffiths says he hopes the SIPRI-administered website will help humanitarian agencies and peacekeeping missions adopt a logistics program that encourages air cargo companies to be ethically responsible.

"We are not recommending banning anyone," he said. "We are seeking to transform company behavior through a coordinated, united approach so that the global humanitarian aid and peace support communities really begin thinking about who they contract their logistics with in conflict zones and how they can make them behave better, in accordance with values focusing on respect for human rights, anti-corruption, transparency, accountability, and good governance."

The most famous alleged arms dealer in the air cargo business is Viktor Bout, who, in the 1990s, is believed to have shipped huge amounts of arms to a number of war-torn countries in Africa while under contract with the United Nations, and the United States among others.  Nick-named "The Merchant of Death," Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008.