UN orders ship searches off Somalia to find weapons, charcoal

The United Nations Security Council has authorized naval inspections of ships off Somalia’s coast and beyond suspected of carrying illegal weapons and charcoal, a commodity that generates millions of dollars a month in revenue for militants linked to al-Qaeda.

Thirteen of the council’s 15 members voted weekend in favor of the text, while Russia and Jordan abstained. The resolution orders “strict implementation of the arms embargo on Somalia and the charcoal ban” to inspect vessels bound for Somalia, in its territorial waters and on the high seas, including in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.

The goal is to improve implementation of the Security Council’s 2012 ban on the direct or indirect importing of charcoal from Somalia, which is burned for fuel and has been a major source of funding for al-Shabaab, the militant group that has been fighting the Somali government for at least seven years.

At the same time, the resolution extended a partial easing of the arms embargo against the East African country for 12 months to help boost the capabilities of the government’s security forces.

Somalia’s illegal charcoal trade, weapons flow and corruption have continued unabated since the 2012 ban, a group of UN monitors said in a 461-page report this month. Charcoal exports to Gulf states are valued at a minimum of $250 million a year and “could be much more, given that the group may not have identified all shipments,” according to the report.

Al-Shabaab militants have long relied on trees that are illegally chopped down and then charred to produce charcoal, using the revenue from selling it to Gulf Arab states to fund operations and pay their recruits.

Jordan, which represents Arab nations’ interests on the Security Council, didn’t vote in favor of the resolution because it may allow its abuse for “political aims” that would threaten maritime trade in the “most sensitive areas” of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, Mahmoud D. Hmoud, a Jordanian diplomat, told the Security Council today.

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, questioned the veracity of the UN monitoring group’s findings and expressed Russia’s traditional aversion to sanctions, “which are a measure of last resort.”

“The true road to solving problems in the Horn of Africa is though multifaceted dialogue between regional players,” Churkin told the Security Council.

Matt Bryden, the former coordinator of the UN monitoring group, said “Russia and the former Soviet Union have consistently been the principal source of armaments in the Somali conflict, usually via transfers to other states in the region.”

“Russia has responded very cautiously to UN monitors’ requests for information concerning the circumstances of arms transfers that may have indirectly — and through no fault of the Russian Federation — ended up in Somalia,” Bryden, who now runs Sahan Research, a Horn of Africa policy center, and is based in Nairobi, Kenya, said in an e-mail.


Somali government forces, backed by African Union soldiers, have made gains against al-Shabaab since forcing the Islamist fighters to withdraw from Mogadishu three years ago. About 70 percent of areas previously controlled by the insurgents have been liberated, according to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud.

The government has repeatedly asked the European Union’s anti-piracy mission, known as EU Navfor, to expand its mandate to help curb the trade in illegal charcoal, Somali National Security Adviser Abdirahman Sheikh Issa said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The trade is a “lethal weapon” hindering peace and security in the region.

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