Dutch Arms Dealer Who Fueled Liberian Civil War Convicted
Andrew Feinstein, the author of The Shadow World, recounts the background of Guus Kouwenhoven’s involvement in arms dealing for Liberia’s civil war
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
A Dutch Court of Appeals has convicted Guus Kouwenhoven, for war crimes, sentencing him to a 19-year jail term. The Dutch timber merchant was found guilty of selling arms to the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, back in 2000 and 2002, in exchange for receiving preferential treatment for his timber company. Charles Taylor himself was convicted in 2012 by the International Tribunal for Serious War Crimes, and sentenced to 50 years in jail. The civil war in Liberia raged in the 1990s, and claimed about 150,000 lives.
To discuss this, I am joined by Andrew Feinstein whose book, “The Shadow World,” and the film, “The Shadow World,” examined the civil war in Liberia, among other issues, and the role of Charles Taylor, and the role of the arms dealers who made this, and other wars in Africa very possible.
Andrew, thank you for joining us today.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: You’re very welcome.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Andrew, give us a sense of who this arms dealer is, and what you know about him.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Well, Kouwenhoven was born in Rotterdam, in Holland. He’s 74 years of age now. He was something of an adventurer, he spent a lot of time in Africa, especially from the 1970s, involved in all sorts of business. Turns up in Liberia, where he owned a hotel known as The Africa Hotel, with a very lively bar.
And supposedly, it was frequented by many members of the government class — even before Charles Taylor was in government — so, Charles Taylor’s predecessor. And he ingratiated himself with the ruling class in Liberia. When Taylor came to power, having in somewhat controversial circumstances, escaped from jail in the United States of America.
Kouwenhoven became a friend of his through the bar in the hotel activities. And he then started to ask Taylor for timber concessions for his company known as O.T.C., The Oriental Timber Company. And it was absolutely clear that the deal was that Kouwenhoven’s company would receive timber concessions. Charles Taylor was paid huge amounts of money. So, when the first concessions were given, which amounted to giving Kouwenhoven access to 42% of all of Liberia’s timber resources. Taylor was given a down payment of $5 million, but within regular royalty payments as Kouwenhoven then exploited these concessions.
But in addition to that, and crucial to this judgment, was the fact that Kouwenhoven, in return for these concessions and the money paid to Taylor, also agreed to source and transport weaponry for Charles Taylor. Using the exact same ships that were taking timber out of Liberia to countries around the world.
Particularly a Swiss/German paper company, and a Danish company, who did business with Kouwenhoven, even after it became apparent that he was sourcing his timber from what became a war zone. So, Kouwenhoven was supplying weapons, using the same ships that he was using to get the timber out.
In addition to that, there is a huge amount of evidence that in certain key battles, and we must understand here, Sharmini, that there was civil war raging in Liberia itself for many years while Kouwenhoven was there. But also, and perhaps even more importantly, Taylor was fomenting civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, from which the notorious blood diamonds were sourced.
And it was known that Kouwenhoven was not only supplying weaponry to enable these conflicts to continue to take place, and for Taylor to gain command in these conflicts, but he was also doing things like providing cigarettes — probably smuggled cigarettes — and even drugs, to Taylor’s troops, and to some of Taylor’s proxy troops who were absolutely brutal in the nature of their violence in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Now, Kouwenhoven was arrested when he returned to Holland. He was identified by U.N. raconteurs for violating U.N. arms embargos. And he made a return to Holland in 2005, where he was in fact, arrested. And he was put on trial in 2006, and he was initially found guilty, not of being an accessory to war crimes, but rather illegal arms trafficking.
However, that sentence, which was an eight-year sentence, was overturned on appeal in Holland, and Kouwenhoven went free after just a few months in jail. And the prosecutors then appealed the appeal. And the decision that we heard about on Friday is the ultimate consequence of that. So, Kouwenhoven was re-tried starting in 2014, and last Friday was found guilty.
Now, it’s important to say that the significance of this is that it is incredibly unusual for an illicit arms dealer, for any arms dealer, in fact, to actually face prosecution, let alone jail time. So, when we wrote the first draft of the Shadow World, which was in late 2011, we recorded 502 violations of U.N. arms embargos. At that point only two of them had resulted in any illegal action.
So, this is a hugely significant development. And I think that the Dutch authorities should be praised for having followed through this process over more than 12 years, that has ultimately led to this conviction.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Andrew, what was the reason that he was put on trial in Dutch court, rather than the International Tribunal, or the International Criminal Court in The Hague?
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: It was felt that he had violated Dutch rules, in addition to U.N. arms embargos. And that there were two charges: the one was of illegal arms trafficking in terms of Dutch law. And it should be stated that Holland does have a better legal dispensation than most countries when it comes to arms trafficking. Not that there is no arms trafficking happening through Holland, but they do have stronger laws.
The International Criminal Court only deals with issues of crimes against humanity, and such related crimes. So, it doesn’t deal with crimes of arms trafficking, unless they are directly related to those crimes against humanity. So, I suppose it was felt by the authorities in Holland that they stood a better chance of getting a prosecution of Kouwenhoven in a Dutch court, than they did in the international Criminal Court, because he, himself, there is no evidence that he was engaged in crimes against humanity or war crimes.
But there has been sufficient evidence that he was an accessory to those crimes, because of the nature of the arms dealing that he was engaged in, and the nature of his relationship with Charles Taylor.
SHARMINI PERIES: And speaking of the nature of the arms deals that he was involved in, give us a sense of what they were. And here I’m trying to determine whether the punishment of 19 years actually fits the crime, in this case.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Look, in my opinion, a court sentence of 19, 20 years, is completely insufficient. If you think that this man was probably providing weaponry that could have been responsible for the deaths of, as you said earlier, well over a 100,000 people. If one takes into consequence what was happening in Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and even the spill over affects of these civil wars in New Guinea.
So, amongst the examples to give you, there were huge shipments of AK-47s that arrived at a port called Buchanan, which is where his timber operations were based. They would then be put in Jeeps from Buchanan; they would either be taken through Monrovia, the Liberian capital, past the state house, where Charles Taylor lived. Where he would personally inspect the weapons. And they would then go into a variety of conflicts.
So, to give you just one example, they would go into conflicts in Sierra Leone, and they would often go to a militia in Sierra Leone known as the RUF. Which was one of the most brutal militias across the continent of Africa. Again, to give you an example of the way in which they operated, using amongst others, weapons provided by Kouwenhoven, by the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, and also by the Russian Israeli arms dealer Leon Adminon(?) who was found not guilty of arms trafficking in Italy a number of years ago.
So, these weapons, for instance, went into the RUF who were encamped on hills, surrounding the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. Once the weapons arrived, these young soldiers — many of them who were in their early teens — most of them, and quite literally had cuts in the side of their head into which hard drugs had been pushed, directly into their blood flow.
So, for the majority of time that they were in conflict, they were in altered states of consciousness. And in one particular attack they simply rampaged through Freetown, burning most of the huts and homes that existed in the capital of Sierra Leone, murdering, raping the occupants of those houses. And the reason that they burned the houses was to create light, because there was no electricity in Freetown at the time. They then murdered literally thousands of innocent civilians. They raped and abused most females in the capital.
And then to cap it all off, in one particular attack, they raided the warehouse of an international aid agency, where a number of machetes had been collected which were going to be used for future harvesting. They took hold of these machetes. And because they heard that these international aid agencies were in instances when the RUF who were known for cutting off their victim’s hands, where the victim survived, the aid agencies were sewing their hands back on. So, the RUF rebels decided to chop off their victim’s hands, and take their hands back into Liberia with them, in sacks.
So, these are the sorts of things that the weapons of people like Guus Kouwenhoven made possible in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
So, to say is 19 years sufficient? No, it’s not. Kouwenhoven is a 74-year-old man. He undoubtedly has the financial resources to continue to appeal this new conviction to an even higher court in Holland. It is just my hope that at some point he spends the last years of his life in jail.
But it remains a very small punishment, for what were quite incomprehensible and indefensible crimes.
SHARMINI PERIES: Andrew there’s so much more for us to discuss about this case, and cases like this, where this temptation exists for business people to get involved in the arms trade.
But we’ve run out of time, and I wish, and hope you can join us in the future, to continue this discussion. I also know you’re tight for time today. So, thank you so much for joining us today.
ANDREW FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.