Dutch timber baron and arms dealer Guus Kouwenhoven was recently sentenced to 19 years imprisonment for illegal arms trading and complicity in war crimes in Liberia and Guinea. This is a rare example of a foreign crook, masquerading as a businessman as they too often do, actually being held accountable for the damage they have wreaked on the African continent.
Ironically it’s Africa’s misfortune that it is vastly rich in natural wealth. It has an abundance of oil, iron ore, diamonds, gold, copper tantalum, tin, rubber and timber - strategic resources that the world needs. It also possesses those that the world simply wants, like ivory, rhino horn and, until not that long ago, the bloodiest resource of all: slaves.This means that for centuries Africa has attracted the wrong sort of foreign interest - colonialism, multinational companies and carpetbaggers alike, ranging from Belgium’s King Leopold and his explorer friend Henry Morton Stanley, to the modern day buccaneers; losers, opportunists and often criminals who could play the big men in Africa, like Mark Thatcher. Guus Kouwenhoven was one of these.
In the 1990s, Kouwenhoven ran Hotel Africa in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, a magnet for the country’s elite and those who wanted to profit from them. But his real notoriety began when, at the behest of his political patron, then president and now war criminal Charles Taylor, he acquired vast forest concessions and set up two logging companies. One of these was Liberia’s largest, the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), which Taylor called his ‘pepperbush’ because it was especially precious to him. And so began Kouwenhoven’s illegal plunder of Liberia’s forests.
When the UN Security Council sanctioned Liberia’s diamond trade in 2001, the timber trade became Taylor’s main revenue generator. The ships that took the timber from Liberia brought arms in, in contravention of a UN arms embargo. This supplied Taylor’s brutal regime with both the money and logistics he needed to wage his wars in Sierra Leone and at home.
Responding to a request for help from Liberian NGO activist Silas Siakor, Global Witness entered into a covert partnership with his organisation. I took part in the first of what became many investigations in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and in the main markets for Liberian timber in China and Europe. Silas and his colleagues carried out a forensic and highly dangerous investigation of the Liberian logging industry, and OTC in particular. We couldn’t go there – Charles Taylor already had us in his sights.
Our subsequent campaign with Silas played a significant role in getting the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Liberian timber imports in May 2003, thereby cutting Taylor’s means of waging war. By August, Taylor had fled into exile in Nigeria and was subsequently convicted of planning, aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone, for which he is serving a 50 year sentence.
In a far-sighted move, of a kind that many European and other countries would do well to follow, the Netherlands began the prosecution of Kouwenhoven in 2005, and so began a convoluted legal process which eventually culminated in his conviction last month.
Kouwenhoven is far from the only businessman to break laws in Africa or elsewhere, but as far as we know he is the only one to have been held accountable for a crime of this magnitude.
This begs a question: if Kouwenhoven is complicit in war crimes, which he now seems set to appeal, where does that leave companies that purchased his timber in full knowledge of its links with Taylor and arms trafficking? Global Witness, Greenpeace and others had written to many of the timber buyers - like Swiss German Company Danzer, and one of the world’s largest timber traders, the Danish company Dalhoff, Larsen and Horneman (DLH) informing them of the role of timber in the Liberian conflict. The UN Panel of Experts on Liberia also documented the timber for arms trade in their reports to the Security Council, and the issue was widely covered in the press. President Taylor's own spokesperson confirmed in a 2003 media interview, "It is true that, as Global Witness has said in its report, revenues from Liberia's logging industry had been used to import weapons recently despite the UN arms embargo...” Yet these companies continued to export Liberian timber right up until sanctions were imposed.
These companies are just one chequebook removed from Kouwenhoven and his complicity in the destruction wrought on Liberia, its people and its natural resources, yet there has never been a case brought against them. They have never compensated Liberia for the damage they helped cause, and yet their websites trumpet their credentials as responsible timber suppliers. Meanwhile the people of Liberia and foreign tax payers have picked up their bill, to rebuild a country that was shattered by war.
Kouwenhoven’s conviction can never make up for the agony and destruction of Liberia’s civil war, which left more than 250,000 dead, but it will hopefully act as a deterrent to those businesses that think they can act with impunity. It also sends an important message that corruption and the trade in conflict resources is not just a problem in host countries, it’s a global problem whose perpetrators and facilitators can be very close to home.