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Beyond Viktor Bout: How to stop the next 'Lord of War'

Viktor Bout, the world's most notorious arms trafficker escaped trial for decades by exploiting a patchwork of international laws on arms trade. His case underscores the need for an international Arms Trade Treaty to regulate arms sales and hold "merchants of death" accountable.

By Daryl G. Kimball and Xiaodon Liang / October 19, 2011


The world’s most notorious arms trafficker, Viktor Bout, finally went to trial in a US court in New York this month. US officials say that Mr. Bout – the real-life villain depicted in the Hollywood movie “Lord of War” – has sold weapons to some of the most ruthless groups, fueling the horrendous conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

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Later, Bout’s network of cargo aircraft allegedly flew mass shipments of small arms to the Taliban during their push to consolidate control over Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Those guns likely remain in the hands of insurgents targeting US and allied soldiers.

Amazingly, his trial in New York will not involve charges resulting from any of those reported activities, much of which violated numerous UN Security Council-imposed arms embargoes. Because of serious gaps in international law, all of these illicit dealings will be off limits. And as reprehensible as Bout’s reported exploits are, he is just a small part of a bigger problem. His case underscores the urgent need for stronger national and international efforts to curb illicit gun running and conventional weapons proliferation.

In New York, Bout faces four conspiracy charges stemming from a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation conducted in 2007 and 2008. According to the indictment, Bout agreed to sell surface-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, assault rifles, explosives, and ammunition to DEA agents posing as buyers affiliated with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a US-designated terrorist organization.

However, Bout has been accused of being responsible for much more. International research groups say that Bout first became involved in the illicit arms trade at the end of the cold war, arming warring factions in Mozambique and Angola and in Iraq. Introduced by one buyer to the next, he would later sell the weapons that supplied some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

But Bout isn’t on trial for any of that, because, for many years, he was able to exploit loopholes in the patchwork system of national and international laws on the arms trade.

For example, from early to mid-1997, Belgian law enforcement officials discovered that many of Bout’s airplanes were reportedly flying out of Ostend Airport empty, picking up arms in Bulgaria or Romania, and then flying these to Rwanda, in violation of a UN arms embargo. However, Belgian officials could not arrest Bout because the planes were registered in Liberia, and Belgium did not have jurisdiction over foreign-registered planes when they left Belgium.


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