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.

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.

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.

These jurisdictional loopholes not only made it difficult for authorities to apprehend Bout, but they also mean that the admissible facts during his trial will be limited to those directly relevant to the conspiracy charges associated with the alleged FARC arms deal.

Holding arms traffickers accountable is hard to do in the absence of effective national laws that regulate arms sales and criminalize unauthorized brokering. And the problem is not limited to the Bout case.

According to a new Oxfam analysis of 70 arms trafficking cases pursued by US authorities, it is clear that prosecutions are regularly frustrated by the absence in key countries of laws regulating international arms transfers and brokering.

US prosecutors often rely on a 1996 amendment to the Arms Export Control Act that requires US nationals involved in arms brokering, here and abroad, to register with the Department of State. But if arms smugglers are not US nationals and do not conduct activities on US soil, they are, in effect, untouchable. Consequently, US authorities must rely on partner countries to indict and prosecute arms dealers. Many nations, however, simply do not have the laws in place to do that.

In fact, only 73 countries report having basic regulations on the international transfer of small arms and light weapons; only 56 countries have laws criminalizing the illegal transfer of these arms; and only 52 have laws regulating arms brokering activities. According to Oxfam, only about half of those countries have real criminal penalties, either in the form of imprisonment or fines associated with those crimes.

The first step towards addressing these gaps is the creation of common sense international standards for regulation of the arms trade. The United States and other leading nations must seize the opportunity to do so at the upcoming UN conference in July 2012 to negotiate a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Without the legally binding commitments that could be established through the ATT, there will continue to be insufficient pressure on individual countries to enact national legislation to deal with illicit arms trafficking.

A strong ATT would require all countries to enact laws regulating the brokering of conventional weapons and criminalizing breaches of those regulations. These regulations should apply to all major military equipment and small arms that are transferred across international borders. An ATT should require states to identify criteria for denying international arms transfers, including human rights, security, and development concerns. This would help create a tougher system of controls that would allow the US and its partners to more easily pursue "merchants of death" like Bout.

Certainly, stronger international laws won’t deter some of the world’s most ruthless arms traffickers, but it will make their work harder – and it will be easier for countries, especially the US to hold them accountable. An Arms Trade Treaty would lay the groundwork for preventing the transfer of the deadliest weapons to nations mired in conflict, crime, or poverty. As the US authorities prosecuting Viktor Bout know, it is impossible to enforce laws and international norms of behavior that simply do not exist.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director and Xiaodon Liang is a research assistant with the independent Arms Control Association.

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