November 8, 2011 | Kathi Austin

From the Viktor Bout Trial to a New Arms Trade Treaty

In a luxury hotel conference room in Bangkok, with his bodyguard keeping watch outside the door, the international arms trafficker Viktor Bout wrote out a purchase order: AK-47s, C4 explosives, surface-to-air missiles, fragmentation grenades, mortars, sniper rifles, and millions of rounds of ammunition. The quantities were astonishing.

This list, in Bout’s own handwriting, along with his voice on secretly recorded surveillance tapes, was enough evidence for American and Thai authorities to sweep in and arrest Viktor Bout on March 6, 2008. Bout was subsequently extradited to the U.S. to stand trial in a Manhattan Federal courtroom.

Viktor Bout in the custody of DEA agents on Nov. 16, 2011 after being extradited to the United States

Last week an American jury convicted Viktor Bout on four counts of conspiracy, including conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to a designated terrorist organization. Due to be sentenced on February 8, 2012, Bout faces the possibility of life imprisonment. A milestone for justice has been achieved with the termination of Bout’s lucrative business of war.

A poster boy for the illegal gunrunner, Viktor Bout allegedly supplied hot spots around the globe, including Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Colombia and Afghanistan. Operating for nearly two decades, Bout’s spheres of operations have stretched from Belgium to the United Arab Emirates, from Bulgaria to South Africa.

In fact, Bout was considered so prolific in plying his lethal wares that the former Soviet military officer earned himself the moniker, “Merchant of Death.” The Nicholas Cage character in Lord of War is loosely based on Bout.

What helped make Bout successful was his connection to the ubiquitous arms stockpiles of former Warsaw Pact suppliers and a vast fleet of air transport companies that required minimum red tape. Using unsafe airplanes — many actually fell from the sky — and paying his Russian-speaking aircrews very little, Bout undercut others out of business. As a result, Bout cheaply weaponized entire armies, militias, warlords, criminal networks, and sadly, child soldiers, regardless of who their intended victims might be.

As a human rights investigator, I first came across Viktor Bout in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. At the time, I was documenting arms flows that violated a United Nations embargo in the region. Bout’s name kept popping up as a weapons peddler trying to get in on the action along the Rwanda-Congo border.

All too soon, Bout had built his lucrative empire off the suffering of millions during the two Congo Wars, before moving on to initiate conflict in places like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Bout was finally apprehended in Thailand in 2008, trying to sell an entire arsenal of weapons to American law enforcement agents posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Sadly, a permissive environment that prevailed in the past two decades enabled small arms and light weapons — of the variety Bout supplied — to become the real weapon of mass destruction of the post-Cold War era.

Strong national laws, real enforcement of U.N. arms embargoes, and a global control to regulate and monitor the transnational arms trade — these were the missing teeth that could have broken the impunity and held war profiteers accountable. The absence of these legal tools has contributed to the many AK-47s and surface-to-air missiles loosely circulating from one conflict zone to the next.

It would all be tragic if it weren’t for a parallel story — the opportunity seized by survivors, local non-governmental organizations, aid workers, human rights investigators, disarmament activists, concerned governments and journalists to create a narrative counterweight. The callousness of the arms traffickers is not to be the last word.

From the hot irons of war over the past two decades, a unique esprit de corps and bold intellectual work has been forged with the goal of modernizing law to keep pace with that of the weapons peddlers.

While traffickers such as Bout had been enjoying the adventurous lifestyle, macho image, and grace conferred upon them by high-powered clients, peace advocates have persistently built the momentum to close legal loopholes and create stronger deterrents.

Already some countries — though far too few — have passed new legislation to regulate arms traders who broker weapons across domestic borders.

The pivotal moment is about to come. In July 2012, the nations of the world will gather at U.N. headquarters in New York to negotiate a precedent-setting Arms Trade Treaty. If they deliver on a robust and comprehensive international regime to regulate and monitor global arms flows, another milestone for accountability and justice will be achieved.

During Viktor Bout’s trial, I went to the courthouse every day. It was one way of reconciling myself to the tremendous loss I still feel for those I knew who were killed because of an arms trafficker’s greed. But it was also to draw strength since more work looms ahead to put future Viktor Bouts out of business.

I believe the story ends well. The unchecked merchants of death are about to face a new reality. The unbounded enthusiasm and dogged determination of peace advocates around the world will not let up until an effective Arms Trade Treaty is securely in place.

Kathi Austin is a former Arms Trafficking Expert for the United Nations and Executive Director of the Conflict Awareness Project. The opinions expressed in this article are her own, and do not necessarily represent Women, War & Peace.

October 18, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

First Woman Protester Killed in Yemen

A 20-year-old woman was shot in the head by a government sniper during a protest march in Taiz, Yemen on Sunday. According to opposition activists, she was the first woman to be killed in the anti-regime demonstrations that have swept the country. On Monday, thousands of women responded with a protest in the capital, Saana. Activists say at least 861 people have been killed and 25,000 wounded since the protests erupted.

October 7, 2011 | Pamela Hogan

Leymah Gbowee Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

I’m overjoyed by today’s news that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and to pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

Leymah Gbowee’s visionary leadership of the women’s movement that played a transformative role in bringing peace to Liberia has been a core inspiration for the five-part series I have been part of creating, with Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, for the past three years. How fitting that the premiere of Women, War & Peace takes place next Tuesday, just days after this extraordinary news.

The Nobel committee’s statement that “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society” touches the very heart of the series.

Women are heavily targeted in today’s wars, but Leymah insists that we grasp one basic truth: that these women are not victims but courageous, resourceful survivors. And if we include their voices and their ideas in the quest for peace and justice, the peace will be more sustainable and the world will be more stable.

Here’s Leymah in her own words at a recent launch event for the series, telling her story of survival, revolution and victory:

October 3, 2011 | Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon gives her picks.

What’s Your Favorite Book on Women in War?

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, selects her five favorite books featuring women in war for The Browser. Do you agree with her picks? Any to add?

September 22, 2011 | Wazhma Frogh

Is Peace in Afghanistan Possible?

Today was the first of the official three-day period of national mourning following the death of the Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former President of Afghanistan and, until meeting his untimely end, chairman of the country’s High Peace Council. While there was no war or fighting going on the streets, there was nothing that could be described as peace either.

Leaving my home in Kabul this morning, the streets were not as crowded as usual, but were full of armed men. They were shouting at each other and at every pedestrian who ventured near the black- windowed bullet-proof vehicles carrying high-ranking officials to Rabbani’s funeral. On one of the main roads in the Qalai Fatullah section of Kabul, a group of armed uniformed soldiers beat a taxi driver who subsequently caused an accident while running away in panic.

In the wake of Rabbani’s assassination, almost every political voice in Afghanistan has claimed that peace is no longer possible. I, however, as a young Afghan woman who is tired of the patriarchy and power struggles in this country, believe that peace is always possible — but we need to move from political deal-making towards a citizen-led national dialogue for peace building.

That dialogue needs to begin with healing the open wounds resulting from years of civil war and Taliban oppression. The grievances caused by the enormous suffering of so many Afghans during those years were never adequately addressed. Leaving the wounds to fester throughout the last decade has contributed to deepening distrust and added fresh wounds alongside these open sores. Until Afghans come together, from all walks of life, from every province and village to admit their responsibility in creating injustice and seek forgiveness, Afghanistan will not be peaceful. Our wounds will continue to fester while our neighbors turn us against each other and against our country.

Afghan women are the untapped and unexplored power that can facilitate this healing process. Afghan women have not waged civil wars or oppressed their people. Instead, they became widows of a war they never wanted, took responsibility for the family and children, and used the Afghan custom of Nanawati to end animosity between tribes. If Afghan women were provided the opportunity to lead a national dialogue, they could bring people together in a way that men haven’t done. My experience in working and dealing with Afghan women is that we have better access and dialog even among disputing tribes, better information on the causes of conflict. Afghan women are more willing to end the violence because we have more to lose in wars than anyone else.

Women in Afghanistan had to fight to have representation in the High Peace Council. They have been able to make headway where the men could not. For example, some of the women at High Peace Council were able to make contacts with some of the families of one of the armed opposition groups and were welcomed in their homes. Not one of the men in the High Peace Council has been able to enter the house of an armed opposition group commander.

I am sure the world remembers how South African women went around the country uniting every South African in favor of their new Constitution at the end of apartheid. It was actually the South African women who prevented a blood bath by giving everyone a voice during the Constitution-making process.

An opportunity for Afghan women could mean an opportunity for peace.

Wazhma Frogh is a gender and development specialist and human rights activist and recipient of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award Afghanistan.

August 29, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

New Allegations of Rape and Abuse Under Qaddafi

With rebels now in control of the Libyan capital and Qaddafi on the run, a slew of new stories are emerging about rape, sexual assault and physical abuse at the hands of Qaddafi, his sons and his henchmen.

  • Five of Qaddafi’s female bodyguards went public with allegations of rape by their former boss. The women were part of the “Amazonian Guard –” an elite group supposedly handpicked by Qaddafi and forced to take an oath of chastity (with an exception, perhaps, for the strongman himself).
  • The U.K.’s Daily Mail profiles Nisreen Mansour al Forgani, a 19-year-old member of Qaddafi’s all-female militia who admits to having executed as many as 11 suspected rebel prisoners. The young woman says that she was sexually abused and forced to carry out the killings by senior members of Qaddafi’s military.
  • A nanny who cared for two of Qaddafi’s grandchildren says she was beaten, starved, and had boiling water poured over her head by Qaddafi’s daughter-in-law Aline, wife of his playboy son Hannibal. The woman’s scalp and face were covered in scars, with clear liquid oozing from an open wound on her head at the time of the interview, according to the CNN reporter who spoke to her.
  • A Libyan-American brain surgeon who joined the rebel forces in Libya and was captured in Ajdabiya recalls a young pro-Qaddafi soldier whispering in his ear: “My friends and I are ­going to rape you tonight.” His ear. The threat of rape turned out to be an empty one, but the man was allegedly beaten by both his captors and later, prison guards.
  • Amnesty International finds evidence of abuse on both sides, with rebels physically assaulting both pro-Qaddafi prisioners and foreign migrant workers, and Qaddafi forces raping inmates — including young boys — at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim Prison.

The use of rape as a weapon in Libya has been a concern since Iman al Obeidy burst into a Tripoli Hotel room and attempted to tell foreign journalists that she had been sexually abused by Qaddafi forces. In May, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said that he was looking into allegations that Qaddafi troops were found with Viagra in their pockets, a sign of pre-meditated sexual assault. But at the time, neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International found evidence of systematic use of rape.

August 5, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

Can Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra Unite a Divided Nation?

Thailand’s parliament elected Yingluck Shinawatra as the country’s first female prime minister on Friday. A political novice, Yingluck must prove that she’s more than the puppet of her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and now lives in exile in Dubai.

The 44-year-old businesswoman now faces the task of leading a deeply divided country that has endured years of violence and upheaval since her brother’s ouster.

Yingluck has said that despite her inexperience, as a woman, she’s qualified for the job of uniting the country.

“Females are the symbols of nonviolence,” she told reporters. “Another thing I would say is that a female is more compromising. A female can talk with anyone easily.”

Whether or not her status as a woman can really help her lead a fractured nation, it certainly makes her part of an elite club — Yingluck will be one of only 18 female heads of state anywhere in the world. But is her election a victory for women’s equality? Probably not.

“The connection between herself and a powerful man is the determining factor,” Chalidaporn Songsamphan, gender studies expert at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, told Global Post. Like other female leaders in the region — Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — it’s family name, not gender, that’s her main qualification.


July 29, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

Iman al-Obeidi Reaches U.S.

Iman al-Obeidi, the woman whose alleged gang rape by Qaddafi troops helped draw the world’s attention to the possible use of rape as a weapon in Libya, has made her way to the U.S.

After fleeing house arrest in Tripoli, Obeidi reached Tunisia in early May, moved on to Qatar, was deported back to Libya, then spent 54 days in a refugee facility in Romania before arriving in New York on Wednesday night. Obeidi was granted asylum in the U.S., CNN reports, and has left New York for an undisclosed location where she plans to settle. She is not yet making media appearances, but spoke to one CNN producer, through whom she passed her thanks to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Here’s Obeidi telling the story of her brutal rape to the international media gathered at a Tripoli hotel, a video that both made her a cause celebre and landed her in jail:

Page 1 of 3123