WOMEN WAR & PEACE | PBS

From the Viktor Bout Trial to a New Arms Trade Treaty

November 8, 2011 | Kathi Austin

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.

Comments

  1. Swiss_Observer says:

    I’m in Geneva and studying at the Graduate Institute here. This is the academic home of the Small Arms Survey, and the source of most of the statistical facts on guns on this website. It should be noted that ‘small arms’ includes mostly “ordinary” arms like single shot bolt action hunting rifles and shotguns and handguns. Belt fed machine guns or surface to air missles should not be jumbled into the same category. Doing so will only raise legitimate concerns by NGOs like the USA’s National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation and will guarantee a legislative show-stopper with repasect to American treaty ratification? Do you and your like minded colleagues really want this? The US is a major source country indeed, but advocacy of comprehensive national registration and other policies championed as part of the Arms Trade Treaty will result in a failure and opptunity lost.

    Tone down and be sensitive to the legal right to own guns for defense in America. Recognize that things like de jure or de facto national gun registration are illegal in the USA too. Finally, realize that the fundamental global assumption of policy advocates at the United Nations (and the Small Arms Survey) with respect to gun control is that more guns = more violent homocide.

    On this last point, I want to point out that this assumption is flat out wrong in the USA. Gun violence in the USA has dropped while gun ownership has risen over the past 20 years according to recent FBI and Gallup polls.

    I attended a talk last month by the Small Arms Survey’s senior researcher Mr. Nicholas Florquin. His presentation involved many of the stats you cited above but was challenged by a director of executive education here regarding the nature of the small arms among civilians. Mr. Florquin acknowledged a clarification was needed in the Small Arms Survey, which PBS apparently relied upon exclusively for reporting and for the graphics above.

    In short, PBS and the Small Arms Survey WRONGLY suggest that fully automatic belt-fed machine guns and RPGs around he world are mostly in civilian hands. This is false and not supported by data or news media observation. These kinds of weapons are actually classified as “light weapons” by the Small Arms Survey, but were lumped into an imprecise catchall “small-arms” term in a way that grossly mischaracterizes the nature of civilian ownership of “small arms.” In in conflict zones, where the scourge of “light weapons” such as machine guns and RPGs is greatest, such weapons can be observed in the hands of irregular combatants, militias of various sorts, or state militaries. These groups by definition are NOT civilians. The guns that are mainly in the hands of civilians around the world can be more accurately clarified as “ordinary” rifles, pistols, or shotguns.

    For illustrative purposes, just take a look at pictures of the guns that are being “bought-back” from civlians or confiscated by UN sponsored programs in Africa. These are single shot hunting guns or self defense guns, not machine guns and RPGs. The UN’s disarmament agency and its partner advocacy organizations’ websites show these pictures with evident pride.

    If I were an American gun-owning viewer, I’d be a bit alarmeuns). The UK is a primary sponsor nation promoting/advocating for the Arms Trade Treaty.

    • Swiss_Observer says:

      I had a browser error and my comment didn’t post correctly. The revised comment is below.

  2. Swiss_Observer says:

    I’m in Geneva and studying at the Graduate Institute here. This is the academic home of the Small Arms Survey, and the source of most of the statistical facts on guns on this website.

    It should be noted that ‘small arms’ includes mostly “ordinary” arms like single shot bolt action hunting rifles and shotguns and handguns. Belt fed machine guns or surface to air missles should not be jumbled into the same category. These more lethal arms are better categorized as ‘light weapons’ in the context of the debate. Lumping them into one giant group will only raise legitimate concerns by NGOs like the USA’s National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation and will guarantee a legislative show-stopper with repasect to American treaty ratification. Do you and your like minded colleagues really want this?

    The US is a major source country indeed, but advocacy of comprehensive national registration and other policies championed as part of the Arms Trade Treaty will result in a failure and opptunity lost.

    So tone down and be sensitive to the legal right to own guns for defense in America. Recognize that things like de jure or de facto national gun registration are illegal in the USA too. Finally, realize that the fundamental global assumption of policy advocates at the United Nations (and the Small Arms Survey) with respect to gun control is that more guns = more violent homocide.

    On this last point, I want to point out that this assumption is flat out wrong in the USA. Gun violence in the USA has dropped while gun ownership has risen over the past 20 years according to recent FBI and Gallup polls.

    When an assumption like this is shot, one needs to rethink the whole policy approach.

    Professor Levitt of the University of Chicago (author of Freakonomics too) shows in his various studies that gun control really doesn’t correlate with crime reductions in the USA. He has shown conclusively that schemes like bans and buyback programs (programs advocated and managed by the UN around the world) don’t work either. What seems smarter and more effective are policies that address behavioral solutions, alternatives, and incentives.

    Putting violent offenders in jail, increasing police presence are more likely to have an impact around the world than an arms trade treaty.

  3. Swiss_Observer says:

    I would like to extend my comments about alternative strategies and critiques to bans and controls on guns within the global problem of violence. I would like to inject the views of David Kennedy and Stephen Levitt.

    According to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Kennedy is a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He’s been working for more than 20 years on street violence in America with police departments and others. His new book is “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America.”

    In the Fresh Air interview, Kennedy all but stated that tighter gun laws and controls don’t reduce the number of guns on the street and thus the violent crime problem. His primary point is that you need to do the hard homework and analysis in a given problem community and isoloate that violent minority that drives the crime problem. You have to do basic law enforcement but do it using a social activists ethos.

    Communities and law enforcement must confront the violent 1-5 percent of the criminal groups that cause the 90% of the violence. Basically Kennedy’s strategy is to round up the violent minority based on research, and do an intervention of sorts. Show the offenders their own family, friends, respected elders, people of the community and have them listen to the community concerns about their behavior and violence.

    Then, the police basically threaten with consequences laided out in great detail right before their eyes and ears. The message: if they do any more violence, they will be arrested and basically have their lives made much more painful than they can imagine. This fusion of social outreach and hard-ball consequence is quite effective, especially on youth gang violence.

    Based on Kennedy’s interview and book, global approaches to gun controls and bans are likely to make no impact on the driving concern about violence and human security. What is necessary is local and maybe regional approaches within a country, more individual engagement and law-enforcement infrastructure and professionalism.

    Now, to complement Kennedy’s views, one must face up to the realities presented by Stephen Levitt’s research on gun controls. Levitt is a reknown Professor of Economics at University of Chicago.

    One paper of Levitt worth mentioning is Understanding “Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not.” This again was another look at the American experience, but I think a reasonable person could see some global implications if the true motivation was to end violent crime and improve human security and respect the dignity of women for example.

    Here is a qoute from the conclusion. “Four factors appear to explain the drop in crime: increased incarceration, more police, the decline of crack and legalized abortion. Other factors often cited as important factors driving the decline do not appear to have played an important role: the strong economy, changing demographics, innovative policing strategies, gun laws and increased use of capital punishment.”

    In particular, Levitt also shows that gun buy backs, a program promoted still to this day by the UN in various places, is not helpful at all. Here is a qoute on this topic:

    “Gun buy-back programs are another form of public policy instituted in the
    1990s that is largely ineffective in reducing crime. First, the guns that are typically
    surrendered in gun buy-backs are those guns that are least likely to be used in
    criminal activities. The guns turned in will be, by deŽ nition, those for which the
    owners derive little value from the possession of the guns. In contrast, those who are
    using guns in crimes are unlikely to participate in such programs. Second, because
    replacement guns are relatively easily obtained, the decline in the number of guns
    on the streetmay be smaller than the number of guns that are turned in. Third, the
    likelihood that any particular gun will be used in a crime in a given year is low.”

    So, given all this research and experience, one has to really challenge the thinking behind the approach that the United Nations is advocating with respect to small arms (civilian guns used for hunting, defense, and sport).

    Americans have a constitutional right to guns “ordinary” guns and actually have laws to protect against national registries. Gun owners are right to be alarmed unless this treaty takes a different course. The policies implied and outright championed by various supporting groups of the Arms Trade Treaty movement amount to a one-size fits all solution to the worlds problems of violence and human insecurity. To this observer, however, it looks seriously misguided and reveals an arrogance, insensitivity to the human security rights of others (to own firearms to protect themselves for example) and/or ignorance of relevant best practices in their professional domain.

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