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.
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.