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“Merchant of Death” Arrested in Thailand

by Rachel Stohl and Doug Tuttle

On March 6, 2008 Thai police arrested the notorious arms broker Viktor Bout on charges of supplying arms and explosives to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Colombian rebel group cited by the United States as a terrorist organization. Bout is among the world’s most well-known arms brokers, credited with supplying weapons that have fueled some of the bloodiest wars in the last two decades. He has been accused of violating UN arms embargoes in Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia, selling weapons to the Taliban, Hezbollah and al Qaeda, and supporting despots and dictators around the world.

Born in what is now Tajikistan in 1967, Bout got his start in gun running as the Soviet Union began to crumble. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc left enormous stockpiles of former Soviet defense equipment poorly secured throughout the former Soviet Union. From small arms to transport planes to tanks, post Cold War arms brokers ignored ideology and sold weapons to whoever would pay for them. During this time, Bout began to assemble a fleet of aging Soviet planes that would become the backbone of his air transport business for the years to come.

Bout began shipping AK-47’s to Afghanistan, but his operation quickly grew into an array of front companies used to complete deals and avoid detection. His businesses soon moved to Africa where he supplied the weapons for many of the civil wars of the 1990s, often selling arms to both sides of a conflict. Bout’s weapons are believed to have fuelled some of the bloodiest conflicts on the continent, including Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda.

In many post Cold War conflicts, weapons have become both a sought after commodity and the currency to pay for other illicit goods, thus Bout’s planes rarely flew empty. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is known to have used Bout’s help to trade diamonds for weapons to support Sierra Leonean rebels. In Colombia, the New York Times reports that weapons intended for rebel groups are paid for with illicit drugs, which are then flown out of South America on Bout’s planes and shipped to Europe.

Not all of Bout’s dealings have been in grey or black market arms. Governments have inadvertently used Bout’s planes and companies to transport licit cargo. The United States and United Kingdom have acknowledged transporting goods to Iraq using Bout’s aircraft. Bout’s companies have also received millions of dollars in federal funds from U.S. contractors, such as FedEx, Kellogg, and Brown & Root, which have used his companies to transport military and construction supplies. Bout’s planes have also been known transport less lethal cargo such as flowers and frozen chickens.

Although many of Bouts arms deals were immoral or ill-advised, until now he had avoided arrest by carefully skirting a patchwork of national and international laws governing arms transfers and the activities of arms brokers. Soon after Bout’s arrest, the Department of Justice unsealed U.S. charges against him. According to the complaint, since November 2007 Bout agreed to sell the FARC millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and armor piercing rocket launchers. The U.S. government is seeking extradition of Bout from Thailand in order to try him in the United States.

Although Bout’s capture is remarkable and significant for halting some illicit arms deals around the world, Bout is just one of these shady dealers. Arms brokers around the world will remain a significant source of small arms and heavy conventional weapons for some of the most deplorable armies around the world. These unscrupulous actors exploit corrupt government officials, rely on front companies, forge shipping materials, and take advantage of weak national and international laws covering the activities of arms brokers. This is a profitable business; the illicit trade in small arms alone is valued at approximately $1 billion a year, with heavier conventional weapons adding to the total considerably.

Bout’s success, and that of other arms brokers, comes from the ability to get arms to places others cannot, including into internationally sanctioned or embargoed countries. And while states have a legal obligation to comply with UN arms embargoes, the international community does not have the ability or mandate to hunt down embargo busters and illegal arms traders. The United Nations only recommends that states “maintain strict regulation on the activities of private arms dealers.” Yet, words have thus far been ineffective in stopping the dealings of these arms brokers. Brokers take advantage of loopholes in national legislation, inadequate laws directed at arms transport, and a lack of cooperation between states to conduct their activities with impunity. In Bout’s case, despite an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2002 for money laundering charges, it took authorities several years and an elaborate sting operation to nab him.

Although the dangers of unregulated arms brokering and the activities of brokers like Bout are well known, few initiatives have been effective in stopping arms brokering at the national, regional, or international level.

The United Nations Program of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects simply recommends states address brokering by developing national legislation, working to understand the basic issues and scope of illicit brokering, and enhancing international cooperation. A UN Governmental Group of Experts on brokering activities that developed out of the PoA recommended that states develop adequate national legislation to address brokering, put in place measures to stop the forgery of end-use documents, and cooperate in international or bilateral enforcement efforts. The UN Firearms Protocol requires states to consider establishing a system of firearms brokering. However, none of the international actions on arms brokering are legally binding and, to date, implementation has been weak and ad hoc.

Some regions bodies have agreed to legally binding controls on brokering. For example, in Europe (the EU Common Position on the control of arms brokering), Southern Africa (the Southern African Development Community Firearms Protocol) and East Africa (Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control, and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa), legally binding regional agreements mandate that states establish national legislation on brokering and strengthen regional coordination and information sharing. Politically binding agreements also commit member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (through the Principles on the Control of Brokering in SALW), and of the Wassenaar Arrangement (through the Statement of Understanding on Arms Brokering), to similar principles.

Nationally, only 40 states have established some kind of national legislation on arms brokering. These vary in their effectiveness and sophistication, with very few covering the extraterritorial activities of arms brokers. The United States has some of the most sophisticated brokering laws on the books. U.S. legislation on brokering was passed in 1996 as an amendment to the 1976 Arms Export Control Act. The law requires any U.S. citizen living in the United States or abroad, or any foreign citizen operating in the United States, to register their brokering activities with the Department of State. It prohibits the export of defense articles that would contribute to an arms race, support terrorism, jeopardize U.S. foreign policy goals, increase conflict, or violate a UN arms embargo. Moreover, each brokered deal must have the written approval by the U.S. government before it is undertaken. Additionally, brokers registered with the Department of State must provide an annual report to the U.S. government detailing their brokering-related activities. The Department of State and U.S. Customs Service conduct end-use verification of licensed arms deals through the “Blue Lantern” program. A violation of U.S. brokering law carries a fine of $1 million or incarceration of up to 10 years.

While the arrest of Victor Bout is a significant intelligence and law enforcement victory, the reality is that arms brokers like Victor Bout will continue to arm conflicts around the world. With only a patchwork of regulations and recommendations for cooperation, arms brokers will continue to operate in the shadows, exploiting the loopholes in the national, regional and international systems. Bout’s arrest is long overdue, but much more needs to be done in order to ensure that the activities of arms brokers do not fuel conflicts or violate international arms embargoes.

Regulating brokering activities is a complex undertaking, requiring the commitment and cooperation of multiple actors. Strong international standards must be developed that regulate the activities of arms brokers and standardize end-use and shipping documents. NGOs have developed and proposed a model convention on international arms brokering and should serve as a foundation for international collaboration and negotiation. Regionally, states need to harmonize their national laws in order to prevent brokers from crossing borders to do business. Strong regional standards will send a message that illicit arms brokering will not be tolerated. States need also to develop stricter national brokering controls. Law enforcement capacity should be increased to develop processes that determine authenticity of import licenses and end-use certificates and share intelligence with regional and international agencies. States should also improve their own national laws and develop legislation that regulates the activities of brokers within and beyond national borders. Brokers should not be able to exploit differences in national laws.

The arrest of Viktor Bout is good news. The bad news is that someone will pick up where he left off. Until there are internationally agreed upon standard and commitments on arms brokering, unscrupulous individuals will continue to deliver weapons to people and conflicts around the world with very little fear of being caught.