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Viktor Bout on his arrest
Bout's alleged terrorist connections made him a US targetImage: picture alliance/dpa

Small arms trade

October 10, 2011

The trial of the world's most infamous arms dealer, Viktor Bout, has got underway in New York. Yet around the globe, most dealers operate with impunity because they supply the demand for a hot commodity.


The consequences of Viktor Bout's business stretch from Afghanistan to Colombia. For nearly two decades, Bout allegedly peddled arms to some of the world's poorest countries so they could fight its most devastating wars.

Yet he also reportedly transported UN peacekeepers to Somalia, flew cargo to Iraq for the US government, and delivered flowers from South Africa to Dubai.

Many arms dealers today have no identifiable ideology. They have no enduring allegiances. And they believe in no greater political cause. They represent a nihilism that seeks consolation by making money through any means available - legal and illegal, moral and immoral.

Bout was arrested in Thailand after trying to sell weapons to US undercover agents posing as members of the Colombian rebel group FARC. He was eventually extradited to the US, however, Russian authorities are outraged that Bout - a Russian national - is now set to face trial in an American court.

Although Bout may face justice, the trade he practiced operates with the tacit sanction of nations around the world. Arms dealers are rarely held accountable, because they provide an essential service for a lucrative undertaking: war.

Law of supply and demand

During the Cold War, the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union lent conflicts in the Third World - at least on the surface - a cookie cutter ideological framework. Governments and rebels in developing nations aligned themselves with one of the superpowers in the struggle between communism and capitalism. They were rewarded for their loyalty with a reliable - but controlled - flow of military aid.

"Until 1989 if you were a rebel in a developing country you basically worked out what side the government you're fighting for is aligned with and you rang up either the KGB, the CIA or MI6," Nicholas Marsh, an expert on the small arms trade with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, told Deutsche Welle. "You were able to obtain arms often without having to pay for them."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the East-West confrontation, the two superpowers lost their interest in the developing world and largely ended their generous supply of weapons.

But the bloodshed did not end. In many countries, economic profit replaced ideological persuasion as the driving factor behind conflict. This transformed war into a market-driven enterprise with a consistent demand for small arms.

Somalis looking at rifles
During the '90s, arms dealers transported weapons from stockpiles in Eastern Europe to conflict zonesImage: dpa

Meanwhile, the highly militarized former communist countries slid into social disorder. And their weapons stockpiles, originally intended for use against Western armies, no longer had a practical function. So poorly paid and ideologically jaded military officers turned a buck by selling state-owned arms.

Viktor Bout - who had served in the Soviet Air Force - and dealers like him saw an opportunity to link supply with demand. They seized that opportunity and began to build an illicit arms brokering network from the ground up.

UN Security Council documents report Bout acquired a fleet of old Anotov aircraft to run weapons out of the former Eastern Block into arms-embargoed countries such as Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In these war zones, armed groups finance their weapons purchases through proceeds acquired from the sale of diamonds, oil and other natural resources.

"It's a global business like any other governed by the laws of supply and demand," Hugh Griffiths, an expert on small arms with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Deutsche Welle. "Viktor Bout is right that he is just a businessman. He wasn't lying when he said that. There are 30 to 40 other individuals just like Viktor Bout."

The dealers often share common characteristics: They're former pilots, have ties to the military, are good at math and speak several languages.

"They're gamblers; they're attractive personalities in that they're amusing," said Griffiths, who has interviewed arms dealers while conducting field research for the UN, the EU and numerous governments. "They've worked in Africa so they have a different view of the worth of human life and what life is all about, unlike comfortable Europeans who don't understand how cheap life can be."

Legal twilight zone

While human life often comes cheap in conflict regions, arms are expensive and highly valued. The trade itself exists in a legal twilight zone where the weapons from legitimate deals often seep into the black market.

"It's a mix of legitimate, semi-legitimate or illegitimate that can bring huge masses [of arms]," Michael Ashkenazi, an expert on the small arms trade at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, told Deutsche Welle. "Its a very diverse, very dynamic, very hard to trace market. Trying to make sense of the whole thing is very difficult other than in general terms."

Grave stones: One person killed every minute by small arms
Small arms can escalate conflict and destabilize developing nationsImage: AP

Legally purchased arms often leave state stockpiles through bribes. False end-user certificates, which document who will ultimately use the weapons, are then forged. Dealers transport the arms by manipulating lax air traffic control systems in the developing world. Flights are diverted mid-route or the plane's name and registration are simply changed.

"As far as states are concerned, proper documentation has to be submitted," Griffiths said. "Its easy to falsify the documents. You don't need that high level of a connection because there's a willingness to sell stockpiled product. There's low-level corruption everywhere."

Since arms float between legality and illegality in nations with a low level of governance and high levels of corruption, the trade itself cannot be clearly designated a crime. Although arms themselves do not necessarily create the problem, they do make it much worse.

"The problem is that - to put it very bluntly - an escalation of arms in a state or society that is fragile for other reasons is likely to create a problem of a great many victims," Ashkenazi said. "It's not that arms themselves create the problem. It's that if the problem is there and the arms are there then the problem is likely to become bloody."

Hear no evil, see no evil

While most states acknowledge the destabilizing impact of small arms on fragile societies, experts suspect states are complicit in the very problem they condemn.

Although the US and the EU have relatively stringent export laws, second-tier producers such as Serbia, Ukraine, China, Turkey and Iran are often less scrupulous. But even the US and Russia tolerate the Bouts of the world so long as they keep a low profile.

FARC rebels
Bout crossed US interests when he tried to sell weapons to FARCImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Washington seriously targeted Bout only after allegations surfaced that he had supplied weapons to the Taliban. He crossed US interests one too many times when he tried to sell weapons to the Colombian rebel group FARC, which Washington considers a terrorist group.

"Bout was caught because he pissed off the Americans and not because anyone thought he was a bad guy," Ashkenazi said. "Everyone knew he was a bad guy, but suddenly he stepped on the wrong toes. Replace Bout with Mr. XYZ multiplied by a hundred and you get the number of arms brokers."

Meanwhile, Moscow has slammed Bout's extradition as politically motivated and wants him returned to Russia. Accessing weapons stockpiles often requires contacts with state military and intelligence officials. Bout may have sensitive connections with intelligence agencies in Russia.

"There's sort of a national issue in not wanting to see a high-profile citizen tried abroad," Marsh said. "There are rumors of Bout having close connections to Russian intelligence. I don't know the extent to which those are true. If that were the case and Bout were to be tried presumably these things would come out."

Bout will face justice not because he allegedly sold weapons, but because he sold them to the wrong people at the wrong time. Scores of men like him continue to manipulate a legal twilight zone to sell small arms globally. They are, after all, supplying a demand.

"It's a market need," Griffiths said. "This is the market we have created and these people are fulfilling a service and a function that a range of actors and agencies feel is necessary to use."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge

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