By Andrew Feinstein
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The Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known widely as ‘the merchant of death’, was sentenced to 25 years in jail by a New York judge on 5th April. In addition, Bout will have to forfeit $15m.
Bout’s conviction and sentencing is welcome news for anyone committed to the eradication of the illicit trade in weapons. But it also points to the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the global trade in weapons: Governments protect corrupt and dangerous arms dealers as long as they need them and then throw them behind bars when they are no longer useful.
Arms deals stretch across a continuum of legality and ethics from the formal (or government-to-government) trade to the grey and black markets. In practice, the boundaries between these three markets are fuzzy. In fact the illicit and formal arms trades are inextricably intertwined and dependent on each other.
With bribery and corruption common – one extensive study estimated that the arms trade accounted for almost 40 percent of corruption in all global trade -there are very few arms transactions that do not involve illegality, most often through middlemen, agents or dealers like Bout.
The Russian made fortunes providing “transport and logistical” services – an oft-used euphemism favored by arms dealers – to conflict zones around the world on behalf of governments, the United Nations, large listed companies and myriad covert operators. He sourced weapons, and the planes to transport them, from old Soviet stockpiles.
His clients included, among others, the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the Northern Alliance and then the Taliban in Afghanistan, a number of the protagonists in the Balkans, the Angolan government and its mortal enemy the Unita rebel movement led by Jonas Savimbi, and all sides in the complex conflict that continues to rage in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the American military faced a major problem getting supplies into Baghdad, as planes came under fire and landing conditions became treacherous. The United States and its contractors turned to a range of air cargo suppliers.
One of the most consistently used was Irbis Air – an airline owned by Bout. From 2003 to 2004 alone, Irbis Air conducted hundreds of runs to Baghdad and other Iraqi airports, carrying everything from boots to bullets.
Irbis Air landed in Baghdad 92 times between January and May 2004, while also conducting deliveries elsewhere in Iraq. Bout’s client list in Iraq made for intriguing and damning reading: The United States Air Mobility Command, Federal Express, Fluor and KBR – which was then part of the Halliburton group of which Dick Cheney had been CEO. At the time Bout was the subject of an Interpol arrest warrant, which the Americans were legally bound to enforce. There is also speculation that US intelligence helped the Russian evade capture by the Belgian authorities who had issued the warrant.
Clearly, years later, Washington decided that Bout’s evils outweighed his benefits, and so began the sting operation that ultimately netted the Russian in 2008.
But as his cell door clanks shut, it is crucial to remember that there are literally hundreds of Viktor Bouts out there, some protected by their own governments, or the governments and intelligence agencies to whom they are useful. Most of them are never apprehended, let alone snared in an elaborate sting operation.
If this hypocrisy is to end, the arms trade, both formal and illicit, needs to be meaningfully regulated and actively policed, regardless of who benefits from it. Stringent criteria must not only be agreed but also actively and impartially enforced for where and when weapons can and can’t be sold. Governments must impose greater transparency on the use of middlemen, agents and brokers, including public disclosure of what they are paid and the details of the specific work they have undertaken. Much of this could be addressed by passing a robustInternational Arms Trade Treaty currently being negotiated at the United Nations.
To do so requires political will, which will materialize only if taxpayers who unwittingly bankroll the arms trade make clear to their elected representatives that current practices are unacceptable.
Until then, the arms trade will continue to remain hidden behind a veil of national-security-imposed secrecy, undermining democratic accountability, the rule of law and sometimes even the very national security it is meant to bolster.