Monday, March 10, 2008

Death 'merchant' out of business

Nations unite to arrest arms dealer
Kris Kotarski
For The Calgary Herald
Last week, acting together with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Thai authorities stormed into a downtown hotel in Bangkok and arrested Viktor Bout, the inspiration for the title character in the 2005 thriller Lord of War.

Bout, who has been accused of being the world's premier private arms trafficker, was caught red-handed plotting to sell surface-to-air missiles and armour-piercing rocket launchers to DEA agents posing as members of FARC, a Colombian rebel group that is designated as a terrorist organization by U.S. authorities.

Bout, who is now awaiting trail in Thailand or extradition to the United States, was finally apprehended after an extraordinary career spanning almost two decades. His reputed exploits are the stuff of legend with fleets of Soviet cargo planes fuelling one civil conflict after another.

Arms deals, blood diamonds, intelligence agencies, child soldiers -- Bout is alleged to be in the middle of all of it, with his name, his presence or his business interests repeatedly popping up at the wrong place at the wrong time, across borders, continents and decades of war.

I first came across Bout's name in 2005, sitting in a United Nations conference hall in Geneva, listening to a presentation by Amnesty International's Brian Wood.

Wood, who then co-ordinated military and security research from Amnesty's London headquarters, was (and remains) a passionate advocate in the struggle to criminalize arms trafficking.

During his 30-minute presentation to an audience of European and North African diplomats and border authorities, Wood stated his case for tighter border controls, co-ordinated action and, above all, legal continuity that would allow merchants like Bout to be prosecuted for global crimes in a global manner.

Wood had only one photo of Bout to make his case -- a grainy picture of a Congolese airstrip, with Bout standing next to a group of camouflage-clad soldiers and in front of one of his cargo planes, a sturdy Ilyushin or Antonov (I couldn't tell the difference at the time). This photo, taken by a Belgian journalist in 2001, was steeped in legend as well. It showed a sturdy man in his 30s or 40s looking blankly past the camera, and was the only known photo of Bout to have been in circulation before his arrest.

Considering Bout's notoriety, not only as a UN sanctions-buster but also as a poster child for the global community's impotence (or reluctance) to bring arms traffickers to justice, his arrest in Thailand marks a significant moment in the fight against the illicit arms trade.

Bout's continued freedom offered a stinging rebuke to an international community of diplomats and law enforcement officials who talked the talk about curbing the global arms trade, but, for reasons of national interest, refused to take action.

The American involvement in Bout's arrest is especially pleasing, since the U.S. is alleged to have a cynical track record in this area. Critics of U.S. policies point out that despite having some of the toughest laws on the books, the U.S. has been reluctant to pursue and arrest private arms dealers, because many prove useful in clandestine American endeavours.

Bout's case offers a nice litmus test for the changing priorities of global governments. While the New York Times reports that immediately after 9/11 U.S. officials were reluctant to pursue Bout, who was suspected of having Russian cover, subsequent reports that Bout may have co-operated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda pushed the U.S. to reconsider its stance on the matter.

After a couple of years of surveillance and some legal manoeuvring, the U.S. increased the pressure on Bout.

The Americans urged the UN to impose a travel ban, and, in October 2006, President George W. Bush issued an executive order freezing his assets and barring U.S. citizens from dealing with him. After a complex DEA sting operation that handed Bout to Thai authorities, the Merchant of Death found himself under arrest.

The arrest will not end the illicit arms trade, but it shows international co-operation in this area is possible.

Perhaps most important, Bout's arrest can serve as a deterrent. The Merchant of Death behind bars is proof that on the murky chessboard of global politics, even the major pieces can fall.

Kris Kotarski's column appears every second Monday.

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