After two and half years of extradition proceedings and a three-week trial, it took jurors a mere two days to declare Viktor Bout guilty of a litany of terrorism-related charges, including conspiring to kill Americans by agreeing to sell weapons to foreign terrorist organizations.
Colloquially known as the “Merchant of Death”, Viktor Bout has been a larger-than-life figure for decades, even serving as the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War. Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after a sting operation in which U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and has been accused of human rights violations by the United Nations.
Bout’s personal history is littered with similar engagements in which he agreed to sell arms to terrorist groups, warlords, and dictators. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bout purchased a number of aircraft and opened several holding companies through which he was able to obscure his activities, both legal and illegal. He’s accused of – but has never been convicted of – having funneled weapons to some of the world’s worst conflicts with relative impunity, including Angola, Liberia, Afghanistan, and the Congo.
While it’s cause for celebration that Bout has been convicted and faces 25 years to life in prison, it should not go unremarked that he was arrested, extradited, tried, and convicted on terrorism charges – not arms trafficking charges. Bout’s history may be awash in blood, but the jurors in his New York case were instructed to disregard all of it, lest unproven and non-chargeable allegations of gun-running sway them. Instead, they were strictly to address whether he intended to provide material support to terrorists intent on harming Americans. Bout’s defense, in fact, centered not around his innocence – his lawyer acknowledged his 20 years history of arms trafficking – but around his inability to provide weapons – essentially, that Bout was lying when he claimed he could provide arms to the FARC.
In the end, Bout is symptomatic of a systemic failure to regulate the global trade in arms. In a world where 90% of conflict deaths are civilians and where human rights violations are endemic, responsible nations must recognize the importance of negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty in good faith, one that will end the culture of impunity surrounding the arms trafficking networks that gave rise to Viktor Bout. Absent an enforceable international treaty on the arms trade, states with an incentive to protect traffickers will continue to do so, as Russia endeavored to protect Bout from extradition and trial. The Viktor Bouts of the world provide the tools that fuel instability and decrease human security; it’s time we had a legal mechanism by which to address this problem.