An appeals court in Thailand has ordered the extradition to the United States of Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman long suspected of trafficking arms into conflict areas in Africa and elsewhere. Bout will now face trial in the United States, highlighting both the magnitude of the global illicit arms trade and the role of arms traffickers as enablers of mass atrocities.
Through the illicit sale and transport of weapons, Bout allegedly helped fuel wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. A Commission created by the United Nations Security Council to monitor arms trafficking affecting Angola also uncovered a transfer by Bout of $14 million in small arms, light weapons, and ammunition from Bulgaria primarily to the DRC and Tanzania from 1997 to 1998. According to U.S. prosecutors, included among Bout’s clients was former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who is currently before an international tribunal facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Arms traffickers contribute to a network of suppliers of goods and services needed by the perpetrators of mass atrocities to commit those crimes. Arms suppliers are not the only third-party enablers of such crimes – others include those who supply financial assistance and commodities such as fuel and trucks, as well as traders in conflict minerals – but they are among the most visible.
Viktor Bout’s case demonstrates that government attention to enablers, particularly through international law enforcement cooperation and intelligence sharing, can be used to disrupt the organized networks that underlie the commission of mass atrocities. While Bout’s notoriety was sufficient to earn him the nickname “Merchant of Death,” holding other, less known third-party enablers – governments and commercial entities as well as individuals –accountable for their own roles in mass atrocities would further help disrupt and prevent genocides and crimes against humanity.