10-7-2011By Crimes Against Humanity Program
Human Rights First
Jury selection in the trial of international arms dealer Viktor Bout begins next Tuesday in the Southern District of New York. Bout faces four counts of conspiracy, including conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. These charges do not, however, reflect the full range of Bout’s activities. For decades, he ran a global arms network with his fleet of old Soviet aircraft, arming some of the world’s most unsavory actors and enabling atrocities in Africa and elsewhere.
Indeed, Viktor Bout fits the very definition of an enabler of mass atrocities. An enabler is any government, commercial entity, or individual that directly or indirectly provides to perpetrators resources, goods, services, or other support that help sustain the commission of atrocities. Through the sale and transport of weapons, Bout allegedly helped fuel wars in Angola, Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. A Commission created by the UN 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 the Special Court for Sierra Leone facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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 natural resources harvested by those perpetrating atrocities – but they are among the most visible. Among the list of activities that earned Bout the label “sanctions buster” and the nickname “Merchant of Death” were commodities transfers and conflict mineral trade.
Though Bout’s case next week is limited in scope – focusing primarily on his alleged conspiracy to arm the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a U.S.-designated terrorist group – the trial will highlight a number of themes about enablers. For one, enablers of mass atrocities are oftentimes the very same actors that interest the United States for their role in other illicit transnational networks, such as terrorist networks.
Second, effectively targeting enablers requires the full range of U.S. policy tools. Though the justice system is one of those important tools, its reach doesn’t extend to unscrupulous but licit transactions that help fuel atrocities; indeed, many enablers like Bout operate within regulatory gaps and legal vacuums, indicating a need to improve and enforce sanctions here at home and abroad.
Lastly, one must keep in mind that Bout is just one of many arms traffickers and other enablers; that the tactics and networks he established over the last two decades have evolved to become more sophisticated and extensive; and that the U.S. government, in its efforts to prevent or halt atrocities, should be focusing on the new generation of these enablers.
Over the next several weeks, the Crimes Against Humanity Program at Human Rights First will monitor the Viktor Bout trial and offer key analyses related to atrocity prevention. We hope you continue to tune in!