10-21-2011By Crimes Against Humanity Program
Human Rights First
Human Rights First continued its coverage of the Viktor Bout trial this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, a prosecution witness testified that Bout and a co-conspirator offered assistance with a broad range of illicit activities to undercover operatives whom they believed to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), a U.S.-designated terror group. Defense attorney Albert Dayan has argued that Bout had no intention of selling weapons, and merely sought to sell two cargo planes for $5 million.
The trial unfolding in lower Manhattan this month is limited in scope and not likely to uncover the true extent of Bout’s operations and connections to mass atrocities. Indeed, the limited breadth of activities with which Bout, nicknamed “the merchant of death,” allegedly sought to assist the FARC comprises only a small portion of his suspected activities over the last twenty years, and the limited list of charges demonstrates the significant gaps in U.S. and international policy toward purported arms traffickers and other third-party enablers of mass atrocities.
According to tapes recorded during meetings with Bout and the testimony of Carlos Sagastume, who worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration and posed as a FARC member looking to complete an arms deal, Bout and his associate Andrew Smulian discussed a number of ways to help the FARC. Among other illicit conduct, Bout and Smulian allegedly discussed helping the FARC purchase a bank, laundering money through Russia, Venezuela, or Belarus, purchasing anti-aircraft missiles with fraudulent end-user certificates, and using combat parachutes to airdrop weapons into Colombia through a diverted cargo flight from Nicaragua to Guyana.
These plans give only a glimpse into Bout’s alleged activities over the last two decades. The Russian national is also linked to a number of massive human rights crises since the early 1990s, a fact that will not be presented in court. The U.S. Treasury Department has designated Bout and a number of his companies and associates for sanctions, citing his connection to alleged war criminal Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, and for his support to U.N. sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. The weapons Bout allegedly sold to brutal regimes and rebel groups have fueled some of the world’s worst human rights abuses.
That Bout operated with impunity despite being considered a “sanctions buster,” and now faces charges that don’t fully reflect his alleged activities highlights the weakness of the current arms control regulatory framework. Third-party enablers of atrocities, such as arms traffickers, use legal deficits and poor financial monitoring to move weapons and money across the world, and are able to capitalize on insufficient political will and uncoordinated atrocity response mechanisms to continue fueling mass atrocities.
For example, Bout operated his cargo business for a number of years out of Sharjah, in the UAE, relying on a free trade zone with virtually no financial oversight. When his arms trafficking empire faced international scrutiny, Bout continued registering new front companies in Eastern European countries and applied for new business contracts, rendering international sanctions ineffective. As a recent Oxfam International report notes, “arms brokers are particularly adept at exploiting legal loopholes in national arms control laws, and often operate in or out of countries with nonexistent or lax controls on the export, import, brokering, or transit of arms.”
Human Rights First has offered a number of recommendations to help advance a more effective, targeted response to arms traffickers and other third-party enablers of mass atrocities. First and foremost, the United States and its partners must address the regulatory gaps, political ambivalence, and lack of financial transparency that allows third-parties to enable massive human rights abuses. Until legal frameworks are calibrated to reflect today’s realities, the United States must leverage the full range of its political and economic tools, including further empowering the Office of Foreign Assets Control to target supply chains, and improving multilateral efforts to disrupt the activities of traffickers that enable widespread violence against civilians.