It is welcome news that Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” is on a U.S.-bound plane from Thailand to face criminal charges. As the world’s most high profile arms dealer, his extradition shows that it is possible for suspected weapons traffickers to face justice. This is cause for celebration, and also a reminder of why progress is needed on an Arms Trade Treaty and other measures to regulate the conventional arms trade.
Bout was arrested in a U.S.-aided sting operation in March 2008 by Thai authorities, and indicted by the United States for trying to sell arms to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Until today, he sat in a Thai jail as multiple charges and verdicts were made, appealed, reversed, dropped; at times close to either freedom or extradition. The likelihood of his appearing in U.S. court increased with a decision this August to allow extradition, but after more than 30 months of waiting it was always safer to bet on delay than movement.
Today is different. Even if Bout is responsible for only a fraction of the arms trafficking for which he is suspected, the death and destruction visited on multiple continents by the weapons he supplied makes his extradition important. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties of using national laws to regulate actions by non-citizens in foreign lands, the U.S. charges are limited primarily to the recent FARC example, not past accusations of activities in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere. As weapons-trafficking expert Peter Danssaert of the International Peace Information Service correctly points out :
When the U.S. government goes for the FARC charges, we will never truly discover what he did in Africa, because this will not be part of this trial.
Until all countries raise their standards and find ways to enforce them, it will remain easy for arms dealers to operate not only in the gray zone between what is legal and illegal, but also in the truly black market.
This reality is not lost on the international community as countries engage in efforts to negotiate a legally binding treaty that would set standards for the arms trade, possibly as early as 2012. While the media spotlight is on Bout today, the underlying issues are what really deserve our attention, as ACA experts have argued before:
(see comments 8:16 to 9:00, above)
But, the mainstream media appears to be missing the message, instead focusing on whether the extradition will hurt U.S.-Russian relations after the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the extradition “illegal” and the result of U.S. “interference in the administration of justice.” The real threat to those relations would be the failure to ratify the New START treaty, as Ambassador Richard Burt and other panelists at the “Next Steps in Arms Control” conference, sponsored by ACA and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, made clear last week.