Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 13 March 2008

Worrying the Lords of War

On 30 August 2007, the UN Secretary-General submitted to the General Assembly a report of a Group of Governmental Experts on "enhancing international cooperation in preventing, combating and eradicating illicit brokering in small arms and light weapons." On 6 March 2008, Thai police arrested Viktor Bout, one of the world's most notorious gun-runners who had eluded capture for years. Coincidence? I think not.

If only it were possible to make such a connection without having ones tongue firmly in cheek, assessing the effectiveness of arms control agreements would be a much easier task. Unfortunately, Viktor Bout's arrest had nothing to do the UN expert group report - which, in any case, contains only recommendations on how States can close legal loopholes used by illegal arms dealers.

A March 10 editorial in the International Herald Tribune argued that Bout's arrest - or, rather, the length of time it has taken to put him behind bars - should serve as a "wake up call to governments and international organizations" and that it:

"illuminates the need for more enforceable legal strictures against the global arms trade and for more cooperation in enforcing those that already exist."
Unfortunately, such strictures are in short supply at the global level. The idea of a multilateral, legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty is currently being considered by UN Member States but actual negotiations on it have yet to begin. The UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, which contains commitments to control brokering activities and exports, is not legally binding.

It is true that some individual States, although not many, have effective laws in place to regulate arms brokering activities. Shady arms brokers are global players, however. They are very good at arranging complicated deals from, in and through countries with the weakest regulation, or none at all. There will always be a weakest link in the chain of national regulations or arms brokers. Without effective global regulation of the arms trade, Viktor Bout's successors will have little difficulty moving into the void his arrest has created.

I've always thought that the most effective way of gauging the effectiveness of proposed or existing international agreements to regulate the arms trade would be ask illicit arms dealers how worried they are about them. Not a very practical idea, I realise. Such people normally do not like to discuss their work. However, now that Mr. Bout is behind bars and possibly looking for ways to pass the time, perhaps we should send someone to talk to him about the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons and the proposed Arms Trade Treaty. If he begins to look distinctly uncomfortable and breaks out in a cold sweat, we'll know we're on the right track. Given the rather anaemic regulation of the global arms trade that we have at the moment, however, I would predict a somewhat calmer reaction from Mr. Bout.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: Nicholas Cage playing Yuri Orlov, a character based on Viktor Bout, in a scene from the film, "Lord of War."