Your recent article (“Despite U.N. Embargo, arms readily to Myanmar military junta”) on foreign supplies and suppliers of weapons in Myanmar failed to mention the increasingly prominent role of the “non-state actor” in arms trafficking.
The United Nations has used the term “non-state actor” to describe organized crime elements, illicit narcotics and arms traffickers, and individuals who work outside the lines of the formal international community. The individual arms trafficker has become a tool for criminals, evil dictators, the United States, the United Nations and peacemakers alike.
Many of these individuals experienced a “perfect storm” of opportunity over the last 15 to 20 years. First, the deconsolidation and restructuring of the former Soviet Union led to vast amounts of weapons becoming available at a very low cost. These weapons included large shipping containers loaded with brand new AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and cargo airplanes (to name a few). Second, the continued poverty, conflict and “strong man rule” on the continent of Africa mixed with limited international engagement on the continent opened up markets for arms trafficking. Third, the newfound “unemployment” of highly trained former Soviet, former South African Defense Force (SADF), and former Pinochet-era Chilean military forces enabled arms traffickers to attain expertise and efficiency never before seen.
One of these men, Viktor Bout, became the so-called “Merchant of Death” by selling to anyone who would pay. Born in Tajikistan, Bout was a graduate of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. It has been reported that Bout speaks six languages. Bout shipped weapons to the ousted dictator of Liberia Charles Taylor, to all sides of the conflict in Somalia, the rebels in Angola, to former Zairian president Mobutu Sese Seko and to Sierra Leone.
Bout’s ability to circumvent international agencies and authority is rooted in the intricate weaving of air cargo companies between various individuals in a multitude of countries. His companies operated with 40 to 60 aircraft and over 300 employees. His access to conflict-stricken areas is legendary and has earned him the label of “top sanctions buster.”
Bout had a cargo company with a U. N. aid contract to the people of Somalia. Out of the front door of the plane came the large sacks of food with “Food Aid” printed on the top. Out of the back door, Bout’s airline was supplying ammunition and weaponry to the local militia. At the same time, another of Bout’s cargo planes was unloading weaponry to that militia’s enemy.
In March 2004, the U. N. Security Council drafted a resolution to freeze the assets of all mercenaries associated with Charles Taylor of Liberia. The French government believed Bout should top that list, but the U. S. and Great Britain resisted (the U.S. and Great Britain manufacture over 50 percent of weapons worldwide).
The resistance is rooted in Bout’s participation in providing “logistical support” to American troops in Iraq. Bout has a contract to provide air cargo services to troops in Iraq.
The irony of American diplomatic efforts protecting a man who once shipped around 200 tanks to the Taliban is staggering, unless one takes into account the clandestine nature of modern foreign policy.
The use of the “non-state actor” seems like it has never been more prevalent, be it the U.S. hiring Blackwater (and other private security firms) in Iraq or Chiquita paying Colombian gangs to harass union leaders, the attractiveness of dodging international law in achieving various goals will almost assuredly continue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Viktor Bout currently lives in Moscow, quite comfortably I might add.
Tim Lovestedt Senior, Political Science
Do you have more to say than a comment? Want any feedback from the writer? Story ideas? Click on The Gripevine.