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Arms Treaty Campaigners Seize on “Merchant of Death” Case

Cléo Fatoorehchi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 28 2011 (IPS) - When Andrew Niccol wrote and directed the feature film “Lord of War”, the story was partly inspired by the life of Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman suspected of using his air cargo company as a cover for arms dealing.

While he succeeded in trading arms all over the planet – and especially in war-torn nations like Sierra Leone and Liberia – for two decades without technically breaking any international laws, Bout was finally arrested in 2008 in Thailand, as part of a U.S.-led sting operation.

Scott Stedjan, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America, says the case highlights the need for the international community to address loopholes in global arms trading rules.

“The USA is accusing him of breaking U.S. law – supporting terrorism – [but] there isn’t really an international law that he has violated,” Stedjan told IPS.

After two years of Russian and U.S. pressure on Bangkok, Bout was eventually extradited last November, and has remained in a New York jail since. His trial is set to begin on Sep. 12.

One of Bout’s court-appointed lawyers, Sabrina Shroff, contends the U.S. government has no right to prosecute Bout as none of the crimes he is charged with occurred on U.S. soil – a position rejected by the judge.

Though Bout has always pleaded not guilty – and Shroff repeatedly told IPS he “was never involved in the arms trade” – arms control advocates like Oxfam say the case is of importance precisely because Bout was such a major player.

According to spokesperson Louis Belanger, “If he is convicted, Oxfam will be pleased that the world will become a less dangerous place, as someone who seems to have been one of the biggest arms dealers of the past 20 years can no longer ply his trade.” Despite the outcome of the trial in New York, the international community still lacks a binding agreement on the global arms trade.

The United Nations has attempted to address the matter of arms trade in various ways, notably with the adoption by the General Assembly in 2001 of the U.N. Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition, known as the Firearms Protocol.

The U.N. also established a Programme of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.

But, as Stedjan says, the PoA is not binding and is incomplete. “The Firearms Protocol is on stopping illicit manufacturing and trafficking of a certain weapon. It is not about regulating the legal trade,” he said, adding, “Small arms is only a small subset of the arms trade.”

Since 2003, Oxfam has partnered with Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) in their Control Arms Campaign. The goal is to see the international community adopt a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which “would regulate everything from large ships to tanks to small arms”, said Stedjan.

If the strongly-worded version of the ATT is adopted as Oxfam hopes, he says it would “require all states to adopt national laws that would criminalise the transfer of weapons outside the authority of a government.”

At the same time, the treaty would “create global standards that would prevent arms from being used to violate human rights, international humanitarian law, and undermine development.”

In Bout’s case, such a treaty would have hampered his activities, since “Mr. Bout is accused of selling weapons without the authority of a state to a non-state actor. So neither the importing or exporting state is involved in a transfer,” Stedjan explained.

“Under the ATT, that would be illegal and require states to arrest him… The United States would not have been forced to do a sting operation and transport him to New York. Countries where Bout was operating would hold him accountable,” he said.

“Right now, in many countries, that behaviour is not illegal,” Stedjan stressed.

Even more troubling, he said, is the fact that, “Many countries are hesitant to sign an agreement that would govern how they address national security concerns. So while the need is clear, many countries do not want to be held accountable to the global community for arms transfers and do not want to tie their own hands.”

This is one of the key reasons why the ATT has been off the international community’s agenda for a long time. In 2006, 153 governments voted in the U.N. General Assembly to begin working on an ATT, but it was not until November 2009 that a timetable was set.

Now, an ATT is anticipated to be adopted in 2012, following four preparatory committees, the second of which will take place at the end of next month in New York.

Despite the slow pace of negotiations, Stedjan is hopeful: “It will be hard but I think the question is no longer whether there will be a binding treaty, but how strong the treaty will be.”

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