Viktor Bout, Small Arms, And “War Redefined”

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War Redefined, the capstone of a five-part series televised by PBS, challenges the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain through incisive interviews with leading thinkers, Secretaries of State, and seasoned survivors of war and peace-making. Other interviewees include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee; Bosnian war crimes investigator Fadila Memisevic; and globalization expert Moises Naim.

Watch Stimson Fellow Rachel Stohl in the PBS Special: War Redefined

By Rachel Stohl – On November 2, 2011, notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout was found guilty in a New York courtroom of conspiring to kill Americans, and selling missiles and other weapons to the U.S.-designated Colombian terrorist organization FARC. Over the last 20 years, Bout, known as the “merchant of death,” supplied small arms and light weapons to some of the world’s deadliest conflicts, including ones in Liberia, Angola, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Bout-supplied weapons were used to perpetuate a new kind of war – the intra-state conflict, where insurgent groups, rebel armies, and even gangs wage war against government armies, and in some cases win. In these kinds of intra-state conflicts, small arms and light weapons are the primary tools of violence, crime, and change.

Bout was so successful – the Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War is said to be based on his life – because small arms and light weapons are profitable, plentiful, and easy to acquire. An estimated 875 million of them are in circulation today. Every year, another 8-million weapons and 10- to 14-billion rounds of ammunition are manufactured, enough weapons to arm one of every eight people in the world, and enough ammunition to shoot every person in the world at least twice.

Like any market good, the availability and cost of small arms is driven by supply and demand, and these market forces are becoming more globalized.  In addition to existing supplies, new small arms and light weapons are manufactured in more than 90 countries around the world. More than 1,200 companies are involved in the production of small arms globally. Although not nearly as profitable as heavy conventional weapons, such as jet fighters or warships (valued at more than $50 billion a year throughout the 2000s), the Small Arms Survey estimates that the legal global small arms market is worth at least $7.1 billion a year, with ammunition adding another $4.3 billion annually. The illegal small arms trade market is also quite profitable, at least $1 billion annually.[1]

Once weapons leave the legal market, they are difficult to trace and can spread quickly. Small arms have become both a sought-after commodity as well as accepted currency for other commodities.  Arms trafficking is part of a wider trade in other illicit goods, including diamonds and other gemstones, narcotics, and animal and other natural products. The interconnected networks are used by governments, criminals, militants, and terrorists to fund their activities. 

Arms brokers, like Viktor Bout, facilitate the trade of weapons on the black market, within these interconnected networks. They develop clandestine transport practices and develop strong relationships with corrupt officials, who help them circumvent national arms controls and international embargoes. Using fake documents to transfer the arms by air, ground, and sea transport, arms brokers take advantage of a complex web of front companies and shipping agencies (often also owned by the arms broker).

The devastating legacy of small arms in these redefined wars is immeasurable.  Some of these impacts are direct and can be quantified: deaths, injuries, and incidences of psychosocial trauma. These weapons also may be used for tangible tragedies – to perpetuate human rights violations and contribute to massive refugee and internally displaced people populations. Small arms also impact societies indirectly by diminishing support structures and opportunities for citizens. As a result, those that survive the war have limited access to public goods and humanitarian assistance, including healthcare, children are prevented from attending school, and societies face stunted or anaemic economic growth.

Getting a handle on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons is difficult. These weapons are entirely legal and have legitimate military, police, and civilian uses. In other words, this class of weapons cannot be entirely banned.  Controls require multi-layered, multi-faceted strategies that are tailored to a mix of legal, cultural, social, and political approaches. From a policy and programmatic perspective, such strategies can be grouped by tactics that control supply, take existing weapons out of circulation, and curb demand and misuse. The conviction of Viktor Bout took one “merchant of death” out of circulation. Unfortunately, the new wars of today mean there will be ample opportunities for new arms dealers to take his place.

[1] Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2002: Counting the Human Cost, Oxford University Press, 2002, page. 109.


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