Archive for the 'Arms trade' Category

Breakthrough in struggle against arms-trade impunity as top dealer arrested in Thailand

March 7, 2008

From the Guardian, March 7 2008

 If Viktor Bout did not exist, a thriller writer would have invented him. A former Russian lieutenant, he became one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, flying his ancient Soviet planes into battlefields from Liberia to Afghanistan. His clients have included the Taliban and the US government, African warlords and the UN.

He has as many aliases as an AK-47 has rounds, and has acquired the nicknames Merchant of Death and Lord of War. Pursued for years by the intelligence services of the world, and tracked for months by Thai detectives, yesterday the elusive 41-year-old was finally arrested in a five star hotel in Bangkok.

This time Bout is accused of attempting to buy arms and explosives for leftwing Farc rebels in Colombia but the charge sheet could have listed half a dozen countries where governments might like to interview him. Accused of flouting UN arms embargos and wanted by Interpol, he was eventually arrested on a warrant issued by a Thai court acting on information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It is understood that DEA agents posed as arms buyers acting on behalf of Farc.

“We will take legal action against him here, before deporting him to face trial in another country, [most] likely the US,” said Major General Pongpat Chayaphan, the commander of Thailand’s crime suppression division. “We have followed him for several months. He just came back to Thailand today.”

Bout’s story is a classic end-of-the-cold-war morality tale. As a smart and opportunistic 25-year-old, he took advantage of three converging factors after the collapse of the USSR: the sudden availability of cheap, clapped out Soviet airforce planes, a massive stockpile of weapons and spare parts guarded only by underpaid and disgruntled servicemen, and the burgeoning demand for arms from countless conflict areas around the world. Soon he was flying arms to any government or militia that wanted them and filling his Antonov cargo planes with less lethal wares, from gladioli to diamonds, for equally lucrative return trips.

Initially, he provided cheap freight routes to whomever would pay, whether the Angolan government or Unita rebels, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or their Taliban opponents. After 2001, he worked for the US government and its civilian suppliers, shipping goods into Iraq on their behalf.

“In an age when the US president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both,” wrote Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of Merchant of Death, the investigation into Bout which they published last year.

He has also flown peacekeepers for the UN to Somalia and aid to Sri Lanka, after the 2004 tsunami, and been accused of supplying the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor.

Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, the 2005 film about the international arms trade, is said to be modelled on Bout. Amnesty International has commended the film for highlighting the baleful effects of the arms trade. Doubtless Bout will one day be the subject of a film himself, played perhaps by Russell Crowe in a bad moustache, dark glasses and baseball cap; Bout rarely allows himself to be photographed.

As far as he was concerned, he was purely a businessman, providing an international freight service stripped of any ideology. As far as some aid agencies were concerned, on occasion Bout was the swiftest supplier of relief to disaster zones. As far as the then Foreign Office minister Peter Hain was concerned, when he denounced him in the House of Commons in 2000, he was a “merchant of death”, cynically fuelling the civil wars in Africa.

Yesterday Hain welcomed news that Bout had been detained in Bangkok. “I am pleased he has been arrested,” he said. “At the time I exposed him, he was running arms to Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo and taking out blood diamonds. It was a lethal trade and some of those weapons were used against British troops in Sierra Leone. I tried with MI6 to dismantle his activities and we were partially successful but he still has a lot of friends in Moscow.”

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International’s UK arms programme director, also hailed the arrest. “While we welcome the fact that Victor Bout has finally been arrested, why has it taken so long for this to happen?” he asked. “This is exactly why an international arms trade treaty is needed. Such a treaty would close loopholes that gun-runners like Viktor Bout so easily exploit for their own gain. Through their irresponsible arms transfers gun-runners like Bout have fuelled conflicts where dreadful human rights abuses have occurred.”

Like any good fictional character, Bout has managed to muddy the waters of his past. He was supposedly born in Tajikistan but he has also claimed that he is from near the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan. Others suggest he is Ukrainian. His many passports carry variations of his name, with his western nom de guerre being Victor Butt. He is married, with at least one daughter.

Having studied at Moscow’s military institute of foreign languages, he is multilingual, speaking everything from Uzbek to French, Portuguese to African dialects, but he denies that he was ever in the KGB.

“Bout would fly for anyone who paid,” an associate told the Centre for Public Integrity in the US, which has long tracked his activities. “He is good because he takes the chances.”

Although the US had made use of his services, the CIA targeted him and the US treasury froze his assets. Bout, with his companies registered in Liberia, fluttering countless flags of convenience, and with a lavish home in Moscow and powerful contacts around the world, continued undeterred. Until yesterday.

As to how he has survived untouched for so long, Farah and Braun quoted a South African associate of Bout: “You never shoot the postman.”


Campaign Against the Arms Trade, June 2007

June 13, 2007

Titanic Express

On December 28th 2000 my sister Charlotte, a British aid worker, was dragged from a bus in Burundi, robbed, forced to lie face down on the ground, and shot. Twenty other passengers of the oddly-named ‘Titanic Express’ bus, mostly Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis, shared the same fate. In the moments before she was killed, survivors say, Charlotte was told: “It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like”.

From the first days after my sister’s death, I was driven by the need to know more about who had killed her, and why. Slowly I built up a network of Burundian contacts, many of whom had lost loved ones at the hands of the same group, the Hutuextremist Palipehutu-FNL. This led, in 2002, to the recovery of an explosive report, written by the attackers themselves, detailing how the massacre was carried out. The document says little about the victims, noting only that 21 people were killed. But with meticulous care, the killers list the clothes and personal effects they looted from the dead, the guns used, and even the number of bullets expended: In the process of murdering Charlotte and her twenty fellow passengers, Palipehutu-FNL fired off 963 rounds of ammunition. This alone must say something about the easy availability of weapons in a country that ranks among the poorest in the world.

Arms trade and conflict

Burundi’s brutal war has claimed upwards of 300,000 lives since 1993. In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the estimates run into millions. The conflicts ravaging Central Africa are driven by a potent mix of economic stagnation, entrenched corruption, poisonous racial ideology and breathtaking political cynicism. But without the abundant supply of arms, their impact would be far less deadly.

On the night of August 13th 2004, Palipehutu-FNL carried out one of their largest massacres to date, killing more than 150 Congolese Tutsis in an attack on the Gatumba refugee camp. Cartridges recovered from the scene were traced as far afield as Serbia, Bulgaria and China.

Successive UN reports have implicated dozens of western companies in illegal profiteering from the DRC war, which is intimately connected to the Burundi conflict. Those named include the UK-based Zimbabwean arms dealer John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, the British owner of the “air cargo firm” Avient

In September last year, a UN investigation revealed the nature of the “cargo” that Avient had been transporting. A 2006 report in the Sunday Times said that:

“Ukrainian and Russian aircrews recruited by Avient on behalf of the Congolese airforce were flying blanket bombing raids that in all probability were killing and maiming civilians caught in the war zone thousands of feet below.

Rudimentary bombs made from industrial gas cylinders filled with TNT were being rolled out of the backs of giant Antonov transport aircraft flown at high altitude in indiscriminate raids.”

International awareness

To date the UK has proved reluctant to follow up the UN’s allegations, but Bredenkamp’s offices were raided by the Serious Fraud Office last year as part of the BAE corruption inquiry. One more reason to hope that CAAT succeeds in getting the inquiry reopened is that it may help shed some much-needed light on Bredenkamp’s business dealings.

In the six years since my sister was killed, I’ve been shocked by the lack of international awareness of the horrors ravaging Central Africa and the complicity of western profiteers. It was for this reason that I decided to write a book about my family’s experience, and our efforts to understand the conflict that claimed Charlotte’s life.

Since writing it, I’ve had more opportunities to get involved in efforts to limit the arms trade. Most recently I’ve been pleased to support the Disarm UCL campaign (, aimed at persuading my old college to divest its £1.5 million of shares in the arms trade. Across the globe, wars are causing massive population displacement, hindering development, and destroying civilian infrastructure. This disruption inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. It therefore seems particularly wrong that a university, especially one tied to a teaching hospital, should be profiting from the warfare industry.

The more I’ve learned about the conflicts in Central Africa, the harder it has been to detach what happens in Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC from what happens here in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made. If the cycle of violence is ever to be ended, then we have to get the international arms trade under control.

Titanic Express by Richard Wilson is published by Continuum, priced £10.99.

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Guardian, Comment is Free, May 30 2007

May 30, 2007

The Gower Street gunrunners 

University College London should know better than to defend its investments in the arms trade – and pull out instead.

The details of last November’s air strike on a religious school in the tribal Bajaur region of Pakistan are still shrouded in controversy.

The authorities claim that the school was an al-Qaida training camp, and that all of those killed were terrorists. Survivors insist it was an ordinary madrasa, and that the 82 victims were students, not militants. Local residents say that the attack was carried out not by Pakistani forces, but by US drone aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles. The government has denied this – but sought to prevent journalists from travelling to the scene, and has so far resisted calls for an independent inquiry.

The aptly-named “Hellfire” missile is a ubiquitous feature of the “war on terror”. What’s less well-known is that my old college, University College London (UCL), has serious money invested in one of the companies that helps to build them.

Last year, an investigation by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) revealed that University College London has £845,530 worth of shares in Cobham PLC, which makes components for the Hellfire. A further £746,097 was invested in another blandly-named weapons manufacturer, Smiths Group. With these two investments, UCL has earned itself the dubious honour, according to CAAT, of having more money tied up in the arms trade than any other UK university.

For an institution that promises an “education for global citizenship“, aims to contribute to “the resolution of global problems“, and claims the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham as its spiritual father, this seems especially bizarre.

The nature of the modern arms trade is complex and fragmented. We can’t know for sure that the particular missiles used in the Bajaur air strike contained Cobham’s components. But neither can we rule it out. If the survivors are telling the truth, then it’s possible that the hellfire that rained down on that Pakistani school last November, killing 82 people, was funded, in part, by UCL.

Hellfire missiles have been used widely both in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, too, the Apache helicopter and F16 fighter, which Smiths Group helps to manufacture. The Hawk jet, for which the company supplies weapons system components, has been sold to some of the most insidious regimes in the world. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe deployed them during his country’s involvement in the apocalyptic war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Indonesia’s Suharto used them to bomb civilians during the vicious occupation of East Timor.

Malcolm Grant, UCL’s Provost, has defended the college’s investments by pointing out that the two companies also manufacture non-military products, and that neither produces an entire weapons system singlehandedly. But to those on the receiving end of the weapons that Smiths Group and Cobham PLC help to make, these facts are unlikely to be much consolation.

The impact of the arms trade contrasts sharply with UCL’s proud history of promoting humanitarian principles and opposing all forms of discrimination. According to the British Medical Journal, 85% of major conflicts since the second world war have taken place in poor countries – while the vast majority of weapons is exported by rich nations. Of the hundreds of thousands killed in war across the globe every year, most are civilians, and most live in the developing world. Alongside all the other human costs, the disruption caused by conflict inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. Perhaps the best way for UCL to start resolving “global problems” would be to stop participating in them.

Bredenkamp raided by UK Serious Fraud Office

October 22, 2006

The home and offices of John Bredenkamp, the UK-based arms dealer implicated in a 2002 UN report on illegal weapons sales to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and named in Titanic Express, have been raided by the Serious Fraud Office, according to the Daily Telegraph. Last month, the Sunday Times ran an exposé on another UK-based businessman named in the book, Andrew Smith of Avient Air, who was implicated in the same UN report, and whose company now stands accused of participating in indiscriminate bombing raids in the east of the DRC. 

Guardian, Comment Is Free, September 14 2006

September 14, 2006

Caught in the crossfire

The arms trade has caused the deaths of millions of civilians – we need to bring it within the framework of international law.

“It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like,” my sister Charlotte was told, shortly before being gunned down by members of the Forces pour la Liberation Nationale (FNL) armed group in war-torn Burundi. The UK post-mortem found that she had been shot seven times in the back with an eastern European semi-automatic rifle. Her killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag peasant army, but they knew where the guns were coming from.

In the five years since, I’ve been haunted by the idea that the man who sold them those guns might be walking the same streets as me here in London, drinking in the same pubs, and catching the same tube trains. While the violence ravaging Central Africa might seem distant and unreal, it begins here, in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made, and many of those brokering the sales are British or Britain-based.

Charlotte was one of 21 people murdered when a bus, the inauspiciously-named “Titanic Express”, was ambushed close to the Burundian capital in December 2000. It was one among hundreds of similar attacks. Bullets recovered from the notorious August 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre – in which more than 150 Congolese Tutsis died – have been traced to as far afield as Bulgaria, Serbia and China.

More than 300,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in Burundi’s bloody conflict since 1993. In the wider region – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the death toll runs into the millions. The financial cost, too, is devastating. Across Africa, $15bn is lost every year through the impact of war, cruelly undermining prospects for economic development. Poverty, inter-ethnic rivalries, and a culture of impunity all play a part in fuelling the violence. But without the ready and abundant supply of guns and ammunition, these conflicts would be far less deadly.

Each year, arms manufacturers produce enough bullets to kill every man, woman and child on the planet, twice. Each day, 1,000 more people die through gun violence, most of them civilians like Charlotte. The world over, armed groups exploit the easy availability of guns to wage war against governments and against each other, catching civilian populations in the crossfire. Yet there are no internationally agreed standards regulating small arms sales.

As a result, the arms trade is out of control. Most of the suffering is in the developing world; while most of the profits are here in the west. But neither are we in the west immune, as my family knows all too well. Britons, being global travellers, are at risk from the global flood of guns. And the sheer volume of guns and bullets being manufactured means some inevitably find their way into the hands of criminals and terrorists in the UK. It’s in all of our interests to get the small arms trade under control.

Three years ago, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the Control Arms campaign for the creation of an international arms trade treaty (ATT). The principle is simple: no transfers of guns, bullets, grenades or mortars should be allowed to places where they are likely be used in human rights abuses against civilians. Countries that sign the treaty will be agreeing to place strict limits on the movement of weapons from and through their territories.

The idea has won support from governments around the world, with Britain in the lead. More than a million people in 140 countries have joined the Million Faces petition online, and yesterday we held a global day of action for the arms trade treaty. Next month the UN general assembly will consider whether to begin the process of developing the ATT.

Yet despite this momentum there are signs of backsliding. An international meeting today will discuss the resolution on the ATT, which the UK is promoting for the general assembly. However, that resolution fails to mention human rights, which should be the central principle of the ATT.

Today’s meeting at the Foreign Office will be a major opportunity to get things back on track. In the name of my sister and those who died with her, I hope that we grasp it. We will not make poverty history, nor be sure of our own security, until this bloody trade is brought within the framework of international law.

Click here to sign the Control Arms campaign’s Million Faces Petition