Viktor Bout, the 'Merchant of Death,' a Case Study for Business Ethics

Late last week famed international arms dealer, Viktor Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death," was sentenced by a U.S. Federal Court to 25 years in prison (the minimum term), after having been found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans, and supplying anti-aircraft missiles to a terrorist organization. He was caught by agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency in a well publicized sting in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2008. Agents, pretending to be members of the Colombian FARC Terrorist organization, pretended to solicit the purchase of anti-aircraft missiles from Bout. Bout was detained and then extradited to the U.S. in 2010. He was convicted on November 2, 2011.

This conviction demonstrates very clearly that the kind of war profiteering and weapons trafficking conducted by Bout will no longer be tactilely tolerated by leading powers. In the past it was. During the Cold War, authorities of the Soviet Union or the United States looked away while traffickers supplied weapons to rebels and dictators of their favour for the strategic role that they played. The Cold War, however, has been over since 1991, and these social harms can no longer be ignored.

Bout, A former Russian military intelligence officer, conducted business during the 1990’s and the 2000's, when there were plenty of violent conflicts in the world. He ostensibly ran an air freight company that provided shipping services in developing countries and conflict areas. His fleet of dozens of airplanes was registered to numerous companies all over the world. American prosecutors presented this as evidence that he was attempting to hide his activity, and that he was aware of what he was doing was illegal. In fact he was shipping rifles, missiles, and ammunition. He was able do this for many decades hiding under the chaos of post 1991 Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as the U.S.’s distraction by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Viktor Bout Was Played By Nicholas Cage in Lord of War

Among the people that Bout has been accused of aiding are a wide range of African rebel groups and dictators, including former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, all of whom employed the use of child soldiers. Also, in the 1990’s, he provided air drops into the jungle for the FARC, in Colombia. All of these groups are major human rights violators, and have even gone so far as to have murdered thousands of people.

Bout has also been accused of supplying tactical weapons to the Taliban. This particular activity is very interesting, as one of his few legitimate activities was a subcontract to a U.S. military contractor, providing air freight for the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The fact that he profited from both sides reveals his true character. He took no political sides. He was only motivated by money.

Though Bout did not orchestrate atrocities himself, he knowingly and actively provided human rights violators with the tools they needed. Even if not directly involved, all managers of international business operations must do basic due diligence on the people and places where they trade or provide services and refuse to deal with groups, countries, and political leaders who practice great breaches in international law and human rights.

At least that is the message U.S. federal prosecutors would like to send to the world. Critics, who include Russian diplomatic officials, have demanded that Bout be released and returned to Moscow. They have criticized the sting in Bangkok as entrapment, and that he was given a show trial, with the conviction pre-determined. They have pointed to the fact that his lawyer
presented no witnesses. If Bout was denied procedural fairness, as they are alleging, then he may have a case for the Federal Court of Appeal. If the conviction is reversed on appeal, it will be a blow to the credibility of federal prosecutors, and the new international dynamic they are trying to institute.