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Ruling Arms

[Editors' Note: On April 2, 2013, the U.N. General Assembly voted to create the first treaty regulating the international arms trade. This new treaty covers a wide range of conventional weapons and will impose constraints on the sale of weapons to governments and armed groups that commit mass atrocities, such as war crimes and genocide. With last week's vote, World Policy Journal updates its article "Ruling Arms," originally published in our Winter 2012 issue, in which veteran New York Times editor Craig R. Whitney discusses the history of the United Nations attempts to pass a treaty controlling the lethal traffic in small arms.]

By Craig R. Whitney

North Kivu province in Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the border with Uganda and Rwanda, has been soaked in blood for more than a decade. Ethnic warfare between Hutus and Tutsis, with armies led by warlords armed with guns and bullets fighting over territory and access to natural resources, continues, with atrocities by anti-government rebels that have displaced at least 500,000 civilians and slaughtered thousands of women and children. On November 4 and 5 of 2008, at least 150 civilians died in one such attack on the village of Kiwanja. An elderly woman who survived told Human Rights Watch: “I fled to a nearby house to hide when I saw the soldiers coming. In the house there were seven boys, but they had no weapons. The soldiers demanded that the boys open the door, but they were scared and did not answer. I ran into the bedroom and curled up into a small ball under the bed. I heard the soldiers break down the door and then the screams of the boys as they shot them. They did not try to arrest them, they just shot—bam, bam, bam.”  Steven J. Rapp, the American ambassador for war crimes, told The New York Times at the end of March this year that he had met a woman in Kiwanja who said she had seen men under the throats of her eight children slashed before her eyes.

The perpetrators of this horrific violence, according to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, were led by Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi warlord known as “The Terminator.”  Ntaganda had been wanted by the Court since 2006 and fled a few months ago to Rwanda, on the run from a splinter faction in Congo. Then, in mid-March, he turned up unexpectedly at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali and said he wanted to surrender. With cooperation from both Rwanda and the United States, he was flown in a private plane to The Hague on March 22, and Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova read out the charges:  the war crime of enlisting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers, and of crimes against humanity—murder, rape, sexual slavery, and pillaging.  Ntaganda pleaded that he was just “a soldier in the Congo."

For years, conflicts like this have brought terror and misery across Africa and around the world, from South America to Indonesia. “Small arms” in the hands of marauding rebels—militias run by drug cartels and diamond smugglers, and rapacious warlords who, particularly in Africa, have often mustered armies of child soldiers usually bearing Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles—become what African officials say are really “weapons of mass destruction” against innocent civilians, costing as many as 300,000 lives a year around the globe.

Yet, for years, the nations of the world were unable to bring themselves to agree on how to put limits on the flow of weapons by pledging to enforce better controls over the trading and shipment of conventional arms. In a remarkable coincidence, that paralysis ended just a week after Ntaganda was finally arraigned in court—with the adoption on April 2 by 154 of the 193 members of the United Nations of an Arms Trade Treaty, the first in U.N. history, which will go out to member states for ratification starting in June and will enter into force after 50 countries ratify.

Neither the treaty nor things like Ntaganda’s arrest will stop the violence, even just in Africa. The treaty’s strongest feature is simply moral suasion.  Basically, it is an agreement by signatories to promise to handle international arms shipments in accordance with legal principles: No weapons for the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, attacks against civilians, or other war crimes, and no sales to any group or state without an assessment by the exporting country that no such crimes will be committed by the recipients; no arms exports to countries under an international arms embargo. A conference of states party to the treaty and a Secretariat will coordinate and mediate disputes, but it cannot take punitive action against violators.

 Yet despite all the negotiations, the treaty failed to achieve full consensus.  When the General Assembly voted on it, North Korea, Syria, and Iran were against.  As a U.N. press department summary of the proceedings noted, “Iran’s delegate said he had voted ‘no’ mainly because the Treaty failed to ban the transfer of conventional arms to foreign occupiers. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took issue with the idea of exporters judging the human rights record of importing countries. Syria’s delegate said that certain countries, among those supporting the text, were fully engaged in supplying terrorist groups, including in Syria, with all kinds of lethal weapons, which claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. That in itself explained the objection of those States to include a paragraph banning the supply of weapons to unauthorized non-State actors.”

One country’s “freedom fighters” can still be another country’s “terrorists,” in other words.  The United States and other countries have been supporting rebels in Syria in their struggle with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, though apparently American support has not included outright shipment of conventional weapons. Syria and Iran have been supplying Hezbollah in south Lebanon for years with all kinds of arms, including powerful surface-to-surface rockets, for use against Israeli forces; the United States and its NATO allies helped rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

Peter Woolcott, the Australian diplomat who presided over the final few months of arms trade negotiations and the voting in March, said it was “unfortunate” that consensus could not be achieved.  Significantly, twenty-seven countries abstained from the General Assembly vote—including some of the dominant arms suppliers, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Kuwait. Though the United States, the world’s leading arms exporter, voted for the treaty, it is not clear that the text can win the 67 Senate votes it will need for ratification, because the National Rifle Association and other extremist gun-rights groups view it as a nefarious U.N. plot to deprive Americans of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. During earlier negotiations at U.N. headquarters last summer, the NRA told delegates that any treaty that included “civilian arms” would never be ratified. The threat was backed by letters from 51 skeptical senators, and was one of the reasons why the United States joined Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela then in asking for more time to try to amend the treaty to make it more acceptable.  

It is not clear that the final preamble’s acknowledgment of “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system” or its recognition of “the legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities, where such trade, ownership and use are permitted or protected by law” will convince those Senators to change their position on the treaty.

Small arms and light weapons and ammunition—pistols, rifles, and bullets, in other words—are only a small part of the global arms trade, amounting to perhaps $8-billion a year. But African countries said these light weapons were the worst problem for them, and that keeping them out of the hands of mercenaries and subversive militias would save lives and prevent the mass dislocations of men, women, and children that barbarous conflicts have inflicted on the continent for decades. 

Small arms include formidable killing machines. A British Army long range rifle fired by a sniper, Corporal Craig Harrison, in Afghanistan in 2010 killed two Taliban machine gunners in Afghanistan from 8,120 feet away. “The first round hit a machine gunner in the stomach and killed him outright,” Sky News quoted the 35-year-old officer as saying. “He went straight down and didn't move. The second insurgent grabbed the weapon and turned as my second shot hit him in the side. He went down, too. They were both dead.” Two shots from more than 1.5 miles using a light weapon.

More commonly, fully automatic assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov AK-47 or the American-designed M-16, weapons that can spew out bullets at up to 800 rounds a minute and have been used by legitimate armed forces around the world for decades, can give ragtag groups the same deadly power as a small army. At the top of the “light weapons” scale, an automatic .50-caliber weapon can shoot through armor plate or bring down a helicopter.

Yet weapons like these have been all too easy to buy or steal in much of Africa, as Sangeba, a boy soldier who was 12 years old when he was forced to join a rebel army in Sierra Leone, told BBC News in 2005: “I was going to school when the rebels captured me and a lot of my friends. They caught my mother and father, and then killed my father in my presence. Then they went with us to the bush to go and train how to fight. They trained us how to load and fire guns including the AK-47. Whether attacking the government forces or civilian towns, we would take the guns. Our commanders explained to us that they got them from the Liberians, some said they got them from soldiers they killed, and from Guinea. Our commanders instructed us to fight to defend ourselves. So I was handling my AK-47 with this in mind. I cannot remember how many people I killed.”

Armies with child soldiers armed to the teeth have ranged across the continent.  A New York Times article in 2010 from Somalia began, “All across this lawless land, smooth, hairless faces peek out from behind enormous guns. In blown-out buildings, children chamber bullets twice the size of their fingers.”  Not only radical Islamist separatists but the besieged Somalian government, financed by the United States, the article reported, was guilty of supplying deadly weapons to children like Awil Salah Osman, 10 years old at the time he used a Kalashnikov to stop correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman at a checkpoint.  When asked when asked how the American government could guarantee that American money was not being used to arm children, one of the officials said, “I don’t have a good answer for that."

The arms treaty aims to make a good answer easier. The  “scope” of the final version of the treaty—the range of things it binds signatories to act on—includes small arms and light weapons, but, apparently in an effort to win over opposition like the NRA’s, not ammunition or parts. The treaty urges signatories to treat exports and imports of those the same way as for the weapons themselves. The United States had said last year that so many billions of rounds of small-arms ammunition are made and sold that keeping inventories of them would be a hopeless task, as well as an imposition. For the weapons from tanks and helicopters to handguns, states party to the treaty agree to take steps to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands and are “encouraged” to keep records on all shipments, trans-shipments, and end users for ten years and share them with other signatories. Countries importing weapons “shall take measures to ensure that appropriate and relevant information is provided, upon request, pursuant to its national laws,” to the state exporting the weapons, and “such measures may include end use or end user documentation.”

This is anathema for the NRA, which says these measures would threaten the rights and privacy of American gun owners who buy rifles and handguns from abroad.

It is hardly surprising that it was the NRA that marshaled opposition in the United States to the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.  The gun-friendly administration of President George W. Bush had refused to participate in the talks, and when the Obama administration decided to join them in 2009, the NRA saw the reversal as part of a concealed agenda by gun-control advocates to deprive Americans of their right to keep and use all kinds of firearms. In the current poisoned atmosphere of what passes for debate in America about guns and gun rights, a United Nations treaty that included “civilian arms,” the NRA warned, would amount to “U.N. gun control.” Never mind that U.S. regulations already require exporters and importers of small arms and light weapons to register, obtain licenses, and keep records of shipments.

Since not only Republican but some Democratic senators oppose the treaty, the NRA told its members in early April, it stood little chance of being ratified soon. But:  “Unfortunately, once a treaty has been signed, it normally remains available for the Senate to ratify in perpetuity, unless a later president withdraws from it. This means that American gun owners must remain vigilant in ensuring this treaty is never ratified. In the coming months and years, the NRA will keep gun owners up to date on any movement toward ratification, and will work with our allies in the Senate to ensure the treaty remains unratified.”

The new treaty will require countries exporting conventional arms that do sign it to share information on groups or countries that might use weapons to violate human rights or international law, or to carry out terrorist actions, or to let them fall into the hands of organized crime. Signatories are also enjoined to be ready to take action to prevent the weapons from being used to undermine peace and security, and are “encouraged to share relevant information with one another on effective measures to address diversion. Such information may include information on illicit activities including corruption, international trafficking routes, illicit brokers, sources of illicit supply, methods of concealment, common points of dispatch, or destinations used by organized groups engaged in diversion.”

Rosemary A. DiCarlo, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N., described the treaty as “the product of a long, intensive negotiation” and said, “I know that no nation, including my own, got everything it may have sought in the final text. The result, however, is an instrument that succeeds in raising the bar on common standards for regulating international trade in conventional arms while helping to ensure that legitimate trade in such arms will not be unduly hindered.” She characterized it as setting a floor, not a ceiling, for standards in the international arms trade.

While many of the representatives of countries that voted for it admitted that some of the language was vague, they agreed that it was ground-breaking nevertheless. The United Nations estimates there are 600 million small arms in circulation around the world, largely uncontrolled. Hundreds of billions of rounds of ammunition lie in government stores or in the hands of militias and other armed groups. Leakage from government stores—raids on arsenals during civil disturbances, governments shipping arms to “friendly” insurgencies in rival states, often then resold to raise cash—is believed to be the biggest source of illegal weapons and ammunition used by rogue groups. This will be harder to get away with after the treaty goes into force,  because it imposes an obligation on signatories to formulate and abide by their own controls on importing and exporting arms. The United States, France, and most other arms-manufacturing countries have extensive controls on all businesses that export arms, with licenses required for export or re-export that must specify end users. Importers of small arms have to maintain records for six years. It is not the United Nations but the United States government that prevents U.S. gun owners from taking no more than three non-automatic firearms temporarily out of the country with them, and less than 1,000 cartridges, and then only for personal use.

Domestic laws and regulations on firearms remain beyond the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty, despite what the NRA in the United States says about the negotiations. But clearly, expectations that a treaty alone can prevent murderous militias and drug gangs from acquiring weapons illegally are overblown. Just as strict gun-control laws alone do not prevent gun violence in the United States, export regulations, even if agreed to by the entire United Nations membership, cannot, alone, prevent misuse of all those AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and millions and millions of rounds of ammunition that are already circulating illegally around the world.

“Finally we have seen the governments of the world come together and say ‘Enough!’” said Anna MacDonald of Oxfam International after the General Assembly adopted the treaty. The accord can, at least, put to shame regimes that make atrocities with weapons like these possible. Whether the U.S. Senate can avoid putting itself to shame by refusing to ratify the treaty still remains to be seen.



Craig R. Whitney, who served as bureau chief in Saigon, Bonn, Moscow, London, Paris, and Washington, as foreign editor and twice as an assistant managing editor of The New York Times, is the author of Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, published by PublicAffairs.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau]

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