Biting the Bullet - Why the Arms Trade Treaty Must Regulate Ammunition

March 21, 2013

By Conor Fortune, News Writer at Amnesty International

This post is part of a special series on the Arms Trade Treaty. From March 18-28, world leaders from more than 150 countries are gathering for the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in New York. An Amnesty International delegation with representatives from every world region is participating and will be pressing leaders to agree to a strong treaty that upholds international human rights law.

“When she came out she was covered in blood. There are two bullets still in her head.”

No mother should ever have to utter such a chilling line about her child. But in Côte d’Ivoire, one woman recently told our researchers the harrowing story of how her 12-year-old girl survived a deadly attack on their village in the west of the country amid the post-election violence of early 2011.

The guns and ammunition used by Dozo militias were among those illegally smuggled into the country via Burkina Faso, in contravention of a UN arms embargo in place since 2004. Since before the embargo, weapons and ammunition were irresponsibly shipped to both sides in the Ivorian armed conflict.

Almost two years after that vicious attack, the little girl still suffers nosebleeds and headaches – to say nothing of the psychological trauma she and her family must endure. Besides her shooting, they also lost a 4-year-old son to the violence and the mother was raped by armed men.

They and other residents live in fear of fresh attacks by armed groups who still roam the area.

This story sounds extraordinary, but sadly it is not uncommon in Côte d’Ivoire. In the last decade the illegal and irresponsible trade in weapons and munitions has resulted in hundreds of Ivorians being killed, women and girls being raped and thousands forced to flee their homes – all under the threat of armed violence.

I wish this woman could come to the United Nations this week, to share her message with diplomats from all over the world who are hammering out the final text of a historic treaty to regulate the global trade in conventional weapons.

When I hear about what happened to her family, I wonder how any country could want to exclude ammunition – like the two bullets lodged in the young girl’s head – from the draft treaty text.

But that’s precisely the stance of the USA – the world’s largest exporter of weapons and munitions – and it’s not alone.

During an earlier round of treaty negotiations last July, a US State Department staffer said that ammunition “…is fungible, consumable, reloadable, and cannot be marked in any practical way that would permit it to be tracked or traced. Any practical proposal for ammunition would need to consider the significant burdens associated with licensing, authorizations, and recordkeeping for ammunition that is produced and transferred in the billions of rounds per year.”

But what of the millions of lives per year affected by weapons and munitions that fall into the wrong hands? Surely these human beings are worth the extra paperwork.

And in any event, the US government is already required to regulate its own export and import of ammunition, so the argument falls flat.

This is why it’s encouraging news that on March 19 – day two of a nine-day final conference on the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN – 69 states signed a declaration demanding that ammunition be regulated under the treaty.

Many of them were African and Latin American countries whose societies suffer the widespread scourge of small arms and light weapons violence.

For them, if the Arms Trade Treaty is to be effective at saving lives, it’s clear that its scope must cover not just transfers of weapons, but also of the ammunition that can be used for atrocities and abuse.

Amnesty International delegates from every region of the world are in New York until the end of the conference and will be pressing all states to ensure that bullets, like the two lodged in the little Ivorian girl’s head, can no longer be bought and sold around the world without the proper controls in place.

No country should be in the business of supplying weapons and munitions to repressive regimes or armed groups when there is a real danger they would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of human rights.

I hope that after these two weeks our researchers can return to that small village in western Côte d’Ivoire with the news that the world has paid attention and acted to rein in the irresponsible arms trade across borders that caused them so much suffering.