Why Are We Still Arming Children and Tyrants?

June 8, 2012

child soldier in liberia
A child soldier in Liberia. (Photo Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Growing up in central Texas, I had a lot of friends who were responsible gun owners. Many would hunt deer or sport shoot. Some even carried a gun for self-protection. It was part of the culture. But there was always a heavy emphasis on the “responsible” component of bearing arms.

My gun-owning neighbors in Texas may have embraced the unofficial motto of the National Rifle Association – guns don’t kill people; people kill people – but they would never in a million years have put a loaded weapon in the hands of someone who they knew was likely to use that gun to kill or maim.

So as we watch in horror the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children in Syria, or stare aghast at our computer screens at images of brutal violence and child soldiers in remote regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, what are we to call those countries and international arms brokers who irresponsibly sell guns to thugs intent on violence? Profiteers? Bad actors?

For now, the world deems them law-abiding members of the international community.

This is absurd.

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The community of nations has developed a sophisticated set of tools, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, to regulate the export of sensitive nuclear material and missile technology. These tools are imperfect, but over time, they have gained near universal acceptance and have helped keep the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous people.

But apart from a handful of UN Security Council Resolutions – passed rarely, and only then in the most extreme circumstances – there are virtually no binding international standards governing the export and import of conventional arms and ammunition.

There are more international regulations governing the export and import of bananas than there are on the trade in conventional arms.
In fact, there are more international regulations governing the export and import of bananas than there are on the trade in conventional arms.

And the dirty truth is that the indiscriminate transfer of guns and ammo results in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, undermining international security, impeding economic development, and jeopardizing stability around the globe. The victims are often women and children. The perpetrators are among the worst violators of human rights on the planet. Some are working on behalf of repressive rulers like Syrian President Assad. Others are freelancing, or out for themselves, like Joseph Kony.

And guess who often is called upon to put out the fires fueled by the irresponsible export of weapons? [Hint: It’s not China.]

Fortunately, we have a chance to address this problem, and the United States has an opportunity to lead by example.

Next month, at the UN in New York City, representatives of nearly every country on the globe will convene to negotiate a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) governing the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.

The treaty, more than 10 years in the making and long-championed by Amnesty International and Oxfam, among others, was not inspired by the horrific violence unfolding in Syria. But the negotiators would be wise to keep Syria in mind next month, because the violence in Syria reveals a glaring weakness in the fabric of international security.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice recently put it this way when describing Russia’s arms sales to Syria in the midst of this crisis:

“It is not technically, obviously, a violation of international law since there’s not an arms embargo, but it’s reprehensible that arms would continue to flow to a regime that is using such horrific and disproportionate force against its own people.”

As my daughters would say, “Gee, ya’ think?”

Ambassador Rice shows admirable restraint, especially since the only reason there is NOT a UN arms embargo on Syria is that Russia continues to use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent one from being imposed!

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Sadly, Russia is hardly alone as a purveyor of dangerous weapons to even more dangerous countries. Many nations, including the world’s largest conventional arms exporter, the United States, have been guilty of supplying weapons to morally corrupt, brutal governments, which are prone to committing large scale violations of human rights.

Mitigating the crisis in Syria not only demands more responsible leadership by U.N. Security Council members, it also underscores the urgent need to negotiate and sign a robust, bulletproof ATT.

At a minimum, the new treaty must prevent the international transfer of arms where there is a substantial risk the weapons would be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law. Watering down this standard will result in a treaty without punch.

The export of ammunition should also be within the scope of the treaty. It is precisely the continued supply of ammunition that feeds and prolongs many conflicts, including the 13-month long crisis in Syria. The United States already licenses the import and export of ammunition, but Washington has been strangely reluctant to call on other nations to do the same in the context of the ATT. Why not level the playing field?

For the treaty to have teeth, member states should be required to report regularly on their arms sales and purchases. If they have nothing to be ashamed of, there should be no problem making their arms deals more transparent, right?

Finally, the treaty should regulate the activities of international arms brokers, such as the notorious Victor Bout. Their desire for profit has fueled gruesome violence against civilians in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and elsewhere.

The ATT is no panacea. Even the most effective treaty will not prevent irresponsible and profit-minded states from providing guns to people intent on violence. But a high quality treaty will make it more difficult for states like Russia to justify arms sales to the Assad regime – with or without a UN arms embargo. And over time, constraining the indiscriminate export of conventional arms will help prevent human rights abuses and make the world a better place.

That’s something even the most ardent supporter of the 2nd Amendment in Texas can get behind.

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