Ruling Arms

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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

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. Hutu and Tutsi armies led by warlords armed with guns and bullets fight over territory and access to natural resources. Anti-government Tutsi rebels 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: “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.”

The alleged leader of the attack was Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi warlord known as “The Terminator,” who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court. Renegade fighters under his command have continued their killing in North Kivu, slaughtering scores, perhaps hundreds more innocent women and children just since April 2012. There have been accusations that Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has supported rebel groups in Congo, a charge he denies in a World Policy Journal interview in this issue.

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 rapacious warlords who, particularly in Africa, often muster armies of child soldiers bearing Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles—become what African officials say are the real “weapons of mass destruction” against innocent civilians, costing as many as 300,000 lives a year around the world.

Putting limits on the flow of weapons by pressuring governments to pledge and enforce better controls over the trading and shipment of conventional arms would go a long way toward reducing the toll. The 193 members of the United Nations tried this past July to do just that in a draft Arms Trade Treaty—and failed, yet again. A simple matter, it would seem. They’ve been trying every year since 1946 when the United Nations first met in Lake Success, New York. The goal in 2012 was for the nations of the world to agree on an Arms Trade Treaty with rules to keep not only small arms but tanks, combat aircraft, missiles, and machine guns from being passed on or diverted. The global arms trade in all kinds of conventional weapons is thought to amount to at least $60 billion a year, much of it from or to the United States, but the core disagreement centers around the $8 billion that involves pistols, rifles, machine guns, and bullets. 


A draft treaty was circulated just before the conference ended at UN headquarters on July 27, but it failed to achieve consensus. Supporters seem likely to try again soon. The broadest problem is the absence of any international agreement on a precise definition of “small arms and light weapons.” The former are such items as rifles, carbines, pistols, revolvers, and shotguns that can be operated by one person, as big as .50 caliber; the latter include bigger machine guns, portable missile systems,  and grenade launchers. The United States and many other countries have relatively strict (but far from watertight) import and export regulations on all of them, but there is no comprehensive global system for keeping them from being transferred, siphoned out of arsenals for private gain, or sold by unscrupulous arms brokers to outlaw organizations that cannot obtain weapons legally.

Small arms can be formidable killing machines. A British Army long-range rifle fired by a sniper, Corporal Craig Harrison, 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 away using a light weapon.

More commonly, fully automatic assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov AK-47 or the American-designed M-16, which can spew out bullets at up to 800 rounds a minute, 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 plates or bring down a helicopter.

Yet weapons like these are 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 African 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 Somali government, financed by the United States, are guilty of supplying deadly weapons to children like Awil Salah Osman, 10 years old at the time he used the weapon to stop correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman at a checkpoint.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, in a video message to the UN conference, pointed out that without an arms trade treaty, “armed violence would continue to be fueled by irresponsible arms transfers. Even with a United Nations and regional arms embargo on Liberia and other countries, more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition found their way into the targeted countries, thus proving that the current system, without a treaty, was not working.”

Sirleaf, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, continued, “The case of bullets and ammunition reminded the international community of how their absence during the battle of Monrovia between rival armed groups in June 2003 temporarily ended the terror on that city’s population until fresh and illegal supplies arrived. That was why a treaty is needed not only to regulate transfers of small arms and light weapons, but also to regulate the bullets and ammunition, which actually killed people and without which guns might be reduced to silence and peace efforts would bear fruit.” There were similar statements and warnings by other delegates from African countries.

Obviously, what groups can legitimately buy, have, or use weapons is primarily a political question. The United States, whose Constitution protects the individual right of its citizens to possess and use firearms, and China or Russia, where private citizens are generally barred from having guns, are at opposite ends of the spectrum of internal laws regulating small arms, laws that would not be within the scope of an international arms trade treaty.

Still, opposition to an international arms trade treaty in the United States was one of the main reasons for the failure of the conference last July. Semi-automatic handguns are favored in the United States for self-defense, a right the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 was protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The Court ruled that it does not, however, entitle American civilians to own or use fully automatic military assault weapons, though it did permit semi-automatic rifles designed like those weapons for personal use. 

The administration of President George W. Bush did not participate in the early stages of UN arms treaty talks, a position reversed by President Barack Obama.  But resistance remained strong. The National Rifle Association (NRA), a U.S. non-governmental organization hugely influential in Washington, told delegates that any treaty including “civilian arms” would never be ratified by the U.S. Senate, as required by the Constitution. The threat was backed by letters from 51 members of the 100-person Senate, which requires 67 votes to ratify treaties.

For the NRA, the draft treaty was “nothing less than an international gun registration scheme,” the head of its lobbying arm in Washington, Chris W. Cox, told members in its magazine American Rifleman in October. 

The negotiating session at UN headquarters failed to reach consensus and adjourned after the United States—joined by Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela—said more time was needed. Mexico published a statement by 90 countries vowing to keep fighting for a treaty “as soon as possible.” After November’s U.S. presidential election, the Obama administration gave its support for resumption of talks in March 2013.

Mexico, of course, has been wracked by violence in drug wars between government forces and heavily armed criminal cartels that have no trouble obtaining guns, whether on the international illegal arms markets or through the United States. Of nearly 100,000 such weapons seized or recovered by Mexican authorities, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) recently determined that 68 percent originated in the United States. The ATF has been embroiled in a scandal over a botched scheme to trace illegal guns by letting thousands of them “walk” across the border. Two of the weapons, AK-47s, turned up at the site of a gunfight where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed.

One government’s subversive rebels can be another government’s freedom fighters. The United States and its NATO allies helped rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, though the anti-Gaddafi forces scavenged small arms or acquired them from defecting military or police units. Syria has been supplying Hezbollah in south Lebanon for years with all kinds of arms, including powerful surface-to-surface rockets, for use against Israeli forces. More recently, the United States and other countries have been trying to find ways to help the rebels in Syria succeed in their struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, though not, as far as is known at this writing, by openly shipping U.S. weapons to them.


Why was “more time” needed to try to find ways of keeping deadly weapons out of the clutches of terrorists and warlords who use them against innocent men, women, and children? The negotiators last summer made no discernible effort to draw distinctions between the various types of small arms and light weapons—an error in judgment that opened the way for the NRA to sow seeds of doubt about the inclusion of “civilian arms.”

 The draft treaty is, in fact, little more than a statement of good intentions, with little attempt to lay out a mechanism to enforce any of them. Nevertheless, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said there was “considerable common ground” that states could build on in future negotiations. The Secretary General apparently felt that any treaty would be better than none at all, calling the current state of affairs “a disgrace.”

The draft treaty would have reaffirmed the sovereign right of every state to regulate the sale and transfer of arms within its territory in accordance with its own legal and constitutional systems. Participating states would have pledged not to authorize conventional arms transfers “for the purpose of facilitating the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes constituting grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, or serious violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.”

At the same time, it would have required nations to assess, before exporting conventional arms, whether they might be used to violate human rights or to carry out terrorist actions. Under these provisions, nations would need to be ready to take action to prevent weapons from being diverted into an illicit market, used to commit or facilitate gender-based violence or violence against children, used for transnational organized crime, or “adversely impact the development of the importing state.” There was no consensus on these points with North Korea, Pakistan, China, Russia, and India all objecting to one or another of them.

And the treaty would have gone beyond weapons themselves, requiring all those who signed the treaty to maintain records on ammunition transfers—where each round was going and where they would all end up. All these records would be maintained by participating states for at least 10 years. As for enforcement, any criminal sanctions would have to be levied by those states as well, and would be applicable only on their own territory.

The United Nations estimates there are 600 million small arms in circulation around the world, largely uncontrolled. Hundreds of billions of rounds of ammunition sit in government stores or in the hands of militias and other armed groups. Leakage from government stockpiles—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.


The United States, one of the biggest exporters of arms and ammunition worldwide, imposes rules on companies involved in the trade and bars shipments to many countries, notably China, but like China, it is opposed to regulating shipments of ammunition in any but the most cursory way. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas M. Countryman told the United Nations that “including ammunition within the scope of a [treaty] will do little or nothing to achieve the goals of the Arms Trade Treaty for several reasons. Ammunition is a fundamentally different commodity than everything else we have discussed including within the scope of an ATT. It 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. Because each State imports small arms and light weapons ammunition, these burdens would need to be assumed by each State at significant administrative and financial costs.”

The United States produces over eight billion rounds of ammunition every year, but has largely eliminated controls over domestic ammunition purchases, Countryman said. “For at least the last year, and in response to repeated pleas that the United States modify its position on ammunition, we have solicited proposals about how ammunition could be included within the scope of an ATT in a way that would be both practical and effective. We have received no substantive responses,” he told the conference.

France’s chief negotiator at the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel, said that small arms are “at the heart of the armed violence phenomena, and they destabilize the most states. To be effective, the Treaty will have to impose controls on all activities which form part of the ‘chain of transfer’ (exports, but also imports, transit and transshipment) as well as on arms brokering. The criteria for assessments of requests for export, transit, and brokering licenses will be an essential element of the Treaty.”

But the French statement is misleading in one important respect. No UN Treaty agreed to by consensus can “impose” anything. At most, an Arms Trade Treaty could impose 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 must maintain records for six years. It is not the United Nations, but the United States government that prevents American gun owners from taking no more than three non-automatic firearms temporarily out of the country with them, and fewer than 1,000 cartridges, and then only for personal use.

Domestic laws and regulations on firearms should be and are beyond the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty, despite what the NRA says in the United States. Expectations that a treaty alone could 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 approved by the entire United Nations’ membership, cannot, alone, prevent misuse of all those AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and millions of rounds of ammunition already circulating illegally around the world. A treaty, though, could have moral suasion to shame regimes that make possible atrocities with weapons like these.

One way to try to win over skeptics in the United States, and perhaps limit the lobbying influence of the NRA in the Senate against a treaty, would be to eliminate most “civilian arms” from the small arms and light weapons category.

This could be done, to a large extent, simply by specifying that fully automatic small arms and light weapons, or semi-automatic ones easily converted to fully automatic mode, are the real targets of the treaty. Under American law, civilians can buy, own, and import semi-automatic light weapons, but not full automatics. Arms manufacturers can get licenses to export fully automatic weapons, but only to countries and for purposes approved by the State Department—just the kind of regulations the UN treaty would encourage other nations to adopt, if they don’t already have them. Such weapons—the bullet-spraying AK-47 and M-16 type rifles used by military forces—are the most dangerous and destabilizing weapons when they fall into the wrong hands, far more so than guns whose trigger has to be squeezed once for every bullet fired.

Ironically, in voting last summer for more time, the United States, largely by virtue of NRA lobbying, happened to find itself voting alongside North Korea—a notorious supplier of conventional and non-conventional arms to rogue regimes and movements around the world, and one to which the United States bans arms exports. Countries that knowingly supply terrorists and murderous warlords with weapons to kill innocent civilians are as guilty of human rights violations and war crimes as the perpetrators themselves. Nations that value the right of civilians to bear arms in self-defense as highly as the United States do not have to keep bad company to preserve that right.



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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