In the Crosshairs
Why controlling the international arms trade can help to build stable societies.
When we talk about promoting democracy or defending human rights, we tend to dwell on factors like constitutions and voting procedures and media freedom. We usually don’t spend much time discussing the availability of assault rifles. But this is a mistake.
I’ve been thinking about this because I just took a part in a conference sponsored by United Nations diplomats to discuss plans for something called the Arms Trade Treaty. In July, the U.N. will start negotiations on the ATT, which aims to establish a framework for controlling the international arms market.
It’s a good idea. It seems nonsensical that the international community already maintains rules for broad swathes of global trade — but somehow hasn’t ever managed to do the same thing for a category of products that kill global citizens on a regular basis. (As Anna Macdonald of the British charity Oxfam memorably put it: "How can the sale of bananas be more tightly controlled than the sale of machine guns?") Meanwhile, weapons of mass destruction have been subject to international treaties for many years now. We no longer regard this as something unusual; it’s just part of the background noise. Yet WMD have killed very few people in the decades after World War II. The overwhelming majority of the millions of people who have died in conflicts since 1945 were killed by bullets, bombs, and artillery. And most of these casualties, in turn, are caused not by tanks or planes but small arms — which nowadays usually means assault rifles.
War is not going to end tomorrow, of course. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about drawing up rules of the road for a global business that often operates in the shadows. The denizens of this murky world — people like Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms trader recently convicted to 25 years in jail — rely on elusive middlemen, bogus documents, and shell companies to cover their tracks and evade accountability. As often as not their black-market wares end up in the hands of terrorists, thugs, or vicious warlords, the Charles Taylors and Joseph Konys of the world. The ATT could be an important tool in drying out this swamp.
These weapons don’t just kill individual people; they can devastate entire societies. New York Times reporter C. J. Chivers provides a whole host of examples of this principle at work in his excellent book The Gun. The weapon referred to in the title is the Kalashnikov assault rifle. As Chivers explains, the simple and robust design of the AK-47 (and its myriad variants) has made it the weapon of choice for poorly trained peasant armies around the world. It’s also ubiquitous. The Soviet Union produced huge stocks of rifles that dispersed into international trading networks when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Official production licenses and illicit knockoffs have also furthered the Kalashnikov’s spread.
The proliferation of high-powered assault rifles in societies with weak institutions can have devastating effects. One of the most striking examples cited by Chivers comes from Uganda. When the regime of dictator Idi Amin collapsed at the end of the 1970s, Karomojong tribesman in the country’s restive north seized the opportunity to loot government arsenals. For eons, the Karomojong had lived by rustling the cattle of their neighbors. But the introduction of modern assault rifle dramatically changed the equation. As Chivers writes:
The introduction of Kalashnikovs to the Karomojong multiplied their firepower by a much larger factor than had the introduction of AK-47s to Soviet infantry squads, because the rustlers were not graduating from rifles and submachine guns. They were moving up from spears. In the ensuing years, traditional Karamojong power arrangements eroded, and the elderly leaders were supplanted by younger men leading bands of rustlers equipped with assault rifles. Warlords became a force.
So it’s not just about the people who are killed by these weapons. Assault rifles in the hands of youthful thugs or gangsters often end up dissolving the fabric of society itself, condemning the survivors of violence to live with the long-term consequences of weakened institutions and Hobbesian anarchy.
It’s a process I’ve seen at work during my stints reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the invasion in 2003, the government of the U.S. occupation in Iraq dissolved the Iraqi Army and the security forces. So Saddam’s soldiers and spies were sent home without pay — but they kept their weapons. Meanwhile, the relatively small occupation force didn’t have the manpower to control the vast armories and weapons dumps built up by Saddam, so they were quickly looted. All this combined to combustive effect. By 2007, those assault rifles could be found in the hands of Iraqis in their early teens.
Afghan society has passed through a more extreme version of the same process. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States and Saudi Arabia responded by pouring weapons into Pakistan, which then passed them along to the mujahideen, who were determined to fight against the Russian interlopers. But the Pakistanis didn’t distribute the bounty impartially to all the Afghans; they favored radical new Islamist political parties while shutting out traditional Afghan tribal leaders and religious leaders. It was a policy calculated to undermine the old elites, who watched helplessly as their followers deserted them for the groups that boasted more effective means for fighting the Soviets. The Pakistanis and their Islamist allies thus finished the destruction of traditional Afghan society that the Kremlin had begun — with all the consequences that we see today.
Will the ATT prevent such things from happening in the future? Probably not entirely. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction. One version of the treaty would outlaw arms shipments to countries threatened by civil war or suspected of abusing the human rights of their own citizens. And by compelling producer countries to come clean on their exports, it would shine some much-needed light into dark corners of the global arms bazaar.
For the moment, of course, such considerations remain theoretical. It’s not clear that the ATT will ever get off the ground. Russia and China, both big weapons manufacturers, are cool to the idea. Some developing countries worry that they won’t be able to get the arms they need for self-defense if present channels are closed off. And there’s also plenty of resistance in the United States, whose companies make it the world’s biggest arms exporter (it accounts for about one-third of the global trade). The anti-gun-control lobby in the United States has already prevailed upon many members of the Senate (which would have to ratify the treaty) to declare their opposition — even though the argument that the ATT would restrict the rights of U.S. gun owners is highly questionable.
And yet many countries — including even some major arms exporters like Britain — have declared their support. And that suggests that some in the international community are beginning to see the light. It will be interesting to see if the ATT can beat the odds.