Why the World Needs a Global Arms Treaty

War-torn South Sudan shows the terrible effects of unregulated weapons.

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A South Sudan's army soldier holds his gun in Halop, Unity State on April 24, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

This month, from March 18 through 28, the international community will gather in New York City to vote on what would be the first-ever rulebook for the global trade in war-grade weaponry, the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. The Treaty, if enacted, would establish basic standards for the global arms trade, such as licensing of brokers and blocking sales to terrorists and human rights abusers. Exactly one year ago, I was in a dusty capital in East Africa's newest nation, listening to stories from those at the lethal spigot end of an unregulated arms pipeline.

For those who play Geo Quiz, the city of Juba in South Sudan is 6,812 miles from Manhattan. It is the seat of government in a land now split from the north after the longest civil war in modern African history. In the absence of any system of control over the global arms trade, that conflict was amplified and extended by an unregulated flood of weaponry to both sides. Perhaps 2 million people were killed during the war, although no one is sure of the exact number.

In the two Sudans, irresponsible foreign governments and unscrupulous weapons traders continue to feed a north-south arms race.

In March of 2012, I came to Juba with a team of Columbia University researchers examining post-war security plans, including efforts to limit cross-border arms trafficking and critical decisions over military spending. The divided halves of Sudan are officially at peace. But the threat of resumed warfare looms large, as a north-south arms race continues to be fed by irresponsible foreign governments and unscrupulous weapons traders.

***

A plaster hodgepodge along a road of shanties and burning trash piles, the Logali House hotel is a hangout in the heart of Juba, where foreign wheeler-dealers and do-gooders mingle with local players and up-and-comers. In suit and tie, marked with forehead scars as a Lou-Nuer tribesman, Arthur (no real names are used in this article) joined me at the burrito buffet.

The director of an agency for infrastructure investment, Arthur enthused about South Sudan's future: solar power, agriculture, road projects connecting the nations of East Africa.

Eventually, however, recollections of his years as a guerrilla soldier surfaced. His was a youth defined by guns, and even more so, by bullets.

"I will tell you about the number 750," Arthur began. After each firefight, a soldier was given 750 new bullets. Snap inspections required counting those bullets. "If you have less than 750, even one missing, they shoot you." Would people lose their bullets, I asked Arthur? "Not usually," he reflected, "but sometimes the soldiers would trade them for a cup of milk." He once dropped a bullet in the forest: "It was a terrible thing looking through the brush, but then I found it."

The Logali made a useful basecamp, and we interviewed a colorful spectrum, from police to clerics, tribal chiefs to human rights workers. Everyone in Juba, in his or her own way, was engaged in the project to build a peaceful future. Some seemed intoxicated by the possibilities; others held hope in check. I found, however, all conversation inevitably led to one thing shared by everyone in Juba: bad memories.

We drank soda pop with a cadre of intelligence agents, our first step in a vetting process to access a security minister. The agent with haunted eyes who sat beside me had fought for independence. How long had he been in the bush, assault rifle in hand? His voice became soft, almost a caress: "21 years." He sipped his orange Fanta, "Yes, when I was 11."

Martha, who was helping to draft the new constitution, was a grand woman who filled her rattan chair like an undersized throne. As we snacked under a grassy awning, Martha revealed she had only recently returned to Juba. During the war, while in exile, she helped build a women's movement among the diaspora while living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

A religious music producer, Jacob bubbled with plans to remodel his house. Married with young children, he was gathering supplies to build an extra room and a water tank. Then he veered toward bleaker thoughts.

Recalling the worst days of the civil war, he told me, "Greg, I have seen bodies floating down a river."

***

In the weeks and months after we left Juba, an out-of-control global arms trade continued to wreak havoc, in Sudan and around the world. Unmonitored transfers of weapons to Libya wound up in Mali, sparking a coup and terrorist insurgency . Cross-border trafficking loads the guns of poachers in an "epic frenzy" of elephant and rhino killings . An out-of-control arms trade places assault rifles in the hands of child soldiers , and it fuels the slaughters of Syria.

Today, weapons covertly sourced from foreign governments bolster Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's aerial attacks on refugee camps on the South Sudan border and military campaigns against his own citizens in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Gunrunning throughout the region also supplies terrorist militias like the Lord's Resistance Army and undermines civilian disarmament efforts by the government of South Sudan. Traditional quarrels in remote cattle lands, weaponized by traffickers into full-blown military battles, have forced thousands to flee their homes.

A majority of the nations of the world - no surprise - support common controls over transnational arms sales. Oversight to determine in advance, for example, if an official government-to-government sale of arms will likely service atrocities and grave human rights abuse is fundamental to the concept of the Arms Treaty.

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Greg Hittelman is deputy director of the Conflict Awareness Project, an international non-profit that investigates major arms traffickers and transnational criminal networks.

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