Despite the fact that illegal arms continue to contribute to countless atrocities around the world, there is still no comprehensive regulation of the global arms trade. Final negotiations of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will seek to address this lethal vacuum in March. The ATT has the potential to provide important new tools for preventing genocide and mass atrocities and saving the lives of millions. Here’s what you need to know about genocide prevention and the ATT.

The ATT will not affect domestic laws

Recent events in the United States have sparked a heated discussion about domestic gun laws. Without getting into the aspects of that debate, it is important to point out that a global Arms Trade Treaty would do nothing to address how the United States manages its internal weapons trade, and thus would have no affect on the 2nd Amendment (check out Rather, an ATT would serve to bring the rest of the world closer to the already strong regulation of international arms trading in place under U.S. law. This is a point that has been repeatedly stressed by the Obama administration, yet opponents of the ATT, particularly the NRA, continue to misinterpret or misrepresent the facts. The only ones that should be worried about bringing the world up to U.S. standards are those who seek to commit or profit from severe human rights abuses.

An ATT would address a key component of genocide prevention

In July, I wrote that the ATT could be a “Colossal Step Against Genocide” as it counters the ability of perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities to carry out their crimes. Genocide scholar David Hamburg (whose work Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “incredibly important” at a Symposium on Genocide Prevention last year) agrees. In his book Preventing Genocide: Practical Steps Toward Early Detection and Effective Action,  Hamburg points to restraints on weaponry as one of six key “pillars of prevention” of genocide. As Hamburg said in an interview, “there’s a huge problem with ‘small arms and light weapons,’ which is a euphemism. AK-47 automatic weapons, mortars, and so on can kill thousands—millions—of people in a short time; and the world is covered wall to wall with such weapons.”

This observation is not just theoretical. A report out last year by a former UN arms investigator found that two former associates of infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout recently exploited the lack of international regulations on the arms trade to set up a global trafficking ring that sought to sell weapons to countries like Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and possibly Syria. The author, Kathi Lynn Austin, said that, “These brokers go to extreme lengths to reap profits from conflict, atrocity and UN sanctions-busting. As we speak, gunrunners are out there exploiting every loophole in a global arms trade that is out of control.”

An ATT would require countries to adopt tougher regulations closer to the higher standards practiced by countries like the United States today, thus making it more difficult for enablers of mass atrocities to supply weapons to the perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities.


An ATT will provide new tools to hold perpetrators accountable

Notorious international arms dealer Viktor Bout ran a network for years that supplied arms to some of the worst perpetrators of mass atrocities from Sierra Leone and Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was finally caught and tried on charges of terrorism, but is unlikely to face any charges for his trade in weapons because of his ability to exploit loopholes in the under-regulated global arms trade. As Scott Stedjan of Oxfam points out, “only 52 governments have laws regulating arms brokers and less than half of these have criminal or monetary penalties associated with illegal brokering.”

A 2011 Oxfam report further found that, “The US has worked on at least 70 US prosecutions in the last five years that have charged defendants with crimes related to illegal arms brokering. Yet, it continues to face difficulties in bringing arms brokers to justice and shutting down criminal networks.” The ATT would close these regulation gaps and make it easier for those who supply arms to serious human rights abusers to be held accountable.


Without a strong push, weak language could limit the ATT, particularly on areas of genocide and mass atrocities prevention

As the last round of ATT negotiations were coming to a close, a draft of the text contained language that would prohibit states from transferring conventional weapons that violate arms embargoes or facilitate acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. However, this would only apply when there is a clear statement that a state’s transfers of weapons are for these purposes, something no state would admit to outright.

As ATT proponent and Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals Galen Carey noted,

“The ban on arms transfers for the purpose of committing genocide or other war crimes should be extended to cases in which the country initiating the transfer knows that the weapons will be used for war crimes or other atrocities, whether or not that is the stated purpose.”

Similarly, there is a danger that ammunition might not be included in the scope of the treaty. Without strong language, the great potential for the ATT could be severely limited.


Support for an ATT is widespread and diverse

The need for an ATT has been recognized and supported by a wide range of actors from former U.S. Army officers and missionaries to the victims and former child soldiers who have experienced mass violence fueled by illegal arms first hand. Former child-soldier Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that an ATT would be a “colossal step in the right direction.” Marathon runner Julius Arile, both a perpetrator and victim of armed violence in Kenya has inspired supporters of the ATT as he now campaigns for young people to put down their guns. And one of the most outspoken supporters of the ATT has been Bishop Elias Taban, President of the Sudan Evangelical Alliance and himself a former child soldier. Bishop Taban addressed the UN at the last ATT session, asking the world, “If we can regulate the sale of iPhones, why can we not regulate the sales of ammunitions that are killing innocent lives?”

Galen Carey, Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals and a longtime missionary, has described hiding from shelling while doing his work, saying, “it is not only just local people, but also missionaries and humanitarian workers and even military who are threatened by this loose control of weapon.”

And former U.S. military officials agree. Major General Roger Blunt (Ret.) and Rear Admiral Stuart Platt (Ret.) have been vocal in their support for the ATT arguing that it would help to protect U.S. troops. As Platt has stated, “As long as evil actors can continue to get ammunition, those weapons will continue to be fired at our young men and women in uniform and innocent civilians.”

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