Burundi’s first ethnic Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by rival Tutsi army officials in October 1993, setting off a civil war that lasted until 2005 and claimed 300,000 lives.
The war was fueled by the easy flow of weapons across national borders. A 1997 Human Rights Watch report stated that “a number of countries, including China, France, North Korea, the Russian Federation, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, the United States, and Zaire have directly provided military support to abusive forces engaged in the fighting.”
HRW asserted that China, France, North Korea, and Russia sold weapons to armed groups in Burundi that were used to kill tens of thousands of civilians.
Could such irresponsible arms sales—a fire that stokes conflicts worldwide—be made history and be seen one day as a distant memory from less civilized times?
An international treaty aims to do just that.
In April, the United Nations passed its Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first international agreement to regulate the conventional weapons market, including tanks, helicopters, warships, missile launchers, assault rifles, handguns, and bullets.
By signing the treaty, member states agree not to sell weapons to governments that are committing crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide. The document requires nations to evaluate whether weapons are likely to be used to commit atrocities before making a sale.
“At the moment the global arms trade results in about 500,000 deaths each year,” Adotei Akwei said, Managing Director of Government Relations for Amnesty International USA. “It contributes to the displacement of upwards of 10 to 15 million people.”
According to Child Soldiers International, children as young as 10 fought in the Burundian civil war. Since the end of the war, some have gone on to college but many have struggled to find meaningful employment.
In many armed conflicts, young people are on both sides of the gun. The average age of entry into the American armed forces is around 21. Any male of “military age” killed by a U.S. drone is considered to be a combatant unless proven otherwise; lists of the dead show dozens of teenagers slain by the strikes in Pakistan. There are currently tens of thousands of child soldiers worldwide.
In 1994, Eric Niragira joined the Hutu rebels in Burundi at age 15.
After the war Niragira founded the Training Center for Development of Ex-Combatants (CEDAC) in Burundi, an organization that provides material and psychological support to former combatants and others impacted by war. Now 34 years old, he is the organization’s president.
“Most of our beneficiaries are ex-combatants, refugees, returnees, widows, orphans and vulnerable people,” Niragira said.
Burundi’s political environment remains tense and weapons remain plentiful. In order to consolidate peace, CEDAC is collecting arms and sending them to Burundi’s National Commission for Civilian Disarmament for destruction. The group also organizes summits with young people from opposing political parties who were affiliated with opposing sides during the war.
“My organization supports ATT and has a direct advantage to Burundi especially as there are young people and ex-combatants who may use illegally arms to commit atrocities,” Niragira said. “That treaty permits a legal framework of transfer of arms which will reduce the illegal traffic of arms.”
CEDAC is trying to disarm Burundian society, but what if the weapons could have been prevented from arriving in the first place? Niragira argues that a treaty like the ATT could have helped.
“If we had ATT in place before 1993, the impact of civil war would have been small,” Niragira said.
The ATT goes into effect once it has been ratified by 50 nations, a result expected within a few years. Eight countries have ratified the treaty and 115 have signed.
But here’s an eternal question in international law: How effective will the treaty be if signing is voluntary and signatory states are expected to police themselves?
Russia sells arms to the government of Syria, which has been widely condemned for killing civilians in its current civil war. What good is the treaty if compliance is voluntary and Russia—yet to sign the ATT—chooses to abstain?
In response, treaty proponents argue that the ATT will stigmatize reckless arms sales and give activists a tool to “expose and shame” nations that violate the treaty’s guidelines, according to Akwei of Amnesty International.
That may sound like wishful thinking, but the logic has precedent.
The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty is a similarly unenforceable piece of international law, yet it is rarely violated.
“It’s really stopped use,” Allison Pytlak said campaign manager for the Control Arms Coalition.
The only nations still laying land mines are Burma and Syria.
The ATT is more nuanced than the landmine treaty though. Landmines are now banned outright, but the ATT merely regulates the global arms market, banning transfers based on what is undeniably a subjective set of rules. Such complexity might provide cover for nations to wriggle free of their treaty obligations.
A comparable example: American law requires that the United States suspend military aid to a country where there has been a military coup. But the United States has carefully avoided calling the August ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi a “coup” and continued military aid to Egypt for several months after the military takeover.
The ATT will not alter the flow of U.S.-made weapons. American law already requires all the same checks that the treaty contains. But since American arms sales make up more than 75 percent of the world market, the stance of the United States will either bolster or damage the treaty’s credibility.
Secretary of State John Kerry signed the ATT in September, but in the Senate, opposition to ratification is robust. It’s spearheaded by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) as well as the National Rifle Association (NRA).
“(The American gun lobby) has spent a long time and a lot of money misinforming the U.S. public that the treaty is going to come and take weapons out of their hands, which is a lie,” Akwei said.
A letter to President Barack Obama from Manchin and co-signed by 49 other Senators argues the ATT “includes only a weak non-binding reference to the lawful ownership, use of, and trade in firearms, and recognizes none of these activities, much less individual self-defense, as fundamental individual rights.”
Manchin’s letter continues that “the criteria at the heart of the treaty are vague and easily politicized,” therefore posing a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
Treaty supporters counter that the law only regulates international trade, and does not have any impact on how individual nations regulate domestic weapon ownership.
“[The ATT] is not going to solve all of the world’s problems, but it will make things a little better,” Pytlak of Control Arms Coalition said. “It will stop weapons flowing to places where they shouldn’t be going.”
*Spokespeople for Manchin and the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action did not respond to multiple requests for comment.