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.
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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.