Democracy Lab

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.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Miracle of Midland

How a West Texas oil town became an unlikely champion of human rights.

If you've been following the story of Bob Fu, the Chinese human rights activist and evangelical who describes his mission in a piece for FP this week, you might have noticed an odd geographical detail. It turns out that Fu runs his campaign for religious freedom in the People's Republic of China out of the town where he and his family have been living for the past eight years. That would be Midland, Texas, population 100,000.

Wait. Where was that again? The state of Texas boasts several big, cosmopolitan cities -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio -- but take a look at the map and you'll see that Midland is a long way from all of them. How would a Chinese democracy campaigner end up in a place that far from anything?

Actually, though, the name of Midland is rather more familiar in international human rights circles than you might expect. Bob Fu's sudden notoriety is just the latest twist in a tale that vividly illustrates how even the most unlikely places can leverage globalization to become big players in issues of international import.

I know Midland well. I grew up there, and have many fond memories of the place. Still, I couldn't help feeling bemused when, a few years back, my reporting on underground churches in North Korea led me straight back to my own hometown. It turned out that evangelical Christians there had joined forces with Korean-American churches to lobby the U.S. government to lobby for legislation promoting religious freedom in the North. At one point, Midland's popular Christian rock concert, "Rock the Desert," even included a "North Korea Genocide Exhibit."

This all came as a bit of a surprise. When I was a kid in Midland, North Korea was not a subject that would have drawn the attention of many people there. The town is located smack dab in the middle of the vast emptiness of West Texas, which consists of hundreds of miles of arid prairie sitting atop some of the richest petroleum reserves in the United States. After World War II, Midland gradually evolved into the business headquarters of the oil-producing region that surrounded it, becoming home to oil entrepreneurs, corporate executives, geologists, and lawyers. It's an unabashedly white-collar community that has long boasted a disproportionate number of PhDs and self-made millionaires. Thanks to the petroleum business -- a thoroughly globalized industry long before the concept of globalization became fashionable -- Midlanders have a habit of turning up in unexpected places around the world. If a place has oil, someone in Midland has been there.

The town has also long been a place with a solidly conservative ethos, and Midlanders were voting overwhelmingly Republican even back when this was by no means a given. (Yes, hard to imagine, but there was once a time when Texas had a thriving Democratic Party.)

Among the people who gravitated there in the years after the war was George Herbert Walker Bush, the scion of a patrician New England family who wanted to show that he could make his own way in the unruly West. The Bush clan presence in the town continued right up until George W. Bush and his wife Laura (like her husband, a native Midlander) departed for the White House in 2001. At least two prominent Bush-era policymakers, General Tommy Franks and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, also hailed from the town.

Perhaps because the first President Bush didn't have a particularly powerful following among conservative Christians, Midland activism didn't really flower under his administration. It wasn't until George Jr. took office in 2002 that a new spirit of political engagement began to make itself felt in the town -- perhaps because its evangelicals suddenly realized that the new president, a self-avowed born-again Christian, offered them a perfect opportunity to move their own concerns about human rights to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. By the fall of 2002, Midland evangelicals already lobbying for a tougher policy toward Sudan joined a coalition of groups lobbying Congress to sanction Khartoum for its abuses during the civil war, an effort that culminated in the Sudan Peace Act. In 2003, the Midland Ministerial Alliance, a group of local churches, even sent an open letter to the government in Khartoum demanding that it clean up its act. This was clout.

Michael Horowitz, a human rights activist based at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, says that he first began to make common cause with Midlanders when he became involved in the case of Getaneh Getaneh, an Ethiopian evangelical tortured by the government for his beliefs who claimed asylum in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Horowitz says that Getaneh's tales of religious persecution back home prompted him to organize a full-blown campaign for legislation to promote religious freedom overseas, culminating in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Horowitz was particularly struck by the way that the Getaneh case resonated among Midlanders: "These people opened up their hearts, their wallets, their homes." Ultimately, indeed, a group of them brought Getaneh and his family to the town and settled them there. Like Fu (who was invited to Midland eight years ago by representatives of a local church), Getaneh has made the town his base ever since.

To be sure, the Midland activists are particularly keen on helping those who share their religious beliefs. But Horowitz soon discovered that his allies there were perfectly happy to join his strategy of building issue-specific coalitions that often crossed traditional political lines. The Midlanders for example, joined a broad alliance of groups -- including feminists and leftists -- that cooperated to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act just before Bush became president. Preventing human trafficking isn't necessarily a cause that one might see as high on the evangelical task list. But the Midlanders set to with a will.

As always in politics, certain key individuals figured prominently in Midland's high political profile as the Bush Administration wore on. Horowitz singles out Deborah Fikes, a passionate organizer who played a big role in coordinating efforts to ratchet up U.S. government pressure on North Korea for its persecution of Christians. (Fikes went on to get a degree in international relations at Oxford and now lives in Dallas.) But the town still has more than its share of church leaders intent on maintaining support for their pet causes -- just witness their continued support for Fu.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Midlanders can keep up the momentum now that their local boy has left the White House. The town's activists still have a lot going for them. The past decade has given them unparalleled experience in lobbying and advocacy. The local economy is booming. Church attendance has never slackened. Midland has punched above its weight before, and there's no reason it can't do so again. In the meantime, other communities would be well-advised to learn from its example.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages