Is Ammunition a Flash Point in the UN Small Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations?

The Foundry – by Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D.

One of the most discussed issues at the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference is whether ammunition should be fully included in the scope of the treaty. Predictably, opinion at the conference is strongly (though not universally) in favor of full inclusion. This mistake illustrates the broader fallacies of the ATT.

Currently, ammunition is included in the draft ATT, but exporters are not required to seek to prevent its diversion to the illicit market. That is because since ammunition is a consumable commodity and is exported in tens of millions of rounds, the methods the U.S. uses to prevent the diversion of F-18s cannot work for ammunition. An importer could simply divert a few thousand rounds and then claim they were shot off in a training exercise.  

No one at this conference has refuted or even tried to refute this argument. Instead, they reiterate—with tiresome regularity—the argument that if there were no ammunition, there would be no guns and thus no human rights violations and no wars.

The Liberian delegate, who spoke on Tuesday afternoon, put this argument in its purest form. Everything that had gone wrong in West Africa—political instability, massive human rights abuses, the savageries of former Liberian President Charles Taylor—were the result of small arms and light weapons and thus of ammunition.

It takes a lot of nerve to indulge in such a simplistic argument. Taylor’s 1989 rebellion was sponsored by the Muammar Qadhafi regime in Libya, and Taylor himself was, as the president of Liberia, surely responsible for his arms trafficking and his interference in the civil war in Sierra Leone. None of this was caused by small arms or ammunition. It was caused by Qadhafi and by Taylor himself. The doctrine that guns, not those who misuse them, are guilty would, if you take it seriously, let Taylor off the hook for his barbarities.

So why the clamor for the inclusion of ammunition? It partly derives from ignorance: The U.S. has a strong export control system and understands the issues involved. Many other nations do not. It partly derives from embarrassment. As the Liberian delegate put it, West Africa has very “porous borders,” which is a polite way of acknowledging that its nations are not fulfilling the basic responsibility to control their own territory. Blaming ammunition and small arms is easier for many nations than openly acknowledging their own incompetence.

But it’s mostly symbolism. The left-wing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have driven the ATT this far are out in force, and they matter. As the Turkish delegate put it today, the NGOs have provided “quite substantial support to some of the delegations.” And while the NGOs want many things—the current checklist has no fewer than nine demands—the full inclusion of ammunition tops the list. Right now, in a campaign led by Ghana and focusing on West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific islands—where there are a lot of small nations with understaffed delegations—the NGOs are collecting signatures, aiming to go past their current total of 30 to reach at least 50.

But does that make ammunition central to these negotiations, as The New York Times asserted on Tuesday morning? No. Ammunition is not a substantive issue. If the negotiations fail over ammunition, the problem will not be that the treaty does not cover it. The problem will be that far too many nations, spurred on by the left-wing NGOs, are more interested in the symbolism of a supposedly perfect treaty than they are in actually crafting a practical one.

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