Allison Pytlak

As the Republic of South Sudan approaches the third anniversary of its independence, the young nation has been making headlines again. This time, though, it’s for all the wrong reasons. The slaughter and displacement of unknown numbers of civilians over the last several months has sparked international debate over the need for intervention and revealed horrific stories of rape, mutilation, and torture. As the humanitarian emergency in the country has deepened, we are also seeing more and more clearly the results of decades of unchecked arms and ammunition transfers into South Sudan and, more widely, across Africa.   

Reliable and consistent information about arms transfers across the continent is hard to come by. But the widespread use of deadly weapons, including Kalashnikovs, mines, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs)—many of them in the hands of children and very few made in Africa—underlines the need for the wide and effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). 

This treaty is the first international legally-binding agreement to tighten controls on the multi-billion dollar arms trade. Prior to its adoption, the global trade in bananas was better regulated than the trade in conventional weapons. The treaty is intended to level the playing field, so to speak, in the area of global arms transfers by replacing the diverse regional or unilateral arms controls that existed previously with strong new universal standards. In doing so, it should also improve overall transparency in the otherwise murky global arms trade. 

The ATT is not a panacea against all armed violence, but it is much-needed and long overdue. There are simply too many weapons and too much ammunition flooding into some of the world’s worst conflict zones with relative impunity. As a doctor from Uganda said in the early days of the ATT campaign, attempting to prevent or reduce armed conflict and violence without addressing the supply of arms is like “mopping the floor with the taps on.” 

Indeed, the rapid flare of up violence in South Sudan was aided by the large number of small arms and light weapons already in the country. The deteriorating humanitarian situation continues to be exacerbated by new transfers.  As recently as 2011, Amnesty International documented how the provision of fresh arms from China, Iran and Ukraine were being used in indiscriminate attacks against civilians by government and non-governmental forces, and how the laying of new anti-vehicle mines hampered badly-needed humanitarian access. Despite such warnings, arms and ammunition have continued to enter the country. Apart from the acquisitions being made by the government, many are being supplied to insurgent groups by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, in apparent violation of their end-user agreements with the government of China, who is the manufacturer.  The ATT, once it enters into force, will make such transfers illegal under international law, as all governments will be required to deny an arms transfer that has an “overriding risk” of being used to violate human rights or international humanitarian law. 

South Sudan, along with other countries heavily affected by armed violence, has much to gain from implementation of the ATT. Effective implementation of its provisions, combined with effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs targeting armed groups will also play a vital role. Implementation can begin in earnest once the treaty enters into force. The ATT opened for signature in June 2013. 118 states have since signed it and a further forty-one have ratified it; remarkable progress for a treaty that took over a decade to negotiate.  Fifty ratifications are required for it to enter into force and become legally binding. It is widely expected that this will happen within the next few months. Only then will we see the flow of illicitly-trafficked arms and bullets into these conflicts and others start to dry up—reducing the devastating impact of armed violence on the lives of ordinary people on the ground.

Allison Pytlak is a Master's student in International Relations at The City College of New York.