Commentary Magazine


When Disarmament Equals Death

David B. Kopel, the Research Director of the Independence Institute, and two of his colleagues related a fascinating and depressing story about the disarmament process in Sudan. In 2005, the U.S. brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which is supposed to devolve most power in southern Sudan to an autonomous government. Part of thisprocess was the disarmament of civilians, and of militias that were not to be incorporated into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

So the UN set out to work. The Lou Nuer tribe was targeted for disarmament first, but the SPLA pillaged the tribe’s cattle in the process, while neglecting its need for security against its tribal rivals. The Lou Nuer tribe formed its own army and attacked the SPLA. It was eventually defeated, at the cost of over 2,000 lives. Only 3,300 guns were collected, and the tribe ultimately rearmed, since the army was obviously uninterested in and incapable of protecting it. Even the Small Arms Survey (SAS), among the most vociferous advocates of gun control, thought the process was a fiasco. The response fromJan Pronk, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan, was that while civilians had been killed, “Mistakes have definitely been made but they have to learn the lesson.” It’s not clear if the “they” at stake were the dead civilians or the murderous army.

The process has been repeated throughout southern Sudan: an incompetent, corrupt, or criminal administration, with an equally malign army, is being cheered on by the UN as it tries to carry out a process of civilian disarmament, in the context of guns are sources of security against both tribal rivals and the predations of the army itself. Kopel’s conclusion is that “people in the region are understandably reluctant to disarm asymmetrically. Moreover, they remember that thecentral governments of their nations have committed genocide against them in the recent past, and so are unwilling to make their survival dependent on the government’s good will.” The SAS’s conclusion is almost equally apt: “Donors and governments continue to prioritize, even fetishize, the gathering of hardware.”

Why, apart from common humanity and the fact that we are, through the UN, helping to pay for this slaughter, does this matter to us? Well, sitting comfortably on the Obama Administration’s Treaty Priority List is the “Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other RelatedMaterials,” commonly known as CIFTA, its Spanish acronym. And in New York, negotiations for a UN brokered Arms Trade Treaty proceed apace. Both treaties have at their core the same fetishization of hardware, and the same assumption that it’s the guns, not the political and ethnic hatreds that lead to their use, that are the problem. But the UN, pleased with how well its approach has worked in southern Sudan, is eager to take its act worldwide. After all, while mistakes have been made, everyone has learned a lesson.