Like most young boys, I read Shakespeare, played soccer and went swimming in the river. I dreamt of growing up to be an economist in my home country of Sierra Leone. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I would become a child soldier at the age of 13, learning to embrace violence to survive, mastering the skills of how to kill men, women and children with weapons such as AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, Uzi’s and M16s. Yet, that was what happened.
I was a young boy when the war reached me. At the time it was evident that I had no other choice but to take part in the fighting because that guaranteed living for a few more hours, another day, or even weeks. Otherwise, I was prey to every armed individual or group.
When I was forced to join the Sierra Leone Army, they gave me a gun, and, after basic training, ammunition. Instead of training at a shooting range, they would line up prisoners for us to practice on. They gave us AK-47s, the most widely available weapon and the easiest to use. I fought in the civil war for about two and half years and I know my life will never be the same; neither will the lives of the estimated hundreds of thousands of child soldiers currently fighting in conflicts around the world.
However, this week the United Nations has an opportunity to protect millions of children from violent conflicts fueled by the poorly regulated global trade in arms and ammunition by agreeing to a global treaty to regulate international trade in conventional arms.
The treaty is not a panacea to end all violence, genocide and human rights abuses, but it is a colossal step in the right direction. It is also an important missing piece to end the rampant use of children in war and to significantly reduce violence and the number of lives lost in such conflicts. For the first time, it will set an international standard that governments and civil society can use to hold accountable those who sell weapons irresponsibly. It will also prevent the flow of weapons into lawless areas plagued by conflict by closing the many loopholes immoral businessmen now use to navigate with impunity.
At the moment, only a few countries have strong regulations governing the import and export of weapons. Most developing countries have few if any laws. Sierra Leone had no capacity to manufacture the arms and ammunition used in its conflict. Weapons were brought in by unscrupulous arms dealers concerned with lining their own pockets who simply did not care where those weapons would wind up.
The arms trade treaty would make it more difficult for dealers to operate, and it would allow countries such as the United States to work with foreign governments to bring to justice brokers who are not trading responsibly.
As negotiators race this week to finish the text of the treaty, they must include measures to control the flow of ammunition. Weaponry is abundant in Libya, Mali and other conflict zones around the world, but oftentimes ammunition is in short supply.
Some of these weapons, such as AK-47s, are extremely durable. You can bury them, dig them up years later and start using them again. If we didn’t have access to ammunition during the war in Sierra Leone, the AK-47s would have been no more deadly than sticks, and we would have been unable to inflict tremendous violence simply by squeezing a trigger.
The treaty also should ensure that authorization for arms transfers would be denied if there are risks that they will be used to commit human rights abuses or are likely to impair a country’s economic development or efforts to reduce poverty. It’s estimated that armed conflict in Africa squanders about $18 billion a year, the same amount of money that the continent received in foreign aid from multilateral donors in 2010. That’s money that could’ve been spent on vital services such as education, roads and health care.
Around the world, children grow up watching movies that present a false depiction of violence, but when you find yourself living in a violent situation, actually seeing the suffering these weapons cause, you lose any fascination you might have had about weapons and war.
It’s time to make the world a safer place by forging a treaty to regulate the global arms trade.
Ishmael Beahis the author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.