I grew up in the Philippines, a child of missionaries, in the years leading up to the imposition of martial law by the Marcos regime. During those years an armed rebellion was brewing, which ultimately claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Filipinos. Living in a remote rural village, my family lived with the possibility of armed robbery or even kidnapping by communist rebels or common criminals.
Later I joined the staff of World Relief, an evangelical relief and development agency, where I resettled refugees fleeing persecution and violence in war-torn regions. Their heart-wrenching stories left an indelible impression, and a determination to do what I could to reduce the level of senseless violence that continues to plague so many parts of our world.
My work with World Relief took me to live and work in Croatia, Bosnia, Mozambique, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, all places where innocent people have suffered and died at the hands of armed gangs, thugs, rebels and criminal elements, many of whom used illegally acquired weapons to terrorize and abuse their targets with impunity.
A few years ago in Burundi, I sat in a prayer group in a neighbor’s home as the capital city of Bujumbura was shelled by rebels who controlled the surrounding hills. A hand grenade exploded not far from my home. The weapons used in these attacks were not manufactured in Burundi, nor were they acquired through authorized international defense agreements with the Government of Burundi. They were purchased from black market arms dealers, and then used to terrorize and rob civilians. The proceeds of the rebels’ larceny funded the purchase of additional weapons — a vicious cycle.
In all of the countries where I have worked, Christians have generously sponsored relief efforts aimed at binding up the wounds of those affected by civil war and violence. I support these efforts, but I often wonder if we might not also be able to do something to prevent the violence before it happens. I think that is what Jesus calls us to do when he said “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I have seen firsthand the violence, terror, chaos, suffering and death that result from illicit and illegally traded weapons. Each of the victims is a human being made in the image of God. Each life is precious in God’s sight. I am sure that God weeps as he surveys the devastation wrought by his fallen creation.
To be sure, some of the violence I have witnessed was perpetrated by duly constituted national armies, with legally procured weapons. And many of the genocidal murders in Burundi and Rwanda, and the amputations in Sierra Leone, were accomplished with nothing more than a machete — a simple implement meant to be used in subsistence farming. No arms trade treaty will eliminate these dangers.
But the scope and scale of violence has been magnified by the availability of high-powered rifles, grenade launchers, and other more sophisticated weapons that ought not be sold to unauthorized groups. Innocent people are being killed, communities uprooted, and nations destabilized by murderers using illegal weapons that should never have been allowed to fall into their hands.
To its credit, the United States already has model laws governing international arms sales. Without these laws the world would be in even worse shape than it is. But the laws in many other countries are weak, and there is no workable system for international cooperation to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. Even when criminal arms dealers flout our laws, they often elude justice by hiding behind legal loopholes in other countries.
Some critics claim — wrongly, in my view — that an Arms Trade Treaty would threaten our second amendment rights. In fact, the framework for the treaty negotiations specifically excludes any restrictions on domestic gun sales or ownership. This issue is a red herring.
Americans have the constitutionally protected right to own guns. But no patriotic American wants to allow international arms bazaars to outfit terrorists and dictators overseas — especially when those very weapons may be used to kill American troops or attack our nation. Our laws already prohibit such exports.
The Arms Trade Treaty will level the playing field by keeping unscrupulous operators in other countries from doing what our laws already prohibit. The only people that will suffer under an effective Arms Trade Treaty will be gang members, criminals, rebels, terrorists, and rogue governments, who will have their access to international sales of weapons and ammunition cut off. And that is as it should be.
For these reasons and many others a broad spectrum of faith groups, international development organizations, national security experts, industry representatives, and human rights advocates support the negotiations toward an effective Arms Trade Treaty. As the negotiations enter the final stage, we call on the administration to give focused attention to achieving the strongest possible treaty. And we call on all members of Congress to remember that our national security must never be politicized. We ask all our leaders to set aside their partisan differences and to express their solid support for our negotiating team, so that the world will know that we are strong and united in our efforts to promote a safer world.