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Journey From the Killing Fields: An Arms Trade Treaty at Last

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I wish every official with authority over arms exports -- especially those in Washington, Beijing and Moscow -- could experience the human cost of the irresponsible flow of munitions into the hands of dictators, war lords, murderous drug armies, and militias the way I experienced it; one or two deaths at a time, up close and personal.

Last week's carnage in Nairobi underscores the importance of curtailing the flow of guns into the hands of governments like that of Syria or groups like the Somali-based Al-Shabab who use conventional arms to commit atrocities. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), finally signed by the United States last week, is designed to do just that. Let's hope the U.S. signature places more political pressure on China and Russia to follow suit.

The treaty is the product of 20 years of campaigning by non-governmental organizations and civil society groups united by their conviction that the international trade in bananas should not be more highly regulated than the flow of conventional arms. It's a conviction honed by experiences like mine, long before I started working with Amnesty.

A little past midnight on May 21, 1993, two young Chinese military engineers, Chen Zhi Guo and Yu Shi Li, were killed in a midnight explosion at their camp in Cheung Prey district, Kampong Cham Province, Cambodia. Three other soldiers were wounded. They were part of a Chinese battalion working for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia.

I was sleeping 100 meters away that night, one of 14 international polling station officials in Cheung Prey who would manage the U.N.-brokered elections to begin on May 23. Awakened by the blast, I ran to the scene to see if I could help. I had dined with members of the Chinese unit just six hours earlier.

When I arrived, I was shocked by the gore. I grieved with my colleagues from a dozen nations who had volunteered to work in a "red zone" where security remained tenuous. We waited in stunned silence while Australian Army pilots in Blackhawk helicopters made a dangerous night-time flight from Phnom Penh to medevac the wounded.

I slept fitfully the rest of the night under my flak jacket.

To this this day, we don't know for certain what caused the explosion. Circumstantial evidence pointed to the Khmer Rouge (KR). The Chinese road-builders had a frosty relationship with the KR, despite Beijing's continued arms shipments to the group, because the KR had decided to boycott and attempt to disrupt the elections. Twice in the coming week, we were compelled to evacuate a polling station after the KR launched 81mm mortar and 107mm rockets at us.

But the truth is, any of half a dozen armed groups might have been responsible, or the explosion might have been a tragic accident. Cambodia in 1993, like Somalia and Syria in 2013, was awash in weapons. I had to politely ask villagers to check their RPG's at the schoolyard gate before going in to vote!

The weapons came from every corner of the globe. They flowed to groups who had committed horrendous atrocities. Many of the exports were unlicensed, arranged by arms brokers operating on the margins of legitimate commerce. There was no transparency, no accountability, and no shame.

Thugs around the world wielding AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and other small arms kill roughly 1,500 people every day. They have easy access to arms because until recently there were no agreed international standards linking export licenses to the likelihood the guns would be used to violate human rights.

By signing the Arms Trade Treaty, Secretary of State John Kerry has aligned the United States with the vast majority of nations in saying 'enough' to this irresponsible international arms bazaar. As the world's largest exporter of conventional arms, the United States has a special obligation to lead when it comes to ensuring that exported weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

This should have been an easy call for the Obama administration. It was not. Strident opposition from leaders of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who falsely claimed the ATT would imperil the gun rights of U.S. citizens, spooked the Obama administration and nearly scuttled its willingness to join the emerging international consensus. It would have been an 'epic fail' of U.S. leadership if Washington had acquiesced to the fear-mongering of the NRA and aligned itself with the only three nations openly opposing the treaty: Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed. And today the world is one step closer to the goal of denying those who use guns to kill civilians in shopping malls, launch rocket attacks on polling places, or missiles onto villages and apartment blocks, access to the tools of their trade. That is a good thing, worth celebrating, briefly, before turning our attention to ensuring that the U.S. and other nations faithfully implement the Arms Trade Treaty.