The Guns of Sudan

By David Kopel, Paul Gallant, Joanne Eisen

7 July, 2009, The New Ledger. More by Kopel on gun control in Sudan.

Recently in Washington, D.C., the United States government helped facilitate negotiations between the Islamist dictatorship in Sudan, and the former rebels of South Sudan. Back in 2005, the US had brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which is supposed to lead to elections, and to the devolution of much of the power in south Sudan to a mostly autonomous Government of South Sudan (GoSS). Implementing the CPA has turned out to be very difficult; the national elections promised for July 2009 have been pushed back to April 2010. To make things even worse for the people of Sudan, the United Nations has been encouraging the new Government of South Sudan to carry out a UN-backed program which is leading to more deaths and suffering.

For years the mantra of the UN's disarmament bureaucracy has been that fewer guns means more safety -- but UN gun confiscation, Sudanese style, is a deadly disaster for human rights. For example, in 2006, at least sixteen hundred people died in order for GoSS to confiscate about three thousand firearms -- about one person dead for every two firearms confiscated.

Although the government of Khartoum had been trying for many years to confiscate guns in south Sudan (as well as in Darfur), the CPA set in motion the events leading to the current rounds of attempted confiscation. The January 2005 CPA led to the January 2006 Juba Declaration, to unify southern military factions. The fledgling Government of South Sudan and the United Nations both assumed that the next step would be the disarmament of the civilian population, and of the various self-defense militias that were not to become integrated into the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

These days, most Third World governments that want UN funding need to impose some kind of program to take guns away from citizens. Yet few governments have the manpower and financial resources to disarm everyone at once. Accordingly, the people who disarm first can become easy targets for the rest.

The Lou Nuer tribe of the Jonglei state in south Sudan was targeted for disarmament in January 2006. The Lou Nuer argued that they needed protection from the Murle tribe, but no assurances were given them for their security. The GoSS promised that the Lou Nuer would be compensated for their surrendered arms, but no money was ever made available for that purpose. Meanwhile, the army, which was carrying out the gun confiscation, had no funds for its own food, so the army helped itself to the Lou Nuer's cattle. The army and the government mediators ended up eating about 1,300 head of Lou Nuer cattle, according to a UN official's estimate -- and the local subsistence economy, in which cattle are by far the main source of a family's income, was devastated.

So the White Army of the Lou Nuer -- an armed group of teenagers who banded together to defend their tribe -- began skirmishing with the SPLA, and then launched a major attack at the end of January 2006. By May 2006, the White Army was defeated and disarmed. It was estimated that between 400-700 SPLA soldiers and approximately 1,200 White Army teens, along with an unknown number of civilians, died in the conflict, which netted about 3,300 small arms. After mopping up operations were concluded, local authorities deemed the disarmament 95% complete, and a "success."

The Small Arms Survey (SAS), based in Geneva, Switzerland, is the world's leading research organization dedicated to advocating gun control. Generally, SAS's research is far more substantial and accurate than the research of other pro-control groups. Thus, it was particularly notable that even SAS Managing Director Eric Berman penned an article titled "Forcible Disarmament in South Sudan Will Not Improve Security." He pointed out the "considerable human rights violations, significant internal displacement, and wide-scale looting and food insecurity" which resulted from gun confiscation. He also noted that the whole project was a failure, thanks to the "subsequent rearmament" of the populace, who still needed to provide their own security.

On the other hand, Jan Pronk, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan, blamed the victims: "The Jonglei [disarmament] didn't go very well--too many civilians were killed. Mistakes have definitely been made but they have to learn the lesson."

A little while later, local chiefs of Lou Nuer and Murle tribes agreed to the disarmament of their populations, to the southeast, in Akobo. The SPLA was present nearby, and the threat of an attack by the army helped spur allegedly "voluntary" disarmament. The people of Akobo then surrendered 1,400 firearms, less than 25% of the estimated total weaponry thought to be in civilian hands. The UN promptly declared another "success."

Some Murle tribesmen raided the people who had been disarmed, thereby forcing many victims to reacquire weapons as fast as they could. However, many women were unable to do so because of their low economic status. In Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, women begged the government for arms, or for protection against the Murle. But the government did nothing.

Kuol Manyang Juuk, the governor of Jonglei, contends that civilian disarmament is necessary for peace and economic growth. However, Adam O'Brien, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey, writes that there cannot be effective civilian disarmament in the near future, because people will not peacefully give up their means of protection until the people reasonably believe that they will be safe and secure post-disarmament.

Last year, Governor Kuol asked Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit to find the means to remove permanently all the remaining arms from civilian hands. Kiir responded on May 22, 2008, with Operational Order 1/2008, affecting all ten states of South Sudan. The Order stated that, if weapons could not be confiscated peacefully, officials could use "appropriate force."

Kiir's use of "appropriate force," in a context wherein most of the civilians were armed and did not intend to surrender their weapons, was tantamount to a shoot-to-kill order. Soon after Kiir's disarmament order, on June 2, 2008, in Eastern Equatoria (another state in South Sudan), clashes occurred in which ten civilians and nine soldiers were killed. Four thousand people were displaced, their homes torched, and their livestock stolen by SPLA soldiers.

In September, the army attacked the civilian population in Rumbek, and conducted house-to-house searches for firearms. There were reports of rape and looting; the UN said that seven people were killed and ten wounded. The number of weapons collected during this exercise was estimated to be 333. Most of the confiscated guns belonged to local security forces, and their guns were later returned to them. So the cost of collecting a hundred guns was 21 people killed or wounded.

President Kiir has already promised a 2009 disarmament plan, because of escalating violence that results from inter- and intra-tribal tensions. Although Sudan is not known for highly accurate crime statistics, the perception on the ground is that violence has been increasing since the government started confiscating guns.

South Sudan has about 8.2 million people, and about 1.9 to 3.2 million guns in civilian hands. In this context, UN claims of disarmament "success" after the roundup of a hundred or few thousand guns is foolish. More fundamentally, as SAS Research Director Robert Muggah writes:

Donors and governments continue to prioritize, even fetishize, the gathering of hardware. This ‘disarmament bias' persists despite growing evidence that absolute numbers of arms collected do not necessarily contribute to improved security…

It should be emphasized that Muggah and the Small Arms Survey could never be mistaken for "pro-gun" advocates. They are at the forefront of international gun control research. Yet unlike some other gun control groups, they have not lost sight of the principle that gun control is supposed to result in more safety and security. A gun confiscation program which is carried out by homicide, rape, and pillage, and which leaves communities destitute, is a bad policy.

Not that the Small Arms Survey is implacably opposed to the forcible confiscation of guns; for example, the SAS Managing Director simply cautions that it "should be avoided until other options are exhausted."

One important option has not even been tried. For decades, the Murle tribes have been suffering from infertility. As a result, they have bought children from other tribes; more recently, they have been stealing children and killing the children's families. Understandably, the other tribes are very angry at the Murle. If the Murle disarm, they will probably be massacred by armed, angry neighbors. Those Murle who survived the massacre would still have a high rate of infertility, and would be on the fast track to extinction. So the aggressive and very well-armed Murle have every reason to resist any attempt by GoSS to disarm them -- if GoSS follows through on its threat to take the guns anyway, mass killings and perhaps even genocide will result.

The problem of Murle infertility can be documented for several generations, and so it is likely not a genetic problem. It is also likely not a problem related to venereal disease, as other tribes are not afflicted. It is more likely to be a cultural problem or behavioral problem specific to the Murle, which might be curable, with proper research. Unfortunately, the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) has done nothing to investigate, let alone attempt to solve, the Murle infertility crisis.

It is sometimes claimed that the Murle are too rabidly violent, and too suspicious of outsiders to voluntarily visit a clinic. However, we were contacted by a Murle expatriate named Jay Kele who told us that the people are desperate for medical care, and that women would flock to anyone who would be sent to help them. Murle men would not place researchers in danger, but would, instead, guard their safety. Kele also stated he had unsuccessfully attempted to contact WHO about this. We did also, on two occasions, and received no response.

Like the SAS, we agree that in particular situations, more guns can make problems worse. South Sudan, like neighboring regions of Kenya and Uganda, has a long tradition of cattle-raiding. If the cattle raiders only had bows and spears, rather than firearms, there would be fewer human casualties.

But the people in the region are understandably reluctant to disarm asymmetrically. Moreover, they remember that the central 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. Current government gun confiscation programs which are implemented by destroying villages, torturing and killing the men, and raping the woman do not exactly inspire confidence that the central government is benign. The reproductive health problems of the Murle make the situation even worse.

Solutions? Not easy to find. At least a good start would be for the United Nations to start investigating the cause of Murle infertility.

David B. Kopel is Research Director, and Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen are Senior Fellows at the Independence Institute, in Golden, Colorado. Their Quinnipiac Law Review article "Human Rights and Gun Confiscation" details the situation in Kenya and Uganda. Their article in the Notre Dame Law Review, "Is Resisting Genocide a Human Right?" argues that international law affirms the right of Darfuris to forcefully resist genocide.

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