Below is an open letter from hip-hop artist, activist and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal, urging President Barack Obama to push for a strong Arms Trade Treaty at the U.N. conference this month. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
In Sudan and around the world, children are forced into warfare. Many end up as child soldiers, forced to take lives and continue the cycle of violence that they have been born into. Child soldiers are found today in as many as 20 countries.
I was one of them. I was fortunate enough to have escaped to Kenya and found another life through music. But the lives of many children are cut short before they can escape. The most difficult part of this situation is that these children do not have a choice when they are introduced, often after they have been orphaned, to a perpetual war zone and raised by the harsh reality of the violence around them.
The decision is not theirs to make. It is not made by the South Sudanese child holding the AK-47, the young boy fighting government forces in Colombia or a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The decision to continue the violence is made by people who benefit from conflict – those who sell weapons and bullets to violent groups and create a world of guns and bloodshed. For the child soldiers I knew and those in other conflict zones, war and violence becomes all that they know in life.
Where there are guns and bullets, there is violence. And when violence and lack of opportunity are combined, often times children are pushed to extremes to survive in a hostile environment.
It reaches a point where you ask yourself who would sell bullets to people willing to kill those who are innocent, rape women, or train children to continue this violence. When you learn that selling the weapons used to commit these acts is entirely legal, you wonder why the international community has done nothing to stop it. This requires more than an embargo that takes place after the killing; it requires a way to stop weapons and ammunition from getting to that person or group in the first place.
We now have an opportunity to do just that with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty being discussed later this month. It offers a cure to the problems and tragedies and many other have faced. This treaty can help by stopping the flow of arms to people who commit atrocities and recruit children to fight in the trenches of war zones around the world. Most of the world’s nations see the need to stop the unregulated trade of weapons and support such a treaty in some form.
I strongly support this treaty because of what uncontrolled arms have done to the people of South Sudan. The war killed 2.5 million people and tore apart the core of my family. These deaths happened when militias were handed weapons and ordered to terrorize unarmed villages, displacing much of the population. The government of Sudan also sent Russian bombers called Antonopes with the idea that “if you need to catch the fish, you have to drain the pond” – The fish being the ‘rebels’ and the pond the ‘civilians.’ – This situation is still happening in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains today. If the weapons had been regulated from the beginning, this all might well have been avoided.
The Arms Trade Treaty has been discussed by the U.N. for years and international NGOs such as Amnesty International have been pushing for arms trade regulation for more than a decade. The ATT makes arms sales contingent upon their humanitarian outcome and prevents arms transfers that may lead to human rights abuses. But the ATT can be much better if countries include stronger language preventing arms sales to states and groups using child soldiers and if they add specific bans on violence against children.
In my experience in South Sudan and Ethiopia, we saw horrible suffering. The camp we were in was a sea of lost children forced to bury their own dead. We had rules against killing civilians, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Children are forced to do horrible things that destroy their innocence and scar their souls forever. At that age, a child’s place is in school; they should never be forced to pick up a gun. The things children must face when they are used as soldiers are unacceptable and we must find a way to end such a practice.
The best way to stop the use of child soldiers is to prevent wars from happening in the first place and a good way to stop wars is to keep weapons out of the wrong hands.
I ask that President Obama work with the countries participating in the U.N. conference this month and push for a strong Arms Trade Treaty. To the people of the United States, I hope they understand this treaty is not about the U.N. taking their guns. It is about preventing war and saving lives.