Are states getting cold feet as Arms Trade Treaty talks heat up?

By Widney Brown

As the first week draws to a close at the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations being held at the UN in New York, there is a chill in the air that is not solely attributable to the snowy, windy weather.

It seems that just as governments have a real opportunity to make a difference – to draft and adopt a treaty that could save lives and reduce suffering – they are getting cold feet.

Since its inception, the UN Security Council has had the power to impose arms embargoes that – in theory – should stop the flow of arms into states that systematically violate international humanitarian law.

But as we know, these embargoes – when they are imposed – are often far too late. At Amnesty International we call this the “body bag” approach to arms control. Wait until enough civilians have been killed and then decide to stop shipping arms to those who are targeting civilians.

The states gathered here have the opportunity to move beyond the body bag approach. It is within their powers to adopt a treaty that would identify situations in which arms were being used to commit atrocities or in danger of being diverted to an illegitimate end user and prohibit those arms transfers.

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty urges the Arms Trade Treaty plenary to ensure weapons and munitions never go to fuel war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of human rights. © Amnesty International

We are proposing two separate criteria for assessing whether any government should transfer arms, ammunition and related technology to another country. First, if the government knows that the weapons would be used to commit abuses, the transfer should be prohibited. Second, if the government determines that there is a significant likelihood that the weapons would be used to commit abuses, the transfer should be prohibited.

It is not rocket science.

But some of the states involved in the negotiation want to keep prohibitions as narrow as possible. For example some are arguing that the state would only need to prohibit a transfer if it was their intent that the weapons would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and a limited number of war crimes.

Or another way to put it, even if they knew that the weapons were being used to commit war crimes and serious violations of human rights, they could still arm those perpetrators.

So the question becomes: how many civilians need to be killed before you stop supplying weapons to someone who has already demonstrated disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law? And what war crimes are “serious enough”? One proposal being bandied about could be read to exclude war crimes of sexual violence.

We knew when we arrived in New York that states were eager to safeguard the economic and political power they have as arms suppliers. We also knew that the treaty would have to be shaped so that all those countries that sell arms would have to be working from a level playing field. No government wants to do the right thing of stopping arms transfers to an abusive government only to see another government step in and swipe their arms deal.

But economic and political interest cannot be used to justify sending arms to a country where you know the government and its security forces are committing war crimes or serious violations of human rights.

Again, it is not rocket science. States need to stop counting money and start counting the lives they could save. Spring cannot be late this year.