Prevention is better than cure

It’s crunch time for human rights.

On Friday evening New York time the second draft of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was made public in the midst of the UN Final Conference on the ATT. The negotiations will continue on Monday and Tuesday and the final text will be made public on Wednesday 27 March.

The key issue for Amnesty International is whether the Treaty will have a preventive approach to prohibit an arms transfer when the State authorizing it knows that they will be used to commit atrocities. In legal jargon, this means whether it will prevent human rights violations constituting crimes under international law, i.e., extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture. This is what we in Amnesty International call the “Golden Rule”.

When I became an Amnesty member 26 years ago, above all I wrote letters – first handwritten, then on a typewriter and, years later, a computer – Urgent Actions to governments around the world about cases of extrajudicial executions, torture and disappearances (we used to write “disappearances”, with inverted commas, as there was not yet an International Convention on Enforced Disappearances, which entered into force in 2010, as a result of Amnesty International’s efforts).

This week we just celebrated 40 years of Urgent Actions and they remain an excellent tool for activism. At some point I wondered whether it would be better to prevent rather than cure the abuses I was writing about, in other words, how I could ensure that as time went by I would need to write fewer letters and, at the same time, help save lives. That is how I learnt about Amnesty’s position on military, security and police transfers, agreed in the 1980s in the organization’s International Council Meetings. In short, this policy is the “Golden Rule”, which will be the litmus test for the ATT.

Last Thursday in the negotiations room at the UN in New York, Finland submitted a proposal reflecting the Golden Rule in international human rights law. The UK supported this formulation. Spain and Liechtenstein made similar proposals on Friday morning, making clear their commitment to this principle. On the other hand, others like Norway, Japan and Costa Rica made proposals solely focused on the prohibition of transfers linked to violations of International Humanitarian Law during armed conflicts. We will continue to work to convince these and other States so that to put human rights first. In the meantime, the USA is waiting, listening and leaving itself open to discuss how to improve the text on the table, but with some limits. Other states, including some powerful ones, oppose the Golden Rule.

The first half of the match finished on Friday. On Monday and Tuesday, we will play the second half and then we will see whether States will have human rights at the centre of their concerns or put other considerations first – be they geo-strategic, economic or alleged “national security” issues. On Wednesday, we will see whether extra time is needed, because if the treaty is not adopted by consensus on Thursday 28 March, it will go to a vote to the UN General Assembly and will require the support of at least 130 countries out of the 193 UN Member States.

Amnesty International wants the treaty to include at least two basic principles:

a) No state will authorize arms transfers where such a transfer would aid or assist in the comission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or a consistent pattern of violations of international human rights law constituting crimes under international law – such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture;

b) No state will authorize arms transfers where there is a real danger, or substantial risk, that those arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law.

We will also continue to lobby states to carry out rigurous risk assessments as part of their national export control systems, to control munitions, parts and components, and to control arms brokering and transport activities. The ATT should also include strong implementation mechanisms and comprehensive and regular public reporting by all States, to allow scrutiny of whether governments are carrying out their international arms transfers responsibly.

We will keep fighting until next Wednesday, when the final draft text is made public, as “keepers of the flame”, because as Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson said:

“The candle burns not for us but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who ‘disappeared’. That is what the candle is for.”