In the name of my grandfather: My personal search for a lifesaving Arms Trade Treaty

Amnesty International was one of the many organizations that campaigned for an Arms Trade Treaty
Amnesty International was one of the many organizations that campaigned for an Arms Trade Treaty

It was a special moment I’ll never forget.

On Wednesday morning 27 March as I walked towards the UN official giving out copies of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), I held my breath wondering how the Golden Rule principle of “No Arms for Atrocities” had been worded in the final treaty text.

We knew it would be worked in somehow, but it was an intriguing moment nonetheless. I quickly glanced at the preamble, scope and implementation articles and rushed to carefully read articles 6 and 7, encompassing the Golden Rule. I read it again, in case I had missed something. Then I had a look at the provisions on reporting, diversion and how the treaty can be changed in the future. I took a deep breath and said to myself: “Well done to Amnesty, we’ve got the Golden Rule in.”

After nearly 20 years of working on this issue, I felt relieved, but the battle was not over yet. I have many fond memories of this long process, but a particular one came to my mind when I held the text in my hands. I remembered walking on the frozen sea in the winter of 2001 as we came out of a successful meeting in the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry with my friend Frank Johansson, Director of AI Finland.

Of course it was Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s Head of Arms Control and Human Rights, who, 20 years ago, came up with the concept of the ATT, sitting in small room with colleagues from Saferworld, BASIC and the World Development Movement. And he has been instrumental in getting us here. As has Clare da Silva, our bright ATT legal advisor, the real legal brain behind the ATT text and many of our suggested recommendations.

I think a turning point in this long struggle was when Frank managed to “sell” the idea to Erkki Tuomioja, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was our first champion beyond Costa Rica and managed to get the support of other governments, including the UK – whose support has been key and was achieved through sustained campaigning and lobbying by Amnesty International and others – Australia, Japan and other states known as the “co-authors”. They, along with Kenya and Argentina, launched the ATT process in the United Nations.

But I had no time to waste. I quickly ran back to Amnesty’s office close to the UN to meet our legal and policy experts to analyse the text. The devil is in the detail, but the overall feeling was “Yes, we like it”. Of course it could be better, but the hard work put in by some 25 Amnesty International lobbyists from all over the world over the past two weeks seemed to have paid off. We’re certain that none of this would have come about without the support of campaigners, lobbyists and media workers back in capitals, supported by Amnesty members.

Although the final ATT has some deficiencies, we think it includes some strong rules to help protect human rights.

Article 6 of the treaty includes strong prohibitions on arms transfers that fuel genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – giving states no wiggle room to continue sending arms to fuel atrocities.

We are also encouraged by the wording in Article 7, which obliges states to assess the overriding risk of serious human rights violations – including extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances – before giving an arms transfer the green light. This is a major breakthrough, and hopefully we won’t ever again face a situation where a legal loophole allows unscrupulous arms brokers to profit from selling arms to fuel atrocities without ever being brought to justice. Think of the Rwanda genocide in the mid 1990’s.

Apart from preventing future Rwandas (or serious human rights violations we have reported more recently in countries including Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo and others), I have a very personal reason for having pursued a lifesaving ATT that protects human rights.

In the early days of the Spanish Civil War, my grandfather Javier Estévez, then 33 and a member of a Republican leftist party in Spain, was severely tortured by his fascist cousin (an irony of fate, as there is always an element of envy in these tragedies). Later, on the morning of 14 September 1936, he was shot in the head by his cousin, just outside the cemetery of Ponteareas, the small town where he lived in north-western Spain.

My grandmother was left alone with four kids and the stigma of being the widow of a “Red”. If only an ATT had been in place in those days (the League of Nations did try something similar in the 1920s, but failed), maybe the transfer of the pistol used to kill my grandfather would not have been authorized, his life would have been spared and my grandmother saved from years of hardship.

I am sure that this ATT will help save other people’s lives. So I dedicate this to the memory of my grandfather.

The litmus test will be how the Treaty is implemented, but before that we needed to get the vote through on Tuesday 2 April. That was a historic moment we enjoyed from the balcony of the UN General Assembly hall. That memory of the large screen with the results of the vote will be with me forever. We made it happen!: 154 “yes”, 23 abstentions and 3 “no” votes. Amazing!.

The ATT will be signed on 3 June and we need 50 ratifications for a speedy entry into force – meaning if enough states get on board quickly, we could have a functioning treaty within a little more than a year. So we’d better get cracking on the ratification campaign!.

Last week we saw a repeat of last July, where our hopes to see the treaty text adopted by consensus were dashed. But it was only a delay. We knew it could happen.

Over the long weekend, we emailed and called scores of diplomats to get them to co-sponsor or vote “yes” to the resolution Kenya submitted to the UN General Assembly.

This went to a vote by all UN member states Tuesday 2nd April, some time after 11 am New York time. Almost 100 states co-sponsored the resolution. We were confident that this time, we would win through.

We didn’t get an ATT last July, or last week. But on Tuesday 2 April 2013 it happened. A historic day for human rights. As the saying goes, “third time, lucky!”