Time to end the civilian suffering fuelled by irresponsible arms trading

This week diplomats meet in Geneva to discuss the progress of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the world’s first treaty regulating the international trade in conventional weapons. For people in countries like Yemen and Iraq where weapons are fuelling deadly conflicts, this meeting is nothing short of an emergency. 

I was at the UN General Assembly when the ATT was adopted in April 2013 after two decades of sustained campaigning by Amnesty International and many NGO partners, and years of discussions and negotiations. The room broke out in emotional applause: finally, for the first time, states would have to put the protection of human rights at the centre of their decision-making when selling or transferring weapons to other countries. So far 92 states have joined the treaty and 38 states have signed it. This is rapid progress, but there’s a problem: some of these states are still authorizing irresponsible arms transfers, undermining one of the main purposes of the treaty: to reduce human suffering.

It was never going to be easy to rein in an industry as massive and secretive as the arms trade. About half a million people are killed every year by firearms, and arms transfers are at their highest volume since the end of the Cold War. We expected progress to take time. But four years on, the actions of some states who have joined the treaty have been almost brazen in their disregard for their obligations, and the consequences for civilians have been horrific.

The UK, a State Party to the ATT, was one of its most enthusiastic early proponents. When the UK ratified the ATT in 2014, it made a promise: it would not transfer weapons which it knew would be used in war crimes or could contribute to serious violations. It has broken that promise by continuing to export huge amounts of weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has committed a litany of serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes, in Yemen since 2015. Just last month a single airstrike killed 10 people and injured 7 in Sana’a, including five children, while they slept in their homes. A recent UN report found that as of August 2017 at least 5,144 civilians, including more than 1,184 children, have been killed in Yemen and many more have been injured since the start of the conflict.

The UK’s dangerous liaison with Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads has received plenty of attention but the facts bear repeating: the UK is required under international law not to supply weapons to known gross violators of human rights, and yet it goes ahead anyway. It is evading its legal responsibilities, and Yemeni civilians are paying the price. A UK court ruling in July that the government is entitled to continue authorizing arms supplies to Saudi Arabia was a deadly setback to Yemeni civilians and a deeply disappointing outcome, given the clear risk arms could be used to commit serious violations in Yemen.

The ATT can help to save lives, but only if it is properly implemented, and if states are held to accountable for irresponsible arms transfers.

Rasha Abdul Rahim

Meanwhile France, which also ratified the treaty in 2014, continues to export substantial amounts of weaponry to Egypt, where a crackdown on dissent has killed, tortured and injured hundreds of people since 2013. In 2014 the French government authorized exports of Sherpa armoured vehicles, months after such vehicles had been used in the violent attack on protesters in Raba’a Square in 2013, which left at least 900 people dead and thousands more injured.

The US, by far the world’s largest exporter and producer of arms, which has signed but not ratified the treaty, has also approved reckless arms deals. In May 2017, the US agreed $110 billion worth of potential arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The deals include $4.6 billion worth of guided air-to-ground munitions – a total of 104,000 bombs of the type that have been used routinely in the Yemen conflict.

History has shown that the consequences of poorly regulated arms flows are devastating. In Iraq, for example, decades of poor regulation and lax controls on the ground have provided the armed group calling itself Islamic State with a large and lethal arsenal that is being used to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale in Iraq and Syria. Arms manufactured by the US, European countries, Russia and Iran have also ended up in the hands of paramilitary militias, now incorporated into the Iraqi army, who have used them to facilitate the enforced disappearance and abduction of thousands of mainly Sunni men and boys, torture and extrajudicial executions.

Such cases illustrate exactly why reckless arms transfers need to be at the forefront of discussions at this week’s conference. The euphoria in that UN General Assembly room four years ago was a recognition of the treaty’s potential to reduce human suffering and prevent conflicts from turning into the carnage we see in countries like Iraq and Yemen. The ATT can help to save lives, but only if it is properly implemented, and if states are held to accountable for irresponsible arms transfers.

The treaty is not a panacea and will not end all conflicts, but it does have the potential to prevent the conditions that create conflicts in the first place. The international community has so far failed countries like Yemen and Iraq, but by putting human rights protections at the core of the treaty’s implementation they could take a critical step towards protecting civilians from such horrors in the future. One important step would be for states to use the discussions this week to prioritise implementation of the human rights protections in the treaty and actively address specific cases of irresponsible transfers.

After all, by joining the treaty, states signalled their commitment to end the irresponsible arms trade. Failing to live up to this legal obligation will condemn many more civilians to being denied their human rights down the barrel of a gun.