A farewell to arms that fuel atrocities

ATT campaigning at the UN 2013 – © Amnesty International

24 December 2014

In northern Iraq, there have been credible reports of bullets manufactured in Russia and sold by a US company to Kurdish  peshmerga  forces winding up in the hands of the Islamic State (IS) armed group, which is hell-bent on installing a repressive Caliphate across vast swathes of land it has seized by force.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Syria, recent tweets by an alleged member of the al-Qa’ida affiliated al-Nusra Front ( Jabhat al-Nusra ) included photos of a US-made anti-tank guided missile. It had reportedly been captured from “moderate” Syrian armed groups which had been vetted and armed by the US Department of Defense.

IS fighters have paraded weapons and military vehicles they captured in June when Iraqi forces fled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, without a fight. Those forces, trained and equipped by the US-led coalition forces over the last decade, left behind a windfall of weapons and military equipment, mostly sold or given to Iraq by the USA.

Scenarios like these give military strategists and foreign policy buffs sleepless nights. For many civilians in war-ravaged Iraq and Syria, they’re part of a real-life nightmare.

It’s a damning indictment of the poorly regulated global arms trade that weapons and munitions licensed by governments for export can so easily fall into the hands of the very human rights abusers they were intended to combat.

Conflict Armament Research  recently published an analysis of ammunition used by IS in northern Iraq and Syria. The 1,730 cartridges surveyed had been manufactured in 21 different countries, with more than 80 per cent from China, the former Soviet Union, the USA, Russia and Serbia.

These morbid mathematics are all the more troubling because this is a case of history repeating itself. But world leaders have yet to learn their lesson.

For many, the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq drove home the dangers of an international arms trade lacking in adequate checks and balances.

When the dust settled after the conflict that ensued when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s powerful armed forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait, it was revealed that his country was awash with arms supplied by all five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Perversely, several of them had also armed Iran in the previous decade, fuelling an eight-year war with Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

Now, with armed conflict flaring again, the same states are once more pouring weapons into the region, often with wholly inadequate protections against diversion and illicit traffic.

The 1991 Gulf War was only one of a series of murderous crises in the late 1980s and 1990s – the Balkans conflicts, the Rwanda genocide, the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste and conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes region, West Africa, Afghanistan, and Central America. That these were all in some way exacerbated by the conventional arms trade led to a crisis of legitimacy for arms exporting governments.

A trade shrouded in secrecy and worth tens of billions of dollars, every year it claims upwards of half a million lives and countless injuries, while putting millions more at risk of atrocities and serious human rights violations.

In response to this untenable situation, in the mid-1990s Amnesty International campaigners were among a small group of NGO activists who first proposed regulating the irresponsible international arms trade.

At first, they were ignored or even mocked. But two decades on, they have triumphed.

On 24 December, the global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force: a testament to their hard work, creativity and sheer determination. For the first time, there is a treaty that explicitly embeds the human rights implications of each arms sale into every transfer.

The ATT includes a number of robust rules to stop the flow of arms to countries when it is known they would be used for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or serious human rights violations.

The treaty has swiftly won widespread support from the international community. Since being adopted by a clear majority at the UN General Assembly last year, 60 states around the world have already ratified, meaning that the ATT is now legally binding on them. This includes five of the top 10 arms exporters – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

The USA, by far the largest arms producer and exporter, is among 68 additional countries that have signed but not yet ratified the treaty. Other major arms producers like China, Canada and Russia have so far resisted signing or ratifying.

Arms exporting governments that are part of the ATT will now have to carry out objective assessments to avoid an overriding risk that an arms transfer would be used to commit atrocities.

One of the ATT’s objectives is “to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion”, so governments have a responsibility to take measures to stop the likes of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra from getting their hands on weapons that are illicitly traded or captured from their enemies.

Having rigorous controls in place will ensure that states can no longer simply open the floodgates of arms into a country in conflict or whose government routinely uses arms to repress human rights. Its strict implementation could prevent new transfers of arms to places, such as Iraq and Syria today, where corruption and illicit trade frequently result in those arms being diverted from government forces to rogue groups.

The more states get on board the treaty, the more it will shine the light of transparency into the murky waters of the international arms trade. It will force governments to be more discerning about who they do business with.

If the ATT had already been in place, it could have prevented or reduced the scale of some of the atrocities amid the devastating conflict in Syria and Iraq. Now that the treaty has finally become a reality, all states should get on board and begin strictly implementing its lifesaving provisions.
The international community has so far failed the people of Syria and Iraq, but the ATT provides governments with an historic opportunity to take a critical step towards protecting civilians from such horrors in the future. They should grab this opportunity with both hands.

By Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General