In many parts of the world, weapons are easy to obtain and armed violence pervasive as a result of the poorly regulated international trade in conventional arms. Civilians continue to face the risk of being injured, killed or displaced by weapons-related violence even after an armed conflict has ended.
Each year hundreds of thousands of civilians pay the price for the widespread availability and misuse of conventional weapons. It is astounding that, while the international trade or movement in dangerous materials – including hazardous chemicals and pesticides, substances that deplete the ozone layer, hazardous waste, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances – is regulated, an international treaty governing the trade in conventional weapons does not yet exist.
Next month, for the first time since the establishment of the United Nations, governments will have the opportunity to remedy this absence of international standards, and be called upon to fulfil their responsibility to do so, when negotiations for an international Arms Trade Treaty are held in New York. There is now broad-based support for the adoption of a treaty that would establish strict standards for the transfer of all conventional weapons. Governments should seize this unique opportunity to curb the costs, human and social, exacted by poorly regulated international arms transfers.
In most of the countries in which it works, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is confronted with the damaging consequences to civilians of insufficient control over transfers of conventional weapons: it provides medical care for tens of thousands of victims of armed conflict, including the disabled who are treated in rehabilitation clinics that it runs or supports. All too often assistance for vulnerable people is simply not available, humanitarian operations being frequently suspended or delayed because of armed security threats. As long as weapons are too easily available, this will facilitate violations of international humanitarian law and endanger the provision of humanitarian assistance.
Over the past 10 years, efforts to limit the human cost of poorly regulated arms transfers have gathered momentum. Around the world, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have repeatedly appealed to governments to enhance protection for civilians in armed conflicts and post-conflict situations by strengthening controls on arms transfers. United Nations agencies, regional organizations and a broad range of civil society organizations have also called for a treaty establishing strict standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons. Since 2006, the United Nations General Assembly has acknowledged on numerous occasions that the absence of uniform international standards for transferring conventional weapons contributes to armed conflict, displacement, crime and terrorism, which, in turn, undermine peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability and sustainable social and economic development.
Under the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, all States have an obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. This entails a responsibility to ensure that the arms and ammunition they transfer do not end up in the hands of those who may be expected to use them in violation of international humanitarian law. To achieve this, the Arms Trade Treaty being negotiated next month should require States to assess whether the weapons they are transferring will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law; the treaty should prohibit transfers when there is a clear risk of that happening.
Conventional weapons of any kind can be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and grave human rights violations. For this reason, the treaty should cover all such weapons. It is equally important that the treaty cover ammunition, which is the “fuel” of weapons-related violence. Exempting ammunition transfers would undermine the treaty’s benefits in the short and medium terms. There are already massive numbers of weapons in circulation, but their impact depends on a constant supply of ammunition.
Negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty is a historic opportunity to reduce the incalculable human and social costs of easy access to conventional arms and ammunition. The implementation of a strong treaty would save lives, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and reinforce compliance with international humanitarian law. Governments now have the opportunity to renew their commitment to the Geneva Conventions by regulating international transfers of conventional weapons.
Sarah Swart is a Regional Legal Advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Pretoria Regional Delegation.
The ICRC works worldwide to provide humanitarian assistance and protection for people affected by conflict and armed violence and to promote the laws that protect victims of war. The legal work of the Pretoria regional delegation focuses on the promotion of international humanitarian law (IHL) through dialogue with national authorities, academic institutions and multilateral organisations. The Regional Legal Advisor thus works to strengthen IHL by promoting the ratification and implementation of IHL treaties and offering support to national authorities in the region with the domestication of IHL instruments.
The delegation operates in four countries: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. In addition, the Regional Legal Advisor provides support to ICRC delegations covering Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles, Rwanda, Angola and Namibia.