Annual Report 2013
The state of the world's human rights

10 December 2003

Control Arms Campaign: Tangible momentum and potential for real change

Control Arms Campaign: Tangible momentum and potential for real change
By Mary Robinson

On this 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, threats of new terrorist attacks and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction dominate the headlines.

But the real weapons of mass destruction go largely unnoticed by those of us who live far from conflict and war. Those weapons are the 639 million small arms in circulation, and at least 16 billion units of military ammunition produced every year – enough to shoot every man, woman and child on the planet twice.

Such figures on their own would mean little, if it were not for the fact that the easy availability of arms increases the incidence and impact of armed violence, and can trigger conflict and prolong wars once they break out.

During my five years as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I spent a huge proportion of my time meeting people who had been terrorized by armed violence.

I went to Colombia and met some of those caught in the crossfire. I witnessed the same in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Time and again, a tide of weapons fed the slaughter and kept the conflict going.

So where do the weapons used to deny people their most basic human rights come from?

According to the 2003 edition of the Small Arms Survey, 1,134 companies in at least 98 countries are involved in some aspect of small arms production. At least 30 countries are regarded as significant producers, with the United States and the Russian Federation dominating the global market. Between them, these two countries account for more than 70% of total worldwide production of civilian firearms. Russia and the US, together with the three other permanent members of the UN Security Council - France, UK and China - supply 88 per cent of the world’s arms.

As the survey points out, “The majority of countries involved in the small arms trade still fail to provide comprehensive official data on their annual arms exports and imports. A significant proportion of the global trade in small arms is conducted in secrecy, reinforcing an environment in which corruption and black markets thrive.”

The lack of data on the arms trade also makes it easy for many of the weapons traded legally to end up in the wrong hands. Almost all (80-90 percent) small arms start off in the legal sphere - they are manufactured legally and their initial trade is state-sanctioned. Yet many get into the wrong hands where they fuel conflict and abuse in the most unstable areas of the world.

Added to this significant problem, the situation has become worse since the terrible attacks in the United States on 11th September 2001. In the name of fighting a "war on terror", more arms have been supplied to regimes that have poor human rights records. Some of the recipients of increased US military aid are armed forces that have committed grave violations of human rights, and which the US state department itself has identified as being amongst the worst human rights violators.

In the year after the 11th September attacks, security assistance from the US to Uzbekistan, for example, increased by $45 million, despite the continuation of systematic human rights violations in the former Soviet state.

Several other countries, including the UK, have cleared for export increasing numbers of arms to countries in which human rights violations continue. For example, UK arms sales to Indonesia grew by 20 times from 2000 to 2002.

The displacement and deaths of millions of innocent civilians are not the only human rights consequences of such exports. Governments in countries at war are also much less able to meet long-term commitments to education, healthcare and housing - all of which are fundamental human rights.

Despite the deadly nature of the trade, there are currently no binding international laws to regulate the arms industry.

Over the last five years, the problem of the illicit proliferation of small arms has been recognized and there have been small steps towards international controls. The UN Program of Action on small arms and light weapons, adopted in July 2001, contains some positive provisions including measures to monitor progress on collection and destruction of arms. However, it does not mention human rights, makes few references to international humanitarian law, and doesn’t provide a mandate for creation of a binding law.

Responsibility for controlling the arms trade lies with all exporting and importing countries. As the world’s largest exporters of arms, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council must face up to their role in fuelling the conflicts that destroy people’s livelihoods and trap countries in a cycle of violence and poverty.

The need for strong action by Security Council members was highlighted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his 2002 report to the Council. For example, he recommended that the Council support the development of an international weapons marking and tracing instrument and also mentioned the need to enhance transparency in armaments.

The urgently required international action, recognized by the United Nations, is the subject of a new Control Arms campaign, launched by Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

The organizations have banded together to press for regulation in the form of an Arms Trade Treaty. The proposed treaty includes legally binding criteria based on existing international law, to stop the flow of arms to human rights abusers, repressive governments and criminals. Governments would be required not to sell arms where they would be used to violate human rights or international humanitarian law, at last injecting regulation into a dangerously unregulated trade.

Though the campaign was only launched two months ago, numerous governments from Macedonia to Mali, Cambodia to Costa Rica have all expressed their support for an Arms Trade Treaty. With key influential leaders such as President Lula of Brazil also backing the campaign, there is tangible momentum and potential for real change.

After World War Two, countries pledged support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to stop the “barbarous acts” that had outraged the world’s conscience. But atrocities continue and it is now time to control the arms fuelling these violations.

This can only be achieved by the creation of a new universal declaration – an Arms Trade Treaty.

Mary Robinson is a former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is now Honorary President of Oxfam International and heads the Ethical Globalization Initiative.

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