UN Member States are currently in New York to negotiate a treaty to regulate international transfers of conventional weapons. I previously blogged about the need for an effective arms trade treaty here and over the coming month will be watching the progress in New York and hopefully blogging some more on the issue. In advance of these future blog postss however, I would like to bring you an interview with Peter Herby head of ICRC’s Arms Unit. Herby outlines what the conference is about and why the issue of an arms trade treaty is so important to the ICRC and the wider Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement.

What is the Diplomatic Conference about?

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. In January 2010, the UN General Assembly decided to convene the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2012 to elaborate a legally binding treaty containing the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms. These negotiations will take place between 2-27 July 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.

Why is the ICRC interested in arms transfer controls?

The ICRC has worked in many armed conflicts and violent contexts around the world for the last 150 years. In most of the countries in which it works, the ICRC is confronted with the terrible consequences for civilians of insufficient control over international transfers of conventional weapons. In 1999, the ICRC published a study conducted at the request of States party to the Geneva Conventions (Arms availability and the situation of civilians in armed conflict). It showed that in many contexts where weapons are widely available, civilians face a similar risk of being wounded or killed in weapons-related violence after armed conflicts have ended as they did during them. As long as weapons are too easily available, they will be misused, lives will be lost, serious violations of international humanitarian law will be facilitated, and medical and humanitarian assistance will be endangered. Since the late 1990s, the ICRC has called for stricter regulation of international transfers of arms and ammunition as a means to reduce the widespread human suffering resulting from the unregulated availability and misuse of weapons. The ICRC has sought to contribute to the development of an ATT that will provide the strongest possible protection of civilians and humanitarian action.

How can the ATT help prevent violations of international humanitarian law?

Under the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, all States have an obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). This entails a responsibility to make every effort to ensure that the arms and ammunition they transfer do not end up in the hands of persons who may be expected to use them in violation of IHL. This principle was supported by States in resolutions adopted by International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2003, 2007 and 2011. The ATT should reflect all States’ obligation to ensure respect for IHL by requiring that they:
  • assess the likelihood that serious violations of IHL will be committed with the weapons being transferred, and
  • do not authorize transfers when there is a clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations of IHL.

How can States be expected to predict what may or may not happen with the weapons they want to transfer?

To assist export licensing authorities and other government officials involved in arms transfer decision-making, the ICRC has developed a “Practical Guide” (Arms transfer decisions: Applying international humanitarian law criteria) outlining the various factors that should be taken into account when assessing the risk of weapons transfers being used to violate IHL. This can also contribute to the development of more systematic and objective approaches to such assessments. For instance, a thorough assessment of the risk that the arms will be used in the commission of serious violations of IHL should include an inquiry into the recipient’s past and present record of respect for IHL; the recipient’s intentions as expressed through formal commitments; and the recipient’s capacity to ensure that the arms or equipment transferred are used in a manner consistent with IHL and are not diverted or transferred to other destinations where they might be used for serious violations of this law. The ICRC also recommends that a list of information sources relevant to assessments be included in any regulations or guidelines developed so as to assist those involved in the decision-making process. Some potential sources of information are illustrated in the “Practical Guide.”

Isn’t it in the eye of the beholder what a ‘serious violation’ of IHL is?

No, it isn’t. Serious violations of IHL are a defined category of offences. They include “grave breaches” (such as wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, taking of hostages, and extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly) – as defined in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocol I of 1977 – and “war crimes,” as defined in Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

What kinds of weapons and transfers should the ATT cover?

lf the objectives of the ATT include reducing the human cost of the poorly regulated global trade in weapons, ensuring respect for IHL and reducing weapon-related human rights violations, then it is difficult to imagine a conventional weapon or type of transfer that would not require regulation. Therefore, all conventional weapons should be included in the scope of the treaty. It is also essential that the ATT cover transfers of ammunition. In so doing, the treaty could help ensure that ammunition transfers do not fuel the misuse of weapons that are already in circulation. By hampering such misuse, strict regulation of ammunition transfers could provide humanitarian benefits in the short and medium term, as it is obvious that existing supplies of conventional arms cannot be used without ammunition. In addition, research has shown that a very large majority of the countries that currently regulate arms transfers also regulate the transfer of ammunition. This demonstrates that regulation of the transfer of ammunition is both practical and desirable. In addition, all types of transfers should be regulated by the ATT. Activities such as sales, transit, trans-shipment, loans, leases, as well as brokering and closely related activities, should all fall within the scope of the ATT to ensure that it is truly comprehensive and effective by closing potential loopholes.

What will the ICRC be doing during the Diplomatic Conference?

In its capacity as Observer to the UN, the ICRC will contribute to the work of States during the Diplomatic Conference. Our Vice President will address the High-Level segment at the beginning of the Conference, and ICRC representatives will intervene at key moments during the negotiation. Our aim is to help ensure that the Conference ends with the establishment of a global framework for responsible arms transfers that will help protect civilians from IHL violations and other acts of wanton armed violence in violation of international human rights law. We believe it is important to have an instrument that is strong, clear, easily implemented and will make a real difference on the ground.