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“Urgent need” to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands, says ICRC President 

Speaking at the opening of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, ICRC President Peter Maurer issued a stark reminder to states about the impact arms flows are having on societies around the globe. 

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Amnesty International says that the world spent $1.69 trillion on the military in 2016, just over two per cent of global GDP (123reg/Sovpag)

“Arms transfers are at their highest levels since the end of the Cold War,” said President Maurer. “Arms continue to flow – overtly and covertly – to belligerents and violent extremism in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and feed organised crime in the Americas.

“Recently, in Yemen I saw how the war is eroding almost every aspect of people’s lives. The arms trade is rife and continues to flow, despite repeated violations of international humanitarian law. Public services have been bombed, the health system is on its knees, and an unprecedented cholera epidemic has broken out. I met mothers forced to make impossible decisions about whether to buy food or expensive medicines for their families.”

In his speech at the opening High Level Segment of the ATT Conference of States Parties, President Maurer called upon States to consider their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law in their arms transfer decisions and honour commitments under the ATT.

“Three years into the Arms Trade Treaty, there is an urgent need to turn words into deeds, and to prevent the devastating and irreparable harm that is caused when weapons fall into the wrong hands,” President Maurer said.

“There is an urgent need for all States – both in and outside of the treaty – to take an honest look at how their actions and their inactions are perpetuating cycles of violations, insecurity and suffering at tremendous human, economic and societal costs. Failing to manage the supply chain without regard to how weapons will be used is putting a dirt cheap price on the lives of civilians.”

  • A comprehensive study on arms availability undertaken by the ICRC in 1999 demonstrated that there is a clear correlation between easy access to arms in armed conflicts and the commission of war crimes.
  • As long as weapons are too easily available, there is a high risk that 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.
  • ICRC is concerned about the gap between the duty to ensure respect for IHL in arms transfers and the actual transfer practices of too many States.
  • The ATT requires each State Party to regulate the international trade in conventional arms taking place under its jurisdiction, including export, import, transit and brokering, and to take measures to prevent their diversion to the illicit market.
  • Today, 92 States are already party to the ATT and it is widely accepted that arms and ammunition are not just another form of commercial good. States not yet party to the ATT should show their commitment to act responsibly in the arms trade by joining and making it a truly universal legal instrument.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a statement saying that major arms exporters, including the UK and France, are: “Effectively ignoring their treaty obligations by continuing to supply arms even where there is a real risk they could contribute to serious human rights violations.” 

“About half a million people are killed every year by firearms, and millions more are trapped in brutal conflicts fuelled by reckless arms sales. The ATT promised to save countless lives by reigning in this massive, secretive industry, but at the moment weak implementation and a lack of transparency are threatening to undermine it,” said James Lynch, Head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International.

Under the ATT, exports of conventional weapons cannot take place if there is an overriding risk they could contribute to serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. Amnesty International has highlighted several examples where States Parties appear to have broken their obligations under the treaty.

Amnesty explains that under the ATT, all States Parties are required to submit annual reports on their arms imports and exports, saying this is: “Vital to shed light on the international arms trade, which has long been shrouded in secrecy.”

However, Amnesty points out, so far only 48 out of 75 States Parties have submitted an annual report on their 2016 arms imports and exports, and 13 governments, including Iceland and Nigeria, still have not submitted a report for their 2015 arms exports and imports.

Many reports are also full of inconsistencies and gaps alleges Amnesty, for example:

  • A number of states have left entire sections of their reports blank with no explanation. For example South Africa left blank the section in its report on imports of small arms and light weapons, whilst the UK left the entire section on imports blank.
  • Some states fail to provide the number of arms transferred and/or their financial value. For example, Austria did not include in its report information on imports of conventional weapons and France did not report on its imports of major weapons.
  • Several states, including Bosnia, Denmark, Estonia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, merged data on certain imports and exports or aggregated the importing countries, making it impossible to identify how many arms went to each country.
  • “One of the key aims of the ATT is to make the arms trade more transparent; yet states are still leaving out crucial information about who they are selling weapons to and how many, and what type of, arms they are importing,” said James Lynch.

“This is not just an administrative concern. The fact that some states are choosing to leave huge gaps, or simply not submit their reports at all, raises disturbing questions about what they are trying to hide.

“With transfers of major conventional weapons at their highest volume since the end of the Cold War, and weapons continuing to flow into conflict zones and countries rife with internal repression, States Parties need to remember the purpose of this treaty: to reduce human suffering.  They must use this week’s meeting as an opportunity to ensure that all exporters and importers are held accountable to that aim.” 

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