Innocent victims of conflict deserve protection from arms trade

The proposed global arms treaty that is being debated in the UN must put the world’s most vulnerable ahead of political or business interests, writes Colm O’Gorman

Innocent victims of conflict deserve protection from arms trade

A rebel in the Central African Republic brandishes a machine-gun.

HOW many civilians need to be killed before we stop arming their killers? How many women must be raped, families forced from their homes, children put into armed combat, and prisoners tortured before we stop putting guns in the hands of war criminals and human rights abusers?

That is traditionally how the UN Security Council makes decisions about arms embargoes. At Amnesty International, we call this the “body bag” approach. Wait until enough people have been killed, then decide to try to stop shipping weapons to the people killing civilians.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to lead one of those countries with a powerful sponsor at the UN Security Council to veto any attempt to put an arms embargo in place at all.

In which case, like President Assad of Syria, you can rack up a body bag count of over 60,000 and be confident you’re not going to run out of ammunition any time soon.

There are no international rules to make governments stop weapons and ammunition being sold or given to dictators, war criminals, and human rights abusers.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Right now, negotiations are taking place at the UN in New York to agree a global treaty that will, for the first time, regulate and restrict a trade in conventional small arms like rifles, machine-guns, and rockets that is worth an estimated $120bn (€93bn) every year. The deadline for agreement is tomorrow.

The overwhelming majority of UN members, including Ireland, want a strong treaty. They want one that will save lives, protect vulnerable communities and ethnic groups, and prevent weapons from ending up in the hands of those who would use them on innocent men, women, and children.

But for this treaty to be effective, we need the support of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — who are also the world’s top five arms dealers. Between them, China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US are responsible for over half the global trade in conventional weapons.

The US has provided weapons and ammunition to Yemen’s security forces even though they have massacred hundreds of people taking part in peaceful protests against the government. Arms used by the Egyptian security forces during the uprising had “made in the USA” stamped on them.

China has provided weapons to countries like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have appalling human rights records.

In 2012, Amnesty International published research that showed China and Russia were supplying ammunition, helicopter gunships, attack aircrafts, air-to-ground rockets, and armoured vehicles to Sudan’s government. They did this knowing the weapons would end up in the hands of military units and government-backed militia who were responsible for attacks on civilians in Darfur.

These kinds of weapons shipments should not take place. Along with the Irish Government and the vast majority of UN member states we are working for a strong treaty that will have two key provisions.

First, if a government knows that the weapons it is selling would be used to commit serious human rights abuses or war crimes, or if it believes there is a substantial risk of this, the shipment cannot go ahead.

Secondly, the treaty must include all forms of arms. The US is putting pressure on other countries to agree that ammunition should be excluded from the terms.

Last Friday, a draft text was presented to negotiators and there were some welcome improvements, but there are serious gaps that need to be closed. The draft would ban arms from going to countries known to use them for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. This is really positive, but there is a massive loophole.

Arms could be transferred if they were “only” being used for summary and arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances, or torture committed outside armed conflict.

In addition, the draft treaty would allow a state to make arms transfers even where there is a real danger the arms will be used for war crimes or gross violations of human rights. They simply need to believe that the arms would “contribute to peace and security”.

So Russia could sell weapons to Syria, knowing they would be used to commit war crimes, if they believed a victory for the Syrian government would “contribute to peace and security”.

Human rights are in danger of coming second to power politics.

Those governments who obtain significant economic and political power in their role as arms suppliers or recipients are reluctant to support this treaty. Many manufacturers are wary of any kinds of restrictions being imposed.

But economic and political interest cannot be used to justify sending arms to a country where you know the government and its security forces are committing war crimes or human rights violations.

The US, as the world’s largest arms dealer, has a special responsibility for ensuring a successful treaty. Strong support for human rights from the US would make all the difference.

President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

It’s time he earned it.

*Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up