Message from the front line: Adopt a strong arms treaty ‘before millions more die’

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No one knows the global arms trade’s devastating effects more vividly than those who live and work on the front lines of armed conflict and in areas ravaged by violence delivered from the barrels of small arms.

Far removed from such scenes are most of the diplomats who will gather at the United Nations this month to thrash out – and hopefully adopt – the final text of a historic global treaty to regulate arms transfers worldwide.

One man who has set foot in both worlds is Mujahid Alam, a retired Pakistani Brigadier General who has served on UN Peacekeeping missions in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kosovo.

“On both missions I observed the complete lack of strict regulation of the arms trade, due to which both DRC and Kosovo had huge proliferation of illegal arms,” Alam recently told Amnesty International.

“These illegal arms directly contributed to a very large number of civilian casualties in prolonged conflicts that destabilized Africa’s Great Lakes region and Europe’s Balkans, directly resulting in very grave humanitarian and human rights violations.”

The civilian cost

Women and girls frequently suffer serious human rights violations in armed conflicts, said Alam, and the proliferation of illegal arms fuels gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

Children, too, are particularly at risk. When unregulated weapons fall into the hands of armed groups as well as unscrupulous armed forces, frequently child soldiers end up being both the victims and the perpetrators of human rights abuses, he said.

And, according to Alam, poorly regulated arms sales exacerbate poverty since poor countries whose governments cannot provide their people with basic health, education and social welfare sometimes spend huge amounts on arms to suppress their own populations.

In fact, the only real winners in the current virtually lawless world of the global arms trade – worth over US$80 billion in 2010, in terms of the volume of recorded arms transfers – are the abusers and the corrupt.

“The criminals, smugglers, brokers, unscrupulous arms manufacturers and the heartless and corrupt government officials win. The poor and under-privileged innocent bystanders – women, children, old men – always lose. I have personally seen the prolonged misery and suffering of these poor people in DRC and it is truly heart-rending,” Alam said.

Fuelling human rights abuses

Amnesty International estimates that at least 60 per cent of the human rights violations it documents around the world are linked to the use of small arms and light weapons.

In some countries with a history of armed conflict, such as Somalia, UN arms embargoes have been in place for years, but have done little to prevent the flows of weapons, ammunitions and the resulting grave abuses.

“In Somalia, all UN arms embargoes have been violated with impunity, and no serious action has been taken against the perpetrators,” Alam continued. “Somalia’s land borders are very porous and it has a long and open coastline, which easily allows large-scale smuggling of arms from elsewhere – via land, sea and air.”

A UN Panel on Somalia has identified the problems, but fears persist that little progress will be made unless the international community takes a radically new approach to tackling the problem.

The Brigadier General also took part in an International Commission of Inquiry into the arms supplies to the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide which was established in 1995 following reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Commission’s findings and recommendations to improve the post-conflict situation went largely unheeded. He then served on the UN Panel on the exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where again he found evidence of arms trafficking which continues today.

“One of the lessons drawn was the highly damaging role played by illegal supply, trade and sale of arms – particularly small arms – by states and non-state actors alike. I strongly believe that an international Arms Trade Treaty would significantly reduce serious human rights violations and contribute to a general reduction in conflicts and their intensity,” he said.

Hopes for a strong ATT

“There is an urgent need for civil society, media and international NGOs to bring significant pressure on the influential countries and organizations to take immediate action for an effective ATT before millions more die,” Alam explained.

What is needed, he said, is a comprehensive treaty covering all types of conventional arms – including small arms and light weapons as well as munitions – and closing any loopholes which might allow some arms to still make their way into the wrong hands.

“The ATT must ensure that states regulate the full range of conventional arms, including all weapons, munitions, armaments and related articles used in military and internal security operations. The treaty must also have clear humanitarian and human rights goals and standards, as well as rigorous criteria and risk-assessment procedures,” he said.

Alam will continue to push for a strong ATT as the final treaty talks approach in mid-March, and he will be joined by many tens of thousands of Amnesty International and civil society supporters around the world who have spent nearly two decades campaigning for the treaty.

“Over the last many years Amnesty International has been a leading advocate for an effective ATT – it has been a pioneer in this field and has made major contribution to persuade many countries to sign,” said Alam.

“Without the organization’s support and contribution, this treaty could never be successful.”