Small Arms and Human Rights: The Need for Global Action

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper for the U.N. Biennial Meeting on Small Arms

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Key Sections

The U.N. Biennial Meeting
The U.N. Program of Action
Small Arms Misuse
Small Arms Transfers
The Way Forward

Small Arms Transfers

The global proliferation of small arms raises serious human rights concerns. Through both irresponsible authorized arms transfers and the flourishing gray market trade in weapons, small arms are readily supplied to gross human rights abusers in countries around the world, including in areas of violent conflict. Such unrestrained small arms flows give known abusers the tools to commit more atrocities. By suggesting to these actors that their abusive behavior is not of international concern, the continued influx of weapons also encourages a culture of impunity that leads to further abuses.

Arms-supplying governments bear a measure of responsibility for the abuses carried out with the weapons they furnish. This is true when governments approve arms deals where they have reason to believe the weapons will be misused. Governments also must share in the responsibility for abuses when they fail to exercise adequate control over private traffickers who make weapons available to anyone who can pay. This analysis applies to international arms transfers, as well as to the provision of arms to abusive or unaccountable forces within one's borders.

In this light, the U.N. Program of Action acknowledgement that national arms export controls must be "consistent with existing obligations of states under relevant international law" takes on special importance. There is a need for governments to explicitly define those obligations as encompassing international human rights and humanitarian law and to take steps to fully implement those requirements as they relate to authorized transfers. This approach is at the core of a proposed international Arms Trade Treaty, a binding instrument containing strong human rights and humanitarian criteria. The Arms Trade Treaty, moreover, would apply to all arms transfers, including transshipment and re-exports, not only direct exports.

A recent international development illustrates the concept of responsibility for atrocities committed by abusive forces whom one has armed:

  • In June 2003, the Sierra Leone Special Court, a court established by agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone, unsealed a March 2003 indictment against Liberian president Charles Taylor. The indictment charges President Taylor with "individual criminal responsibility" for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.6 In particular, President Taylor is indicted in connection with abuses perpetrated by Sierra Leone rebels including acts that terrorized the civilian population, unlawful killings, widespread sexual violence, extensive physical violence, the use of child soldiers, abductions and forced labor, looting and burning, and attacks on peacekeepers and humanitarian workers.7 His responsibility under the charges is derived in part from his alleged role in providing "financial support, military training, personnel, arms, ammunition and other support and encouragement" to the notoriously brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone.8

    Irresponsible Authorized Arms Transfers
    In keeping with their duty to respect and ensure respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, an ever-growing number of governments have promised not to approve arms transfers where there is reason to believe these will contribute to human rights abuses and violations of international law. Minimum standards have been agreed by many arms exporting countries, including in regional and multilateral fora (see annex). Such commitments represent an important step forward in acknowledging government responsibility for the human rights consequences of arms transfers. A key weakness, however, is that they are not binding and are thus often disregarded in practice. In addition, there is little transparency in the small arms trade, which makes it difficult for citizens to have confidence that their governments are adhering to their commitments not to supply weapons to abusers.

    Examples of troubling authorized small arms transfers since July 2001 include the following:

  • Many arms exporters, including the United States, have developed new arms trade ties and expanded others in the name of the international war on terror declared after the September 11, 2001, attacks. In numerous cases, arms have been made available despite concerns about the potential for their misuse. For example, in September 2001, U.S. President George Bush estimated his administration would give about $100 million in military assistance to the Philippines in fiscal years 2001-2002. Approved transfers to the Philippines since late 2001 have included 350 M-203 grenade launchers, 30,000 M16 rifles, and120,000 magazines, the rifles and magazines provided free from surplus stocks. The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report for the period attributed serious abuses to the Philippine military and police forces, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention.
  • In a pattern repeated in many countries that are preparing to enter NATO, Romania announced in 2002 that it intended to sell off quantities of surplus weapons, including ammunition and infantry weapons, because they were too expensive to maintain, and that the proceeds of these sales would be used to pay for the country's NATO-inspired military modernization. In 2001 63 percent of Romania's overall arms exports were comprised of shipments of small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. A Romanian government official has stated publicly that Uganda had received Romanian arms in 2001. Beyond its civil war, use of child soldiers, and overall poor domestic human rights record, Uganda was at the time engaged in a regional conflict in the DRC, where Ugandan forces have been responsible for gross and widespread violations of international humanitarian law. Ugandan forces are also accused of arming and training its proxies and supporting local militia forces that have continued the slaughter in eastern DRC.

    Illicit Arms Transfers
    Contrary to popular conception, illicit arms transfers rarely involve purely black market transactions by shadowy traffickers operating outside the control of government authorities. Instead, the illicit small arms trade relies heavily on so-called gray market transactions. In gray market deals, government approval for an arms transaction is granted on the basis of false or misleading information. The approved weapons shipments are subsequently diverted or re-exported to unauthorized destinations, sometimes in violation of an embargo. Thus the illicit trade in small arms can be traced to governments who approve arms deals with few questions asked and who fail to implement and enforce adequate controls on private traffickers. In some cases, governments knowingly take part in illicit arms trafficking, as when officials provide false cover for arms shipments they know are destined elsewhere.

    These selected examples since 2001 illustrate the role of governments in making illicit small arms trafficking possible:

  • A U.N. investigation has revealed that in 2002 more than 200 tons of weapons, most of them from Yugoslav army stocks, were sold by a private Belgrade-based dealer to Liberia, in violation of a mandatory U.N. embargo. The weapons included several thousand automatic rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and some 4,500 hand grenades, among other small arms. Their sale was arranged using documents falsely claiming the weapons were to go to Nigeria. The Liberian president, who later admitted to violating the embargo, provided the U.N. with a list of imported weapons that almost exactly corresponded to the purported Nigerian end-user certificate. The Serbian authorities did not authenticate this document before approving the export, and the illicit cargo was delivered on six different flights between June and August 2002. The U.N. has indicated that a Moldovan airline and the Belgium affiliate of a second air cargo company transported these weapons. As is typical in such cases, legal loopholes may allow the arms brokers and transport agents to escape prosecution. For example, the Belgian air cargo company apparently is not subject to prosecution for its reported role in the illicit arms deliveries. A new law on arms brokering, passed by the Belgian parliament in July 2002 and including a provision for control over brokering activities in Belgium even if the weapons themselves do not enter Belgian territory, was not yet in force at the time. At least as of May 2003 it still was awaiting entry into force.
  • The United States, which is one of few countries to have national controls on arms brokers and to extend those to the activities of U.S.-linked brokers operating overseas, has yet to prosecute anyone under its 1996 statute.
  • Inaction by governments allows many known arms traffickers to operate with impunity, even when attempts are made to act against them. Notably, a well-known arms trafficker continues to live freely in Moscow despite an international arrest warrant issued against him in February 2002. U.N. reports have accused Russian citizen Victor Bout of playing a key role in illicit weapons deliveries to Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and of involvement in military transport and the illegal plunder of natural resources in the DRC.

    Weapons Circulation
    In the same way that governments are responsible for controlling international arms transfers to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands, they also must act responsibly with respect to the internal circulation of weapons. Governments who provide weapons to proxy forces, such as militias, without adequate training, discipline, and accountability measures, or who fail to impose controls on the circulation of weapons within their borders share in the responsibility for how those weapons are misused. This includes a responsibility to prevent and punish the arming by private individuals of groups used to abuse human rights, such as when politicians arm supporters to carry out politically motivated attacks.

    There are many examples of irresponsible weapons circulation, with major human rights consequences, including the following:

  • In West Africa, the continuing use of civilian militias sponsored by regional governments has contributed to the spread of armed violence. In Liberia, both the government and rebel groups have forcibly recruited civilians, including children, into ill-trained, armed militias. This alarming trend has been extended to Côte d'Ivoire, where the activities of rural civilian self-defense committees have been encouraged by the government. In both cases, the use of such militias has resulted in serious abuses of human rights, such as killings, beatings, and other violence against civilians.
  • In Nigeria, in the months leading up to elections in April and May 2003, politicians and candidates on all sides used armed thugs to commit brutalities against opponents, killing and injuring scores of people. Several officials at the state level have also organized their own personal armed groups or "private armies." The easy availability of small arms in Nigeria facilitates the equipping of "private armies," vigilantes and other armed groups, making the resort to violence more likely - and more deadly. The availability of otherwise unemployed youths and adults to form armed groups is part of a vicious cycle of poverty and violence. The same phenomenon can be seen in the inter-communal clashes that have claimed thousands of lives in Nigeria since 1999, in which groups of youths from different ethnic groups have fought each other, using the large number of small arms at their disposal.

    6 Special Court for Sierra Leone, Indictment against Charles Ghankay Taylor, dated March 7, 2003, copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    7 Ibid., counts 1-17 at paragraphs 32-59.

    8 Ibid., paragraph 20.

    Small Arms Misuse   The Way Forward