Human Rights News

Small Arms Campaign - Obstacles to Progress

The Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all its Aspects represents a crucial opportunity to address the urgent problem of the spread and abuse of small arms and light weapons, the weapons of choice for forces that have consistently abused human rights and violated international humanitarian law in conflicts around the world.  

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U.N.: "Program of Inaction" on Small Arms
Press Release, July 19, 2001

Human Rights Watch has documented the conduct of well-armed abusive forces in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, among others, and has exposed the channels through which arms are funneled to areas of armed conflict, as well as states responsible for exports to abusive forces, including Bulgaria and South Africa, among others.  
After years of neglect, U.N. and other multilateral efforts by U.N. member states have helped put small arms on the international agenda. These initiatives have been complemented by the work of nongovernmental organizations to highlight the human rights dangers posed by unregulated and unrestricted small arms flows.  
The Conference will focus on the "illicit" aspect of the small arms trade. But participants must recognize that many illegal weapons currently in circulation were at one point legally transferred by governments or with government approval. In addition, governments have failed to rein in private traffickers.  
Thus Human Rights Watch holds that it is governments' responsibility to help solve a problem that governments have largely helped create. They should do so by developing binding norms and implementing measures to halt flows of arms, especially small arms and light weapons, to human rights abusers. It is also imperative that governments muster the political will and bolster their ability to bring to justice those who by misusing small arms, or facilitating their illicit flows, have been either instrumental in perpetrating human rights abuses or have acted in contempt of international humanitarian law.  
Human Rights Watch urges that the Conference set in motion actions by U.N. member states to negotiate and approve binding norms and the implementation of measures to stop weapons from winding up in the hands of human rights abusers. Three priority areas demand early action:  
1. Develop and enact binding national or regional codes of conduct on arms transfers.  
Codes of conduct lay out criteria for the approval of weapons transfers, and as such introduce explicit human rights considerations into governments' weapons export decisions. To date, some of the world's major weapons suppliers have adopted codes of conduct.  
The Conference cannot ignore the cardinal principle of self?restraint embodied by codes of conduct and also advocated by the U.N. group of experts on small arms. The line between the illicit and legal trade is often murky or deliberately blurred, as occurs with covert transfers.  
The Conference should therefore strongly encourage U.N. member states to develop binding codes of conduct at the national or regional level, with a view toward eventually negotiating an international code of conduct on arms transfers. Human Rights Watch believes that all such codes should include at a minimum the prohibition of arms transfers to governments and non-state actors that:  
  • gravely or systematically violate human rights or international humanitarian law;
  • fail to prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for such violations;
  • do not include as part of the training of their armed forces, paramilitary forces, and the police and other law enforcement agencies the instruction that members of such forces have the duty to refuse orders to commit human rights abuses;
  • do not provide access on a regular basis to humanitarian international and nongovernmental organizations in times of conflict or humanitarian emergency, and do not grant access to human rights monitors at all times;
  • violate international arms embargoes imposed on human rights abusers;
  • or are not actively engaged in the creation of national and regional registers for small arms (see below).
Furthermore, the Conference should urge U.N. member states to incorporate these criteria into national legislation and report annually on their implementation to the U.N. General Assembly.  
2. Increase transparency in arms transfers through reporting and the creation of registers.  
Currently small arms transfers are not reported to the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms. A lack of data on small arms movements hampers efforts to track the flow of such weapons, monitor possible diversions, and sound early warnings. Therefore, states should compile and make public annual reports on the import and export of small arms, as well as their procurement by government agencies from domestic manufacturers.  
These reports should provide information on both government-to-government and commercial arms transfers and list the following:  
  • destination;
  • quantities and types of weapons transferred;
  • export/import approvals and actual deliveries;
  • parties involved; and
  • reasons for rejecting a transaction (e.g., human rights record of recipient).
An appendix to the annual report should include a list of parties that have been prohibited from engaging in arms transfers, and parties that have been found guilty of violations of national trade laws, international arms embargoes, or unauthorized arms diversions or re-exports.  
Annual reports should be consolidated in regional reports with a view to creating regional registers of small arms and, eventually, a U.N. register.  
3. Implement and enforce arms embargoes.  
The Conference should urgently address the problem of implementing, monitoring, and punishing violators of international arms embargoes imposed on human rights abusers by the U.N. or regional bodies.  
As long as embargoes remain unimplemented and their violators enjoy impunity, they have the potential of doing more harm than good. They make a mockery of the international community's will and the failure to enforce them fosters the undesirable "side effect" of an illicit arms trade. To avoid such outcomes, U.N. member states should agree at the Conference to:  
  • Incorporate international arms embargoes into national legislation and adopt measures to accelerate this process;
  • Prosecute violators who supply or aid in the supply of weapons to embargoed states and non-state actors;
  • Adopt legislation that would allow the prosecution of offenders even if the violation has been committed on foreign soil;
  • Prosecute violations of international embargoes committed by one=s nationals or residents even when such violations occur outside national borders;
  • Create embargo oversight bodies to coordinate action with all pertinent government departments and collect information from all available sources;
  • Provide funding and expertise for the creation of a new Arms Embargo Unit within the U.N. to monitor the implementation of international arms embargoes, in consultation with the U.N. sanctions committees; and
  • Follow up and further elaborate the recent initiatives undertaken by the Security Council panels on Angola and Sierra Leone, as well as by the Security Council Working Group on Sanctions, and the recently completed so-called Bonn/Berlin process.
Cooperation with NGOs  
Human Rights Watch also calls on Conference participants to consult and work with nongovernmental organizations, in particular with the members of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a worldwide coalition whose aim is to curb the proliferation and misuse of small arms, and which includes Human Rights Watch. Tapping into broad segments of civil society and giving voice to the victims of human rights abuses will ensure a grounded and comprehensive outcome for the Conference.