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The Work of Human Rights Watch

The Arms Division of Human Rights Watch was established after the cold war to address the emerging problem of the role of arms in human rights abuses. The cardinal objective was to keep arms and other forms of military assistance out of the hands of known human rights abusers, and thereby prevent the most serious and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including and especially genocide. We pursued this objective by pressing governments to stem the transfer of arms and other forms of military assistance to abusive forces, be they governments or nonstate actors, and by calling for greater transparency in the arms trade and military assistance programs. Our method was to provide facts—through investigative research of the arms trade in the areas where the weapons are transshipped, unloaded, and used, and by tracking military training and advisory as well as operational assistance—that demonstrated governments’ complicity in abuses. The resulting embarrassment and stigmatization proved to be a powerful tool in generating the political will necessary to change a government’s policies. Our overall goal was to establish new norms—against indiscriminate and cruel weapons, like landmines or blinding lasers, and against military support of known human rights abusers—and to enforce established norms, such as those banning chemical and biological weapons.

Banning Landmines
Human Rights Watch played an instrumental leadership role in the development of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, served as the deputy head of the official ICBL delegation during formal negotiations, delivered a keynote speech during the treaty signing ceremony, and prominently shared in the ICBL’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1997. Human Rights Watch continued to play a leadership role in ICBL activities throughout 1998. As a co-founder of the ICBL, Human Rights Watch sat on the fifteen-member Coordination Committee, as well as the four-member Advisory Committee that oversaw daily activities, and chaired the ICBL Treaty Working Group, which was charged with promoting the universalization and ratification of the treaty. Perhaps most notable in 1998, Human Rights Watch played the lead role in developing Landmine Monitor, the monitoring system for the treaty. In addition, Human Rights Watch was an active member of the Steering Committee of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines, and continued to spearhead the stigmatization campaign against U.S. mine producers, which by 1998 had already resulted in nineteen out of forty-eight companies agreeing to renounce participation in the mines business.

In 1998, Human Rights Watch focused on the tasks of encouraging ratification, universalization, and establishment of the civil society-based system for monitoring the new treaty. As the chair of the Treaty Working Group, Human Rights Watch helped to coordinate the global NGO effort aimed at treaty ratification and signature, and issued a biweekly series of updates for campaigners, governments, and the media. Human Rights Watch continued its role as the primary ICBL liaison with governments and also coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, and other international actors in the joint effort to achieve the treaty’s early entry into force. Though many observers believed that this would take two or more years, it was achieved in just nine months, faster than any other major treaty in history.

Human Rights Watch led the conceptualization and development of the Landmine Monitor initiative. This unique cooperative civil society-based approach to monitoring the implementation of the treaty consisted of a global reporting network feeding information on the global landmine crisis and efforts to deal with it into an information database from which an annual report was to be derived. Campaigners hoped that the system would be fully developed and operational at the time the treaty was set to enter into force in March 1999 and that it would run for at least six years, spanning the period between the treaty’s entry into force and the first official review conference. Human Rights Watch was one of five ICBL “Core Group” members responsible for the system and served as the main point of contact.

Human Rights Watch participated in all the major conferences on landmines in 1998 to address the required universalization, ratification, and monitoring efforts, including in Japan and South Korea in January and February, Hungary and Canada in March, Ukraine and Russia in May, Burkina Faso and Norway in June, Jordan in July, South Africa in July and August, Ireland in September, and Canada in December. Human Rights Watch served as a key organizer for many of these meetings. In addition, Human Rights Watch participated in many landmine meetings in the United States and spoke in many different fora, from the United Nations to universities to research institutions.

Human Rights Watch released three briefing papers at these meetings: The Mine Ban Treaty and Africa , The Mine Ban Treaty and the Middle East/North Africa , and The Non-Aligned Movement and the Global Campaign Against Anti-Personnel Landmines (with the South African Campaign to Ban Landmines).

Banning Other Weapons
At the end of July, when Protocol IV (on blinding lasers) of the Conventional Weapons Convention entered into force, Human Rights Watch made public a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen voicing concerns over the development of so-called dazzling lasers by the Department of Defense which might violate the spirit of the new treaty and undermine the humanitarian and nonproliferation objectives of averting the introduction of blinding lasers on the battlefield. Listing nine laser weapons of specific concern, Human Rights Watch asked the secretary to provide additional details about these weapons, clarify the distinction between blinding lasers and dazzling lasers, and provide assurances that the U.S. was not seeking to undermine the letter and spirit of Protocol IV. At the time of writing, no substantive response had been received to this letter.

In November, Human Rights Watch released a report on allegations of chemical weapons use at the time of the fall of the Srebrenica safe area in Bosnia in July 1995, Chemical Warfare in Bosnia? The Strange Experiences of the Srebrenica Survivors . Bosnians fleeing Srebrenica recounted that they had observed or suffered from severe disorientation, hallucinations, and suicidal behavior which experts said could not be attributed to war-related stresses alone. Several survivors had also seen “strange smoke” emanating from mortar shells. The evidence collected by Human Rights Watch was inconclusive, in part because key witnesses had died in the events and resources to do a systematic sampling of exhumed victims’ clothes had been unavailable. Convinced that the question whether a chemical incapacitant like BZ was used during the war had to be answered satisfactorily, Human Rights Watch called on the international community to use its considerable resources to investigate the allegations and to release all information on the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons in the former Yugoslavia which the U.N. and its member states might have in their possession. The existence of chemical weapons and a chemical-weapons production capability in the former Yugoslavia was, in and of itself, seen as an extreme cause for concern, given unresolved issues and continuing tensions in the Balkans, including the war in Kosovo. The actual use of chemical weapons might add an extra dimension to these tensions, as the knowledge that one side possessed chemical weapons and was ready to use these might encourage others to follow suit, giving rise to a dangerous escalation. Earlier, on March 31, Human Rights Watch testified at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights about the reports of chemical attacks in Srebrenica, disclosing that the U.S. government had a great deal of information about Yugoslavia’s chemical weapons program and urging the international community to investigate these allegations thoroughly.

Curbing Arms Transfers to Abusive End-Users
The Arms Division sent investigative missions to Belgium (on the role of Ostend airport in the transshipment of weapons), the Great Lakes region (on the continuing influx of weapons to parties to armed conflict), and Zambia and Angola (on arms flows to the Angolan government and UNITA rebels). It also published reports on previous missions and carried out advocacy activities around these reports’ principal recommendations.

The release of the report Stoking the Fires: Military Assistance and Arms Trafficking in Burundi in December 1997 put in motion a process that yielded, in April 1998, the reactivation of the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda), known as UNICOI ( see above), with an implicit mandate to cover broader security concerns in the Great Lakes region than simply arms transfers to the Rwandan rebels. This reflected a call by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, as well as the U.N. special rapporteur on Burundi. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in December 1997 calling for UNICOI’s revival, as well as for aninternational arms embargo against all sides in the civil war in Burundi, also as advocated by Human Rights Watch.

In a report on Sudan, Global Trade, Local Impact: Arms Transfers to All Sides in the Civil War in Sudan , released in August, Human Rights Watch called for an international arms embargo on both the government of Sudan and Sudanese rebels, accusing both sides of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and stating that members of the international community had fueled the war with weapons, thereby multiplying its lethal impact on the civilian population, a large part of which was again at risk of famine. But when it came to Sudan, the interest of the international community appeared focused on allegations by the United States that the government was storing or developing chemical weapons, not on the vast humanitarian crisis that unfolded in the south. Human Rights Watch had written to several key governments named in the report, but as of this writing had received responses (all flat denials) only from the governments of Bulgaria, Chile, Ethiopia, and South Africa.

Based on investigative work in Burundi, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa, Human Rights Watch provided a comprehensive set of “model recommendations” that applied to areas of armed conflict and, if implemented, could significantly curb arms transfers to forces that abused human rights and international humanitarian law. At various fora, including the U.N. and OAU, Human Rights Watch called on states to adhere to the U.N. conventional arms register, create voluntary regional registers on arms transfers, and establish regional arms control agencies; suggested ways of improving the implementation and enforcement of international arms embargoes through the creation of ad hoc investigative commissions and the deployment of international monitors with the technical expertise to track arms flows at key border crossings; and advocated binding codes of conduct on arms transfers and stricter export controls to rein in the illicit trade.

In May, Human Rights Watch and a coalition of British NGOs urged the G-8 group of seven industrialized nations plus Russia, which had agreed to take on the matter of small-arms proliferation, to examine not only matters related to crime prevention and law enforcement (i.e., the illicit trade), but also, and most importantly, how the unchecked and unrestricted legal flow of arms spurred conflict and human rights abuses. In a letter to Secretary-General Javier Solana of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April, Human Rights Watch inquired about NATO’s plans to address the anticipated massive “fire sale” of weapons by new NATO members as well as members of the Partnership for Peace (PFP) program as they trimmed their militaries and brought their weaponry up to NATO standard. In a disturbing response, the secretary-general informed Human Rights Watch that NATO did not set arms export policies for its member states, but that he was certain that they would not dispose of their surplus weapons irresponsibly. The thrust of the letter was clearly that this was not NATO’s issue and that all would be well if matters were permitted to run their normal course. NATO officials told Human Rights Watch separately that this was the first time that the issue of light weapons had been brought to the attention of the Alliance, that NATO had never debated it, and that no linkage had been considered with regard to NATO’s expansion eastward.

Throughout the year, Human Rights Watch participated in an emerging NGO coalition around the issue of small arms and light weapons, which, at key meetings in Canada in August and Belgium in October, established the International Action Network on Small Arms ( see above). Within this network, Human Rights Watch advocated for human rights to be a central concern, and urged governments to devote equal attention to both the government-to-government trade and illicit arms trafficking, and to both state and nonstate actors as recipients of the arms.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports
Sudan: Global Trade, Local Impact: Arms Transfers to All Sides in the Civil War in Sudan 8/98
Chemical Warfare in Bosnia? The Strange Experiences of the Srebrenica Survivors,11/98



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