Skip to main content

State Responsibility in the Arms Trade and the Protection of Human Rights

For the Workshop on Small Arms, organized by the Government of Switzerland, Geneva

Arms and Human Rights

In the Rwandan genocide in 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, many of them with simple machetes that are normally used in agriculture. In discussing the impact of the arms trade and human rights, we now often hear the argument: "If in Rwanda so many were killed with machetes, what is the point of restricting the trade in arms?" This argument has been a convenient tool in the hands of those who wish to deflect attention from their own responsibility in restraining arms transfers. And the machete claim is a myth, based on a misunderstood reality. The people wielding the machetes in Rwanda operated in an environment in which a heavily armed movement (combination government and militias) provided the necessary protection and encouragement for the killers. If this environment had been different "if the government and allied militias had not been so well armed" perhaps there would have been a relatively level playing field. There might have been a nasty conflict but perhaps not a genocide.

The arms in the hands of the Rwandan génocidaires were supplied by France, apartheid-era South Africa, Egypt, and others. France of course provided more than just arms to its Rwandan allies, and even during the genocide it continued to offer military support, though much less openly.

In Sudan, the protracted civil war-in which close to 2 million persons may have died either from the fighting or from war-related famine and disease since 1983-has been fueled by many countries that have poured weapons and other forms of military assistance into the Horn in recent years, despite the existence of huge cold war-era stocks. They include, among others, China, France, Iran, Iraq, Russia, South Africa, Uganda, and the United States. In the brutal civil war in Burundi, China has shipped arms to the government by sea and rail via Tanzania and Uganda in the mid-1990s, while weapons have been flown straight into Bujumbura airport from Bulgaria and elsewhere even recently. In Iraq, Swiss Pilatus planes were used for military purposes by the Iraqi air force, including in chemical attacks on Kurdish rebels and civilians in 1987-88. In Congo today, Zimbabwan planes and Angolan armor have been deployed on the government's side, while the Ugandan and Rwandan militaries (supplied by the United States, South Africa, and others) have sent heavily armed troops to fight on the side of the rebels.

In all of these wars, governments-along with rebel forces-have been involved in gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of war). In most cases, other governments supplied the weapons to arm these abusive parties, and yet other governments winked at the transshipment of these weapons through their national territories. These governments are, by their acts of commission or omission or by sheer neglect, accessories to the abuses that are being committed. If the abuses rise to the level of war crimes, they may be accessories to war crimes, even genocide.

The "Legitimate" Trade, the Illicit Trade,
and the Responsibility of Governments

This important reality-the role of governments in the arms trade-received no explicit reflection in the otherwise very useful first report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms in 1997. That report's focus was on the illicit trade: arms transfers that violate either national or international laws. This was also the report's principal weakness. Yet it was predictable: The report was prepared by governments, and governments naturally seek to protect and advance their interests, in this case what they call the "legitimate" international trade in arms.

The Experts' report predated the emerging campaign on small arms and light weapons, which is a joint effort by nongovernmental organizations and supposedly "like-minded" governments to tackle the proliferation question, modeled to some extent on the successful landmines campaign. But this is not the landmines campaign. NGOs learned from the landmines campaign and said: "Let's do that again!" Governments also learned from the landmines campaign, and said, with a few notable exceptions: "Let's make sure this never happens again!" Some governments, by dragging their feet, are sending signals that perhaps they are not so eager to go along with the campaign. For example, the government of the United States, the foremost arms exporter in the world, has not been responsive to a request by U.S.-based NGOs to discuss a 10-point agenda, forwarded several months ago.

Even some of the "like-minded" governments are trying to steer the campaign away from putting governmental responsibility in the spotlight. What to make, otherwise, of the proposal by the Canadian government-which has been a leader on landmines, on the International Criminal Court, on so many important issues-to pursue a treaty that would bar arms transfers to non-state actors? And what to make of the main thrust of many governments, heartily supported by the United States, to go after the illicit trade? Their minds may be alike on this issue, but they are out of tune with NGO sentiment, as well as with the reality of the arms trade today. It is good to remember that the small-arms campaign is, like the landmines campaign before it, an NGO initiative that has been embraced-with varying degrees of enthusiasm-by governments, and that NGOs have kept the pace by drafting proposals and monitoring states' actions, applauding them when they make positive contributions and criticizing them when they run afoul of the overall goals.

The way most governments want to tackle the proliferation issue is to make it a problem of crime involving shady dealers, shadowy terrorists, and undisciplined and unaccountable guerrilla bands. How easy it would be! In that case, all one needs to do is throw some money at police and customs authorities, and voilà! Progress.

The Way Forward

We are not against strengthening police and customs capabilities and enhancing police cooperation on regional and national levels. To the contrary: We encourage such technical measures, as we do marking. But technical solutions will fail to address the problem adequately if governments fail to assume moral, if not legal, responsibility for how the arms they "legally" export or allow to cross their territory end up being used by others. Governments should be pressed to adopt a universal norm: Supply no arms to forces-be they governments or non-state actors-that are involved in gross violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. And they should turn that norm into law-and enforce it!

Here are some measures that would go some ways toward that goal:

Greater transparency in government-sponsored or -approved arms transfers. Transparency mechanisms are key to combating transfers to abusive end users of weapons. They have been incorporated in the U.N. conventional arms register, and in the European code of conduct and other similar draft codes. They need to be reinforced. One way to enhance transparency is to ensure that national parliaments-mandated by their constituencies to make their governments more accountable-are fully integrated in the decision making process governing arms transfers.

An international code of conduct governing arms exports. The code drafted by the Nobel laureates is a good model, and the European Union's code of conduct, full of loopholes and not binding, is nonetheless a useful first step toward a stronger and binding code in Europe. The United States, Russia and China are far behind. Much energy is needed here.

International and regional arms embargoes. Embargoes are only as good as their implementation and enforcement. When the most prominent states that were party to the decision to impose an embargo are found to be circumventing it (France in Rwanda, the United States in Bosnia, the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda in Burundi), embargoes lose not only their effectiveness but also their legitimacy as a tool to send a signal to abusive actors that they cannot continue business as usual.

Responsible disposal of excess stocks. As states seeking admission to or partnership with NATO are downsizing their militaries and upgrading their weapons to NATO standard, huge stocks of arms are likely to be thrown onto the open market. The likely destiny for the vast majority of these weapons-which will be cheap and in abundance-are the areas of armed conflict in Africa and elsewhere. NATO governments and their partners have an obligation to dispose of their excess arms stocks in a responsible fashion, be it through export, destruction, or other means.

Marking weapons. This is a very useful tool that will increase the accountability of governments whose weapons turn up in areas of armed conflict, even if they did not export these arms directly to the parties to the conflict. For example, we found Belgian anti-tank landmines in Sudan in 1987, shipped there apparently via Saudi Arabia. Italian antipersonnel landmines have been used in eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), supplied apparently via Egypt. South African and German automatic rifles have turned up in the Great Lakes region. And Chilean cluster bombs were used by the government of Sudan against the SPLA in the south in 1987, and by Eritrea against Ethiopia last year; it is likely that Chile supplied these cluster bombs to Ethiopia in 1990. Inventories, marking and proper documentation will help ensure that weapons exported for legitimate purposes will also be used legitimately by the recipient marked on the end-user certificate.

While no one labors under the illusion that the trade in small arms and light weapons can be drastically reduced fast, the important point is to remember that forces engaged in armed conflict do not just receive military support when they receive weapons. They also receive a signal, a powerful signal that whatever they are doing is okay; that states, the "international community," will close an eye to the abuses these forces commit.

In other words, arms transfers can embolden genocidal forces, as we have seen in Rwanda, or stoke the flames of long, drawn-out conflicts with hundreds of thousands of casualties, as we have seen in Sudan. To prevent the emergence of cultures of impunity in which these abuses thrive, governments must apply a moral imperative that takes precedence over actions informed by real politik or commercial impulses. It is far too easy and not at all persuasive to throw up one's hands in anguish over the horrendous abuses this world has witnessed, and then sit back and blame the traffickers.

Washington, DC
January, 1999

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country