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Good afternoon.

In about an hour, government delegates will convene to tackle an issue of pressing global concern but so far neglected: That of the uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons.

The delegates will talk today and over the next two weeks, but compared to what is needed, they will accomplish very little.

The reason for this is simple: Governments have chosen to tackle only one slice of the problem, the illicit trade in small arms. And they have chosen to deal with it as a security question, not the grave humanitarian problem that it really is.

By thus limiting the conference agenda and by expressly warning that they will not agree to any sort of binding outcome, governments are engaging in an exercise that will yield, at most, a handful of technical fixes, or perhaps only a promise to start discussing such technical fixes some time in the future.

For us in the human rights community, this would be a bitter disappointment. To Human Rights Watch, the uncontrolled spread of small arms and light weapons is a matter of great human rights concern. It is the deliberate misuse of weapons that often gives rise to serious violations of human rights-in time of peace as well as war. In fact, the misuse of arms by state security forces in domestic law-enforcement situations may prompt opposition groups to seek to arm themselves as well, leading to a deterioration in the security situation and worsening violations of human rights, and possibly culminating in civil war and its attendant crimes against humanity, even genocide.

The supply of weapons to forces-be they state security forces or nonstate actors like guerrilla groups-that commit gross violations of human rights or the laws of war may involve an act of complicity in these abuses, and is therefore a human rights concern. From a human rights perspective, we seek to identify, prosecute, and punish not only the perpetrators of human rights crimes, but also the enablers-the accessories to these crimes: the arms manufacturers, exporters, brokers, and carriers.

Our Objectives at the Conference

Our objectives at this conference are threefold:

1. We are here to challenge the attempt by governments to limit the debate to the illicit trade-the trafficking in arms-to the exclusion of the licit trade. The dichotomy between the licit and the illicit trade is a false one. It is a fact that most illicitly-traded weapons start out being traded legally before slipping into the black market. By separating out the illicit trade and devising solutions that fail to take into consideration this basic fact, governments are engaging in an exercise in futility. It is akin to trying to cure a disease without seeking to eliminate the circumstances that gave rise to it in the first place.

We also must challenge states' definition of what constitutes "illicit." When states use the term "illicit," they tend to mean: "in violation of national civil and criminal law." They rarely, if ever, mean: "in violation of our obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law." The transfer of weapons is prohibited in those cases in which it is foreseeable that the weapons will be used by the recipient in violation of human rights, or in cases in which an international arms embargo exists.

2. We are also here to challenge the attempt to devise strictly technical fixes (for example, marking, tracing, and throwing money at upgrading customs capabilities) to what is at heart a political problem. While such technical solutions should play a part in a comprehensive approach to the problem, what must come first is an explicit recognition that governments bear overall responsibility for the global trade in arms-be it by acts of commission or acts of omission.

3. Finally, we are here to challenge states' preoccupation with the proliferation dimension of the small arms question with little regard for the humanitarian impact. Governmental experts involved in the process have hailed typically from the arms control sections of their foreign and defense ministries. While it is fair for states to have security concerns about small arms proliferation, if we allow the debate to be confined to those quarters we will never succeed in addressing the real problems and find effective and lasting solutions. We would never have achieved a landmark treaty banning antipersonnel landmines if we had left the negotiations to the arms control folks. Instead, we must put the spotlight on the humanitarian impact of the uncontrolled spread of small arms, and on making states' human rights obligations central to the effort to curb small arms proliferation.

The common denominator underlying this approach is the need for governments to take responsibility for the global arms trade, and this responsibility takes many forms:

  • To have a foreign policy that fully incorporates human rights criteria in arms transfer decisions.
  • To prevent legally traded arms from slipping into the black market (by securing stockpiles and controlling brokers).
  • To crack down on arms traffickers by enforcing the law on illegal actions by their nationals or taking place on their territories.
  • To implement and enforce international arms embargoes.
  • To prosecute and punish violators of national and international laws regulating the arms trade, as well as of international human rights and humanitarian law.
  • To be transparent in arms trading (via regular submissions to registers; marking and tracing; etc.).

Case Study: Ukrainian Arms to Sierra Leone

I will now draw on our research in Eastern Europe and West Africa to illustrate these various dimensions of "governmental responsibility" for the arms trade.

As you know, Sierra Leone has been the scene of a vicious war fought by a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, which has visited horrendous atrocities on its civilian victims. The rebels' signature method has been the amputation of limbs, but they have also carried out widespread killings, rapes, and abductions, and they have used child soldiers on a large scale.

Nothing about these horrific abuses was new or unknown in March 1999, when, according to an ECOMOG commander, a Ukrainian-registered cargo plane delivered 68 tons of weapons and ammunition to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for on-shipment to the RUF via Liberia. In Ouagadougou, the commander claimed, the plane parked in the airport's VIP terminal. There the cargo was transferred for shipment by smaller aircraft to Liberia and, once in Liberia, the weapons were transported by land to the RUF inside Sierra Leone. The government of Ukraine promptly denied it was in the business of arming the RUF, claiming instead that one of its state-owned arms export companies had sold the weapons legally to the Burkinabe ministry of defense, which had duly issued an end-user certificate showing the weapons were to stay in Burkina Faso. A UN investigation last year broadly supported the allegations made by the ECOMOG commander.

What we have here is a case in which the Ukrainian government employed easy-to-forge documents to prove that its state-owned company had stayed within the law in selling to Burkina Faso weapons that ended up in the hands of the RUF in violation of not one but two UN arms embargoes (against the RUF and against Liberia). But this is also a case in which the UN dropped its own investigation into the matter in July 1999 to protect the peace process in Sierra Leone, where the RUF had just signed what turned out to be a flawed and ill-fated peace deal with the government.

To add insult to injury, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN claimed last month that neither his government nor its firms and individuals have supplied weapons in violation of UN arms embargoes, and that UN investigators have validated that claim. The fact is, however, that a UN panel on Sierra Leone last year deplored the fact that Ukraine had shown neither restraint nor due care and diligence in its arms dealing, making Ukraine a point of origin for illegally trafficked weapons. Moreover, Ukrainian nationals and private firms have been linked repeatedly to illicit arms trading. The UN panel on embargo violations in Angola found that Ukrainian nationals are involved in ferrying arms to Angolan rebels and brokering arms deals, and that Ukrainian air transport companies are suspected of involvement in the illegal trade.

The Ukrainian government's efforts to distance itself from such deals only point to the need to emphasize government responsibility for controlling the arms trade: its own and that of private brokers and shipping agents under its jurisdiction.

The Golden Rule

This brings us back to the conference that is starting here in New York today. As the example shows, active collusion between irresponsible governments and unscrupulous international arms brokers serves to fuel humanitarian suffering in open defiance of UN arms embargoes, which are further undermined by the UN's own lack of interest in properly enforcing them. This collusion, which goes to the heart of the problem of the global trade in arms, is not on the agenda for the conference, and neither is the role of the UN and its member states.

What remains is to map out a strategy for the future. At Human Rights Watch we are committed to monitoring governments' adherence to what we call the Golden Rule: No weapons for human rights abuse. This humanitarian imperative-to reduce human suffering by curbing the transfer of arms to human rights abusers-derives not merely from a compassion for the innocent victims of violence but is based on the universally recognized obligation of states to comply with the international instruments they have signed and ratified and that should therefore govern their conduct-the rules of international human rights and humanitarian law.

In short, we'll be watching! That's one.

Two, the bottom line is that governments will do nothing if they do not perceive a significant self-interest or if they can get away with doing nothing. It's that finicky little problem of political will-or the absence thereof. The role of NGOs will be critical in helping governments find the political will to effect positive change. In many ways, the current UN process was designed to limit serious pressure from civil society. Some states have been quite explicit about their desire not to see a repeat of the NGO-led Ottawa process that gave rise to the treaty banning antipersonnel landmines. Of course, these governments have been helped by the fact that the small arms issue is so much less focused and discreet than the landmines issue.

So there is an extra challenge here for NGOs to forge a common vision and put real pressure on governments. The attempt by the new humanitarian coalition to highlight both the humanitarian impact from the uncontrolled spread of small arms and states' obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law is therefore a very important and positive one.

During the next two weeks, we will remind governments that their obligations under international law will not end with the conclusion of this conference, and that in the years to come, whatever the outcome of these current proceedings, we will be there to watch, to protest, and to protect.

Thank you.

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