Human Rights Watch today commended the "G-8" group of seven industrialized nations plus Russia for including the issue of illegal arms trafficking on its agenda.
In field investigations in Africa and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch has discovered that abusive forces are often supplied by private arms traffickers who elude official controls_if such controls exist at all. Consequently, the illegal arms trade constitutes a serious human rights concern.
In the case of the Great Lakes region in Africa, which has been the scene of large-scale humanitarian disasters including genocide, Human Rights Watch has documented a steady inflow of weapons through private traffickers who use Europe and South Africa as headquarters and safe havens.
The measures that the G-8 are currently considering_harmonization of export/import documentation, marking of firearms, exchange of information, etc._would all be positive steps. Yet it will be important to clarify three points:
The G-8 appears to be focusing on the use of firearms in crime. Human Rights Watch and many other non-governmental organizations believe that the primary focus should be on the use of small arms and light weapons_generally_in armed conflict.
Most serious abuses in post-Cold War conflicts have been committed with precisely these kinds of weapons, which have made conflicts more protracted and lethal, and have emboldened abusive actors and thereby encouraged a climate of impunity.
Unprotested arms supplies to Rwanda in the period leading up to the 1994 genocide, for example, are certain to have provided the perpetrators of the genocide not only with arms but also with a sense of invincibility and impunity.
The G-8 should tackle the illicit trade in weapons, but must not neglect the private arms trade in general. In particular, Human Rights Watch urged the G-8 to make sure that arms traders are not receiving licenses for the sale of weapons to known human rights abusers.
Governments have a responsibility to make sure that these kinds of sales are not permitted. It would be all too easy otherwise for governments to covertly supply arms to abusive forces, all the while hiding behind the excuse of a private trade gone wild.
Most importantly, in addition to the private trade, the G-8 should also work toward a strict and binding international code of conduct that will prevent the transfer of weapons by states to other states or to non-state actors that are engaged in serious abuses of human rights or international humanitarian law.
As in cases such as Rwanda, serious abuses of human rights, including genocide, are committed not only by non-state actors, but by governments that have been supplied by other governments.
Human Rights Watch has documented how various states provided weapons to Rwanda before and even during the genocide.
In the case of Turkey, which has committed serious abuses of international humanitarian law in its fight with the Kurdish Workers Party in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, the United States has provided almost all of the weaponry with which these abuses have been committed.
"Governments supply weapons, overly or covertly, to clients that abuse human rights, and governments fail to stop private arms sales to such clients," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the Arms division of Human Rights Watch. "So we believe that governments, including the United States, have a moral responsibility to address the problem of illicit arms trafficking."
He added: "With these three important caveats in mind, Human Rights Watch wholeheartedly endorses the G-8's announced intent to tackle the illicit trade in firearms at its summit in Birmingham."