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ATT Monitor, Vol. 9, No. 5

Editorial: The elephant—or the massive explosive violence—in the room
26 August 2016


Ray Acheson

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Widespread proliferation of weapons leads to widespread human suffering, said the Nigerian delegation on Thursday. This is no more visible anywhere in the world today than it is in Yemen, where the relentless sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia is facilitating its relentless bombing campaign Yemen. It is civilians who pay the price. Yet by the end of the fourth day of deliberations at the Second Conference of States Parties (CSP2) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), these transfers have been raised and criticised only by civil society, not by states.

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 3,799 civilians have been killed and 6,711 injured as result of the war in Yemen. This estimate is far higher in other counts. At least 7.6 million people are currently suffering from malnutrition and at least three million people have been displaced. “Living this type of life you die a million times over,” said a father of five to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after having to flee his home because of the conflict.

The High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called for an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen as a result of the ongoing conflict. This is necessary and welcome. But states can make a significant contribution to ending the suffering now, before the investigation’s results are known or before it even begins, by ending arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.

In violation of the ATT, apparently neither the US nor the UK has undertaken a proper risk assessment process in regards to their transfers to Saudi Arabia. A spokesperson for United States Central Command told a New York Times reporter two weeks ago “that the United States is not conducting a single investigation into civilian casualties in Yemen.” The UK Foreign Office admitted in late July that it has not carried out an assessment of Saudi compliance with international humanitarian law.

Despite these failures, there is sufficient evidence and information to put a halt to arms transfers. A UN panel of experts, the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a number of other civil society groups and media sources have documented and reported on violations of IHL and human rights in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.

None of these facts have been aired at CSP2 outside of civil society interventions and side events, however. Discussions on implementation, transparency, and universality have all failed to address actual arms transfers happening in the actual world that are known to be resulting in actual human rights and IHL abuses. Such total lack of engagement with apparent violations of a treaty by its states parties is, to our knowledge, unprecedented.

The UK, along with Germany and other states transferring weapons to Saudi Arabia, declared on Thursday that universalisation of the ATT is crucial to the credibility and effectiveness of the Treaty. The UK even said universalisation is the “only way” the Treaty can be truly effective and highlighted the role that civil society and the arms industry can play in promoting the ATT.

However, civil society, for the most part, is arguably more concerned with getting existing states parties to comply with their legal obligations under the treaty. The arms industry, in the meantime, is more interested in breaking into new markets and taking advantage of increasing geopolitical tensions and rising military budgets than promoting universality of a Treaty that should in fact curtail their sales and their profits.

The interests in the room at CSP2 are diverse. They always have been, in the ATT context. But one of the core motivations for negotiating this treaty, highlighted once again by countless states and civil society groups and international organisations during this meeting, was the reduction and prevention of human suffering. Can we really say that CSP2, or states parties’ implementation efforts, have lived up to even a shadow of this goal?

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