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27 August 2015: Vol. 8, No. 4

Editorial: Principles without borders
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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As Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties voted on the location of their future secretariat on Wednesday, the president of South Sudan finally signed a peace agreement that seeks to end the mayhem and bloodshed that has ravaged the young country for years. Had the ATT’s principles and objectives been applied to arms transfer decisions by exporting states, the violence devastating South Sudan would not have happened in the way it has due to the easy access of conventional weapons on all sides.

The conflict, based on a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, has been fueled with arms from many exporters. In particular, Canada, China, and South Africa have flooded the country with weapons and ammunition. According to a recent UN report, the South Sudanese government spent almost US$30 million last year on machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons from China. It also procured Russian armored vehicles and Israeli rifles and attack helicopters. Meanwhile, rebel forces have obtained their weapons largely through theft, battlefield seizures, regional trafficking networks, or directly from neighbouring countries. Ammunition has been largely supplied to the rebels by Sudan.

Of the countries supplying arms and ammunitions to South Sudan since the ATT entered into force, none are signatories. On Tuesday, speaking as an observer state at the first Conference of States Parties (CSP1), China said that it would never export weapons that do not accord to its three principles for arms transfers: that the transfer must relate to self-defence, must not undermine security, and must not interfere with internal affairs of recipient. Yet it sent “more than 27 million rounds of small calibre ammunition, 40,000 rounds of 40 mm Type-69 HEAT rockets for RPG launchers, 20,000 rounds of 40 mm BGL2 anti-personnel grenades, 1,200 Type HJ-73D anti-tank missiles, more than 9,500 Type 56 (AK-pattern) 7.62 x 39 mm assault rifles, 2,394 add-on 40 mm under barrel grenade launchers, as well as smaller quantities of NP42 9 mm pistols, Type 80 general-purpose machine-guns, and other military equipment” to South Sudan in 2014.

The UN report found, unsurprisingly, that “the continuing resupply of arms and ammunition on both sides has been instrumental in the continuation and escalation of the war to its current scale, leading to large-scale violations of international humanitarian law.” There have been countless rapes, sexual slavery, executions, people burned in their homes, mass displacement, and many more atrocities, which have been documented by UN observers and by humanitarian and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

China did not mention human rights or humanitarian law in its criteria for arms export decisions—criteria which are at the heart of ATT-mandated risk assessment procedures. The application of articles 6, 7, and 9 would bind ATT states parties and signatories, both exporters and transit/transshipment states, to refuse arms transfers to South Sudan. Of course, China is not a state party or signatory to the ATT. Yet its transfer in 2014 does not stand up to its own cited criteria for arms transfer decisions. If the shipment of weapons to South Sudan does not constitute “undermining security,” what would? And given that there is an ongoing civil war in which both sides are known to be committing atrocities, how does such a transfer not constitute interference with the internal affairs of recipient? In January 2015, China sent its first troops to join a UN peacekeeping force, and also persuaded the UN to guard not just civilians but oil installations. China has invested billions of dollars in South Sudan’s oil production; presumably the massive shipment of weapons in 2014 was designed to help stabilise the government forces against the opposition in an effort to protect these interests. Of course, this stategy did not work—it just fueled the conflict and violence. This is yet another of countless examples showing that trying to arm one side of a conflict to the teeth in order to facilitate security or stability does not work.

China can argue that is not bound by the ATT. So can Canada, Israel, and Russia, the other states that have contributed heavily to South Sudan’s horrific war. But that argument is unacceptable. Yes, the ATT is legally-binding only upon those states that ratify it. But its principles and objectives must guide behaviour of all states, because its principles and objectives should reflect those of any responsible government. The governments that have been shipping arms to South Sudan must be held to the same standards as those who have been sending arms to Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Ukraine, and any other country where horrific human rights and humanitarian abuses are being committed.

The ATT can and must be used as a tool to illuminate, stigmatise, and hopefully prevent arms transfers that are responsible for death and destruction, regardless of who is selling or receiving the weapons. The carnage caused by flows of weapons to regions of conflict or to recipients that use them to rape, murder, torture, and terrorise does not respect borders. So neither should the Treaty’s principles. They are the principles that should guide our engagement with each other as human beings in this shared world.

In terms of what this all means for states parties, it means establishing mechanisms for reporting that publicly provides vital information on the arms trade; it means condemning arms transfers that violate the provisions of the Treaty and our collective conscience; and it means preventing states from making profits from the death and destruction of others, regardless of where this takes place or who is responsible.

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