On 2 April 2013 the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was adopted in the United Nations General Assembly in New York with a vote of 154 in favour, 3 against, and 23 abstentions, following seven years of discussion and negotiations. Two month later on 3 June the treaty was open for signature, and 67 states used the signing ceremony to do so. A week later, a total of 71 states have signed and some others have declared to do so as early as possible (for example, the US). Now of course the next big step is ratification and then an even bigger one the implementation of the treaty. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification, but don’t expect it to go fast. Some national legislative bodies take their time when approving treaties like this.

ATT signing ceremony

Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hector Marco Timerman the first to sign the ATT. Photo by Keith Bedford for Control Arms

WILPF has actively worked for the inclusion of a criterion on gender-based violence (GBV) in the ATT. At the end of the March negotiation conference WILPF’s work resulted in more than 100 delegations supporting a strong GBV criterion. The ATT is the first ever legally binding regime that recognizes the link between GBV and the international arms trade and makes it illegal to transfer weapons if there is a risk that the weapons will be used to facilitate systematic GBV, such as rape.

Is the Arms Trade Treaty a Human Rights Treaty?

A side event at the Human Rights Council organized by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) together with the Geneva Academy on 11 June focused on the topic of the Arms Trade Treaty as a Human Rights treaty. Andrew Clapham and Stuart Casey-Maslen of the Geneva Academy both argued that the treaty clearly makes links between arms trade and human rights.

The treaty does not give an individual a human right and there is no room for making individual claims under the treaty. This is to say that there are no human rights of individuals created within it.  However, Art. 6 and 7 prohibit the transfer where they could be used for certain war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Art. 7 further more defines that in case of a overriding risk of serious violations of human rights a State Party shall not authorize a transfer. Serious human rights violations are of course acts that violate jus cogens (peremptory norms of international law such as torture) but can also mean violations of sufficient gravity of fundamental human rights and arguably of core socio- economic rights.

For over 90 years, WILPF has emphasized the links between the arms trade, violent conflict, and the reduction of available resources for social and economic development and gender equality. WILPF and our disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will (RCW) have been and still are exploring how different disciplines of international law complement and intersect with each other, and how they can be concurrently invoked in advancing human rights, international humanitarian law, disarmament law, and the women, peace, and security agenda. We are actively exploring the linkages between disarmament and human rights, and how to bring the issues of nuclear weapons, arms trade, and military expenditure to the Human Rights Council and the UN human rights treaty bodies.

In line with the argumentation at the side event we agree that the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review as well as the treaty bodies can be serve to be useful for the assessment before an arms transfer. A transfer should not be authorized if the state party of the ATT has knowledge that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or other serious violations of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law (Art. 6 and 7 of the ATT). The Human Rights Council Resolutions as well as the Special Rapporteurs reports are very helpful for the knowledge if such violations are taking place in a respective importing country. The Universal Periodic Review process on the other hand should be used to highlight the responsibility of the exporting countries and if they are not implementing the ATT accordingly.

For instance in the 13th Session Universal Periodic Review of the United Kingdom, in a summary note WILPF asserted that there is a link between the arms trade and civilian protection. We argued “The proliferation of the arms trade directly influences the degree of militarization within states and communities and has a devastating impact on human rights, particularly increasing the level and type of violence experienced by women. The impact of such arms sales have been made evident in the suppression of democracy protestors in Bahrain and Libya, where governments have used tear gas, crowd control ammunition, sniper rifles, and armoured vehicles bought and made in the UK”.

What will WILPF be doing?

We will of course continue to hold states accountable to the strongest possible interpretation when it comes to arms trade and human rights violations. In addition, WILPF will be working on monitoring the implementation of the ATT, working with our sections as well as within the UN framework here in Geneva and in New York.

We must now build upon this treaty and its historic provision on gender-based violence and respond to the rights of those affected by armed gender-based violence. And we will work hard to prevent sales of arms that would affect the countless more. Like Madeleine Rees, Secretary-General of WILPF said: “The ATT process has shown a significant international mobilization against the negative humanitarian and human rights impacts of the international arms trade. Now, we must implement it with the strongest possible interpretation in order to do what the treaty first set out to do, reduce human suffering.”