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Human Rights in the Arms Trade Treaty?

12 June 2013

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.”


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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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