The Human Rights Council (HRC) has just passed a new resolution on the impact of arms transfers on human rights. In a very welcome development, the resolution was adopted by consensus for the first time sending a strong message that addressing the human rights impact of the arms trade is central to the fulfilment of HRC’s mandate to prevent human rights violations and abuses. The resolution is an important reminder to States of their human rights obligations when it comes to the arms trade as well as stopping the further proliferation of arms into illicit circulation.  

The resolution focuses especially on the impact of arms on women and girls, particularly in relation to gender-based violence, including domestic violence. It requests a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on this issue to be submitted to the HRC’s 44th session (June 2020), shortly ahead of the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325, which initiated the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. This focus aligns with growing interest in and support for gender-sensitive arms control and disarmament.

Arms transfers have a well-documented and multi-faceted impact on human rights, as WILPF has repeatedly highlighted in reports submitted to human rights bodies. For example, and as the resolution acknowledges, ‘diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers can have a direct or indirect effect on women and girls, particularly as victims of gender-based violence, including domestic violence.’ The link between arms proliferation and human rights violations, such as gender-based violence, is undeniable. UN human rights bodies, such as the CEDAW Committee, have been paying growing attention to this link, including in relation to the extraterritorial human rights obligations of exporting States.  

The accessibility and availability of arms can facilitate or exacerbate gender-based violence, not only in situations of armed conflict but also in non-conflict situations, such as in countries that experience high rates of firearm-related deaths, including femicides, as well as high levels of impunity and insecurity. 

“The proliferation of arms tends to have a negative impact on women’s equality and bargaining power within the household, their mobility, and their political participation. Widespread possession and use of weapons tend to prevent women from fully participating in public and political life, and to hinder their access to and use of resources, business and employment opportunities,” notes Patrizia Scannella, Human Rights Programme Director at WILPF International Secretariat. 

The resolution usefully recalls the ‘principles and provisions relating to international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to the promotion of responsible action by States, as contained in the Arms Trade Treaty and in the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in All Its Aspects (UNPoA), and other relevant instruments.’ The UNPoA is considered to be the foundational normative agreement for all international small arms control efforts. Its politically-binding global commitments provide a mandate for States to implement practical measures to curb the illicit trade in SALW such as through national legislation, regulations, processes, marking, tracing, stockpile management, record-keeping and reporting. The HRC resolution reinforces States’ disarmament commitments and demonstrates solidarity for them from the human rights community. 

“Effective arms control is central to the fulfilment of States’ obligations and commitments under CEDAW and other human rights treaties, the Arms Trade Treaty, the UNPoA, the International Tracing Instrument, and the SDGs. It is also essential to the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, as reminded, for example, by the CEDAW Committee in its General Recommendation 30,” states Allison Pytlak,  Disarmament Programme Manager at WILPF International Secretariat. “Effective arms control also means that States must take concrete measures to analyse and tackle specific human rights risks posed by the arms industry, including through heightened human rights due diligence obligations, the imposition of transparency and monitoring measures, and of adequate accountability measures” adds Tessa Cerisier, Human Rights Programme Associate at WILPF International Secretariat.  

The HRC resolution requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  to prepare a report on ‘the impact of the diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers on the human rights of women and girls.’ WILPF has taken a particular look at the impact of arms transfers and arms proliferation on women and girls, but also its gendered impact more broadly as encompassing men and boys and others, since gender-based violence entails violence against a person based on their sex, sexuality, or gender identity. The report requested by the HRC will shed more light on the gendered impacts of the legal transfers of arms, their diversion into illicit circulation, and of unregulated or illicit arms transfers. 

Through this resolution, the HRC also invites States to consider the recommendations in the OHCHR 2017 report on the impact of arms transfers on the enjoyment of human rights, a report whose significance WILPF has highlighted and urged action on. The OHCHR recommendations provide a good basis for States and other stakeholders to use when assessing that relationship – which is an obligation under international law. WILPF’s own resources offer complementary guidance.  

WILPF calls on all States to demonstrate their commitment to preventing human rights violations, including gender-based violence, by following the OHCHR recommendations to develop robust, effective and human rights-compliant regulations of their arms trade and further reduce the likelihood that such arms will fall into illicit circulation. No more excuses.

Background 

On 12 July 2019, the Human Rights Council adopted draft resolution A/HRC/41/L.22/Rev.1, presented by Peru and Ecuador and co-sponsored by Angola, Austria, Bahamas, Chile, Cyprus, El Salvador, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, Togo, Switzerland, Uruguay.  The resolution is the third HRC resolution on the issue of arms transfers, following resolutions 24/35 and resolution 32/12 adopted in 2013 and 2016, respectively. This is the first time that an HRC resolution on arms transfers is adopted without a vote. The text of the adopted resolution is available at this link: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/41/L.22/Rev.1 

In addition to the resolutions on the impact of arms transfers, the HRC has also dealt with the issue of human rights and the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms, through resolutions 26/16 (2014), 29/10 (2015) and 38/10 (2018). Resolution 38/10, also adopted without a vote for the first time, requested an OHCHR report on the impact of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to be presented to the HRC’s 42nd session (September 2019).