Many of the weapons, munitions, and equipment used for serious violations of human rights, including arbitrary killings and serious injuries, are those deployed or designed for the use of force in internal security operations or in the course of law enforcement. Tragic examples of the misuse of such equipment has been shown recently in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, not to mention numerous other countries suffering from brutal acts of internal repression.
Thus, as States continue their preliminary talks in the United Nations about the contents of the future Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to be negotiated at the UN Conference in June 2012, it is important for them to ensure that the scope of the ATT is comprehensive and will require States to control all types of conventional arms so the Treaty is fit for purpose.
Conventional arms are often used for internal repression as well as armed conflict. This fact is now widely recognised by the international community when common standards are set to control the international trade and transfer of such arms, and sometimes when decisions are made to impose arms embargoes. However, apart from most UN arms embargoes and the UN Firearms Protocol2, the international standards to regulate this trade and these transfers have not been legally binding.
Now at last after many years of deliberation, there is a chance in the UN to establish a global ATT setting out commonly-agreed rules for strict national regulation and international monitoring. So it is vital that the scope of the Treaty includes all relevant types of weapons, munitions, armaments and related material/items, including the conventional arms used in internal security operations that can result in death and serious injury.
However, during the preliminary deliberations of States on the ATT, it became apparent that there is a real danger that governments may exclude from its scope certain types of weapons, munitions, armaments and related equipment used by military, security and police forces for potentially lethal force in internal security operations. If such exclusions are allowed to happen, it would leave gaping holes to be exploited by unscrupulous arms traders and thus undermine the credibility of the Treaty and its potential positive impact.
During the ATT talks in 2010, some governments promoted a “7+1” proposal to define the scope of conventional arms to be covered by the ATT. The “7+1” approach refers to the seven categories of offensive arms in the UN Register of Conventional Arms plus small arms and light weapons.
This approach was widely criticised and has now been dropped, which Amnesty International welcomed, from the current Chairman’s Draft Paper of 3 March 2011 in favour of a more generic list: “[for] the purposes of this Treaty, conventional arms shall include any items which fall within the following categories:
b. Military Vehicles
c. Artillery Systems
d. Military Aircraft (manned or unmanned)
e. Military Helicopters (manned or unmanned)
f. Naval Vessels (surface and submarine vessels armed or equipped for military use)
g. Missiles and Missile Systems (guided or unguided)
h. Small Arms
i. Light Weapons
j. Ammunition for use with weapons defined in subparagraphs (a)-(i)
k. Part or Component specially and exclusively designed for any of the categories in subparagraphs (a)-(k)
l. Technology and Equipment specifically and exclusively designed and used to develop, manufacture, or maintain any of the categories in subparagraph (a)-(k).”
Unfortunately, these 12 categories cover the types of equipment used mainly by military forces in warfare, leaving out equipment used by military, security and police forces for potentially lethal internal security operations, as well as some types of military equipment that do not neatly fall under these 12 categories.
There has long been a blurring between operations, equipment and even personnel of military, paramilitary, police and security forces. This is reflected, for example, in the overlap between international humanitarian law (IHL) covering the conduct of combatants during armed conflict and international human rights law (IHRL) covering the conduct of military, security and police forces in all situations and which, amongst other things, prohibits arbitrary killings and injuries. IHRL also applies during times of armed conflict and is not displaced by the application of IHL. The two bodies of law operate concurrently and at times human rights law can be directly applied in situations of armed conflict.4 Internal security forces are using military equipment such as submachine guns, assault rifles and armoured personnel carriers while military forces sometimes deploy policing equipment, including “less-lethal” weaponry that in fact can kill and seriously injure. Military forces are often deployed for law enforcement purposes and police or State paramilitary forces are sometimes used during armed conflict. It is important that they should, in such circumstances, act in accordance with international law enforcement standards on the use of force, especially as regards lethal force. The organisation and responsibilities of these forces can vary from country to country but all must be consistent with international standards. Two such standards are the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.
The recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown how a wide range of conventional military and security equipment can be persistently misused for excessive or unlawful use of force often with lethal consequences. They can also be misused for other serious violations of human rights, such as to facilitate arbitrary arrests and detention, and violate the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
An effective ATT is not a weapons-ban treaty, but must ensure that States rigorously control the export, import and international transfer of all types of conventional arms designed, modified or adapted for the deployment of potentially lethal force. This is essential to prevent such transfers being used for serious violations of IHRL or IHL, or from being diverted to the illicit trade, illegal market or unlawful end users.