Economics and finance, International relations | The World

15 January 2021

A humanitarian approach is needed if policymakers are to control the flow of weapons around the world, Stephanie Koorey and Loren Persi Vicentic write.

Last December was a big month for those following human rights. It marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and Human Rights Day on the third and tenth of the month respectively.

The third also marked key moments in international arms control – the opening for signature of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 and the signing in Oslo of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. On top of this, Christmas Eve marked six years since the entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty.

The Mine Ban Treaty was paradigm-busting in being the first treaty in which states committed to provide assistance for those harmed by a specific type of weapon.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the campaign behind the ban, had advocated exhaustively on the topic of what became known as ‘victim assistance’ for those people whose lives were changed forever by the detonation of a hidden and indiscriminate landmine.

The treaty’s preamble includes state parties’ commitment ‘to do their utmost in providing assistance for the care and rehabilitation, including the social and economic reintegration of mine victims’.

While exact numbers are almost impossible to obtain due to conflict and scant data reporting for some countries, the Landmine Monitor Report has recorded at least 130,000 casualties since recording began in 1999, when the Mine Ban Treaty Entered into force.

More on this: Arms control the answer in North Korea

In 2019, at least 5,554 casualties were recorded, making it the fifth year in a row with high numbers of recorded casualties due to the use of mines. The vast majority of casualties were civilians, including many children.

Following in the steps of the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which entered into force in August 2008, was pioneering because of the specific nature of its obligations.

The preamble of the CCM includes the resolve to ‘ensure the full realisation of the rights of all cluster munition victims’. It recognises the intrinsic relevance of the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to ‘ensure and promote the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons with disabilities.’

In doing so, the CCM makes the realisation of human rights inseparable from its full implementation. Its definition of victims broadly includes all persons who have suffered ‘substantial impairment of the realisation of their rights’ caused by the use of cluster munitions, setting an important humanitarian tone for treaties to come.

For many countries impacted by landmines and cluster munitions, funding for victim assistance secured from these treaties provided an early boost to disability rights efforts and much needed services for people with disabilities.

In Australia, the country’s support of victims through the Mine Action Strategy included rehabilitation for victims and support for their livelihoods.

In keeping up the momentum of these successes as well as building on support for the United Nations’ non-legally binding small arms control process, in 2013 an overarching Arms Trade Treaty was adopted, with Australia taking a strong lead in the process.

The Arms Trade Treaty was meant to be the world community’s all-embracing conventional arms control mechanism, and has a considerable emphasis on the effects of conflict on civilians.

More on this: Asia-Pacific and the UN Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty

Article 1 notes the objective of the treaty which includes ‘reducing human suffering’, Article 6 requires an exporting country to not authorise any arms transfer that could be used in genocide or crimes against humanity, and Article 7 requires an exporting country to take into account whether items ‘could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law’. It had been a long time in the making, with earlier attempts dating back decades, but stymied by Cold War geopolitics.

These treaties and agreements all intended to minimise the harms caused to people by conventional weapons during and after conflict, but how are they holding up?

The 2020 Landmine Monitor Report found that COVID-19 has strongly impacted victim assistance activities and services, as pandemic restrictions have prevented survivors and other people with disabilities to access services.

Mine clearance was also suspended temporarily in many countries. Face-to-face sessions of mine risk education as a prevention measure had to adapt as operators used innovative digital methods and combined risk education with COVID-19 messaging.

Despite such attempts to adapt to a changing world, in many ways the golden age of what can be termed ‘humanitarian’, as opposed to ‘strategic’ arms control, may have ebbed away. The Arms Trade Treaty was agreed just as the implications of the Arab uprisings were beginning to become clear. The Islamic State emerged shortly afterward, supplied with weaponry and finances. Weapons follow demand, regulated or otherwise.

Others have been vocal in pointing out violations and weaknesses in the Arms Trade Treaty, with one non-government organisation official saying: “It’s not entirely clear from reading it who would enforce the rules or how they would be enforced, or what would happen to anyone who broke them.”

As geopolitics heat up, adherence to its principles are faltering, and the treaty has become aspirational and optional. Without renewed focus on human rights, other treaties of its kind could fall this way too.

Putting human rights front and centre in regulating conflict is always going to be a substantial challenge, but they must remain at the forefront when it comes to arms control. On top of reaffirming commitment to treaty principles, international policymakers must develop more considered practices that encourage adherence.

After all, these treaties and their measures are in place to protect the world’s most vulnerable from harm.

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