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The arms trade in 2017: business as usual?

The following article by RCW programme manager Allison Pytlak was published by the Forum on the Arms Trade.

You don’t have to be an arms control wonk to have noticed that 2016 was peppered with headlines about the sale of weapons to places they shouldn’t be and used in any number of horrific ways against soldiers and civilians alike. Many of these stories zeroed in on the double standards in play; namely that vendors of such weapons are some of same countries that had only recently championed the adoption of new legally binding standards on the arms trade in order to prevent such atrocities from occurring. The international community as a whole has largely failed to hold states to account for these transfers, yet a mushrooming of national-level advocacy has helped to bring the policy and practice of some countries better in line with their legal obligations. As always, there are a few outliers but as the new year begins, that club might just be shrinking.

Over the years many measures have been put into place to better regulate the international arms trade, usually by requiring governments to assess the impact of their arms transfers before they fully authorize them. At a global level the culmination of such efforts is the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an international agreement that built on good national and regional practices to establish a single global standard by which to assess the risks associated with transferring arms and to stop them from going to places they shouldn’t.

Lauded by many in the international community, the ATT has generated significant optimism that a corner had been turned and that humanitarian considerations would play the role that they ought to within the international arms trade.

This is why it has been extremely disappointing to see that many of the same countries that championed the ATT took a business as usual approach to their arms transfers in 2015 and 2016. This was especially notable with respect to transfers to Saudi Arabia from countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) – although transfers to other countries have also caused concern. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, both domestic and international, is widely condemned. The ATT is meant to prevent arms transfers where there is a substantial risk that those arms would be used in specific negative ways, such as perpetuating war crimes, human rights abuse or genocide, among other actions.

Many of these transactions took place in 2015. Some continued last year but 2016 also saw important actions being taken in national parliaments to push back on them. The Netherlands, for example, instituted a presumption of denial against transfers to Saudi Arabia, and the Spanish Congress passed a motion calling on the acting government to deny and revoke licenses to all parties to the conflict. Switzerland, Sweden and parts of Belgium have also either stopped authorizing licenses or denied them. Other countries however, notably Canada, France, the UK and the US have proceeded as normal.

So will 2017 bring more of the same?

The answer depends partly on where you look. For example, efforts to address this situation in an official way under the ATT, such as at its annual conference of states parties last August, were unsuccessful. Civil society united around efforts to see this addressed as part of the formal agenda and when that failed, utilized side events, media and bilateral advocacy meetings to make the point that such transfers are contrary to Treaty obligations for those countries that have joined. This should have been the single most relevant opportunity to take up the matter of treaty compliance but instead it was awkwardly shoved under the carpet.

As already mentioned, there are several national processes underway meant to hold governments accountable to their international commitments, similar to the approaches described above.  In looking ahead to 2017, these include a High Court hearing scheduled for early February in the United Kingdom on the legality of continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the light of Saudi violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen. Italian civil society is continuing to strive to curtail Italian exports to Saudi Arabia through parliamentary channels and the media. A legal challenge has also been presented in Canada, following Ottawa’s decision last year to move ahead with a deal authorizing the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, even as it moves to finalize its ATT accession and has publicly condemned the country’s human rights record. The timing of the accession and the legal challenge bring these transfers under heightened scrutiny from media, civil society and legislators – which may be the means by which the deal could be stopped, although no one is holding their breath.

Tragically, the deepening famine in Yemen, coupled with growing evidence of foreign-made arms being used there indiscriminately by Saudi-led coalition forces, is finally starting to percolate through to the attention of the general public which, in turn, is putting pressure on policy makers. Public opinion could also be a factor that may shift government positions in 2017. In the United States for example, a decision was taken in December to "hold up" a sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia out of concern for the kingdom’s continuing air strikes on civilian targets. It will continue to refuel Saudi aircraft that are a part of the Yemen bombing campaign though and other sales remain in place, which makes this a half-measure. The US is a signatory to the ATT and has in place its own export laws.

There may also be recourse through somewhat under-explored channels like reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on arms transfers law and human rights law, and through regional bodies such as the European Union, whose parliament voted for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia last year.

All of this is very positive but national actions cannot become a replacement for multilateral accountability. More must be done to uphold existing international law in the first place via the institutions that were created for that purpose. If states continue to avoid implementing their obligations thoroughly, and if those that are in compliance do not make better use of these agreements to address breaches of them, then they will collectively devalue the very mechanisms that they have put so many resources into creating.

Taken together, it’s obvious that there are ample tools with which to push back against a business as usual approach in 2017 from those who still defend it. The real question is if there is enough political will.