The lethal connection between the international arms trade and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas

by Ray Acheson, ATT Monitor Vol. 13, No. 1
3 February 2020

A political process to develop international commitments against the bombing of towns and cities is finally underway. After nearly a decade of activists organising to bring this issue to the fore of the UN’s agenda, and after repeated calls from the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international humanitarian agencies, governments are now working on a draft political declaration looking to reduce humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons, especially those with wide area effects, in populated areas. WILPF, as member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), has been a longstanding advocate for such a mechanism. We believe that ending the use of explosive weapons in areas populated by civilians, that stopping the bombing of hospitals, schools, homes, and marketplaces, is imperative to preventing human suffering. WILPF also believes that part of ensuring such a commitment translates into real change is ending arms transfers that contribute to the practice of bombing towns and cities.

Over half a million people have been killed in the conflict in Syria since 2011, and millions more have been displaced. Over 100,000 have been killed in Yemen since 2015—with an additional estimated 85,000 more dead from the war-related famine. More than 70 million people are currently forcibly displaced due to war, conflict, or persecution, according to the UN Refugee Agency.[1] The UN warned that war-ravaged Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020—and indeed today, “Hospitals, schools and homes are … running on empty, worn down by the lack of clean water, electricity, infrastructure and jobs or money. Barely anyone has enough clean water to drink.”[2]

So much of this destruction has been caused, directly or indirectly, by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The bombing of city centres, towns, and villages in these and other conflicts has killed incredible numbers of civilians. The reverberating effects—the damage caused to civilian infrastructure like water and sanitation—have led to scores more casualties and continue to do so.

Killing civilians: the role and responsibility of the international arms trade

Many of the bombs and other explosive weapons killing civilians around the world, which should be controlled by international law and moral conscience, are instead sold for profit to those who use them for political gain. Those selling the weapons are complicit in the deaths of civilians; the destruction of their villages, towns, and cities; and the mass displacement that follows. Yet many of these same weapons exporters try to shirk their responsibility to protect the refugees fleeing the explosive violence that they helped facilitate.

The stated objectives of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) include preventing the diversion of weapons to the illicit market; contributing to international and regional peace, security, and stability; and above all, reducing human suffering. This was the key motivation for states and civil society to call for the regulation of the international arms trade in the first place. Yet throughout the Treaty’s negotiation and since its entry into force, there have been countless examples of irresponsible arms transfers. Many of the weapons transferred by states parties, signatories, and non-states parties alike have ended up being used to bomb towns and cities, resulting in the deaths of and damage to civilians.

Those bombing Yemen, for example, have received weapons from the United Kingdom, United States, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, and China.[3] Russia and Iran have supplied many weapons and training to the Syrian government forces, while the United States and many Gulf countries have supplied the Syrian opposition forces with military equipment. The weapons used to make Gaza uninhabitable have come from Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Canada, and others. The lists—of countries affected by explosive violence, and the countries and companies that supply the means of this violence—are endless.

Despite all of these examples and evidence, there have been few outcries about how the deaths, injuries, displacement, and destruction caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas relate to the ATT, even when states parties or signatories are responsible for the transfers that lead to this destruction. The fact that ATT states parties and signatories continue to engage in arms transfers that result in human suffering highlights the critical gap between law and practice.

It also highlights the power of the war profiteers. Commercial interests operating without scruples are a serious driver of arms production and sale. Corporations and governments make billions from the international arms trade. And commercial interests often influence arms transfer policy. Way back in 1918, Royal Navy officer Admiral Lord Wester Wemyss recognised the grave implications of private companies producing weapons:

Apart from the moral objections to the present system, which makes warfare a direct occasion of private gain, the system is attended by the inevitable consequence that the multiplication of armaments is stimulated artificially. Every firm engaged in the production of armaments and munitions of every kind naturally wants the largest possible output, Not only, therefore, has it a direct interest in the inflation of the Navy and Army Estimates and in war scares, but it is equally to its interest to push its foreign business. For the more armaments are increased abroad, the more they must be increased at home. This interrelation between foreign and home trade in armaments is one of the most subtle and dangerous features of the present system of private production. The evil is intensified by the existence of international armament rings, the members of which notoriously play into each other’s hands. So long as this subterranean conspiracy against peace is allowed to continue, the possibility of any serious concerted reduction of armaments will be remote.[4]

Thus if the ATT is to have any meaning at all, it must be used to confront and dismantle the “subterranean conspiracy against peace”. Rather than legitimising the global arms trade as a reputable business, as some of its states parties desire, it must be used as a tool to illuminate, stigmatise, and prevent arms transfers that are responsible for death and destruction, regardless of who is selling or receiving the weapons.

But the ATT is not enough. It is the responsibility of all states, governments, organisations, and activists to condemn and prevent arms transfers that violate law, rights, and our collective conscience. It is the responsibility of us all to stop bombing and bombardment of towns, cities, and villages.


  • States must implement the ATT with a view to enhancing peace, justice, and human rights, not profits and political manipulation. Each and every arms transfer must be weighed against the risks highlighted in the ATT. To this end, relevant actors should identify and promote indicators that would prevent the sale of weapons. States must not transfer weapons that are at risk of being used to bomb populated areas.
  • The peddling of tools of war, violence, and oppression at international gatherings must stop, as it does not reflect the stated collective ambition of advancing peace and security and reducing human suffering. Action needs to be taken to dismantle the military-industrial complex and the influence that arms manufactures have over politics and policies.
  • States and other relevant actors should support the development and implementation of a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, we well as relevant policies and practices, that seek to end the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. The declaration should recognise the connection between arms transfers and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It could reaffirm that all states must maintain the highest possible standards on their exports of conventional arms, including by adhering to and implementing fully the ATT. It could also commit signatories, including those not party to the ATT, to develop specific guidelines to restrict or stop the transfer of certain types or categories of conventional weapons to state and non-state actors. In the context of any data collection practices recommended by the declaration, it would be useful to collect data of civilian harm on the basis of type of weapon(s) used, in order to better track which weapon systems are causing harm. This will be relevant for understanding the impacts of particular weapons as well as for making arms transfer decisions.


WILPF response to the draft elements for a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, February 2020

WILPF recommendations for a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, January 2020


[1] “Worldwide displacement tops 70 million, UN Refugee Chief urges greater solidarity in response,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 19 June 2019.

[2] Hazem Balousha and Miriam Berger, “The U.N. once predicted Gaza would be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. Two million people still live there,” The Washington Post, 2 January 2020.

[3] Some of these have suspended new arms deals with Saudi Arabia but have not necessarily cancelled existing orders.

[4] Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally, Death Pays a Dividend (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1944), pp. 9–10.