Diverting attention? HRC adopts new resolution on arms transfers

The Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a new resolution on the impact of arms transfers on human rights during its 47th session in July 2021. While the resolution reinforces the 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, its overall emphasis on diverted, unregulated, and illicit arms transfers breaks from the original spirit of the resolution—and distracts from the many serious human rights impacts caused by legal and regulated arms transfers.

Resolution A/HRC/47/L.27 is the fourth resolution adopted by the HRC on the subject of arms transfers. It is tabled biennially under the co-sponsorship of Peru and Ecuador, in rotation with a resolution on the civilian acquisition of firearms. This year, it was adopted without a vote, with eleven other states joining as co-sponsors.

The resolution builds on its predecessors in many ways, including by acknowledging in its preamble that “the misuse of arms can perpetuate gender-based violence, and that addressing gendered root causes of violence is essential.” it also adds an operative paragraph that notes weapons can have a “severely negative impact on women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of all human rights, increasing the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and of violence against women, children and youth.”

The 2019 resolution had requested a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to look at the impact of arms on women and girls, and this focus aligns more broadly 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.  UN human rights bodies, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee, have been paying growing attention to this link, including in relation to the extraterritorial human rights obligations of exporting states.  

The 2021 resolution also brings a helpful focus to the impact of arms transfers on child rights by requesting a report on “good practices, lessons learned and challenges” faced by states in relation to the impact on the enjoyment of human rights by children and youth. This aligns somewhat with a pending OHCHR report that will consider firearms acquisition among youth, as requested by the 2019 resolution on firearms.

Importantly, resolution L.27 acknowledges the ongoing transfer of weapons to conflict-affected regions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. It recalls relevant principles and provisions of international human rights law (IHRL) and international humanitarian law (IHL), as contained in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and in the United Nations Programme of Action (UNPoA) to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, as well as other relevant instruments. It urges all states to refrain from transferring weapons when they assess there is a clear risk that such arms might be used in the commission or facilitation of serious violations or abuses of IHRL or IHL.

Disappointing, however, is that virtually every reference to “arms transfers” is sharply qualified by a reference to the “diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers”. During consultations, WILPF argued that the resolution—as implied by its title—should address the human rights impacts of all arms transfers, a point that was supported by Panama, Costa Rica, and Uruguay. To focus solely on those that are diverted, unregulated, or illicit overlooks and deliberately distracts from the fact that even regulated and legal transfers can have a negative impact on human rights. During consultations, many major exporting countries and their allies, including Russia, the United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and the European Union argued that the resolution was always intended to be about diverted and/or illegal weapons. WILPF explained how this is inaccurate, as based on its record of engagement in this resolution since it was first introduced.

“This mirrors a growing trend within the ATT community, in which an increasing amount of time and resources are being put into addressing the issue of diversion,” says Allison Pytlak, WILPF disarmament programme manager. “While a goal of the ATT is to prevent diversion of arms into illicit markets, and it is a challenge facing many states, the Treaty was also intended to prevent harm from being caused by legal, regulated transfers. This is why the risk assessment process takes into account a wider spectrum of criteria than diversion alone, and why this HRC resolution has traditionally emphasised the human rights impacts of all arms transfers. Continuing to single out diversion and illicit or unregulated transfers is itself a diversion of attention, and of legal responsibility to uphold human rights.”

This point was referenced in some of the statements delivered ahead of adoption on 14 July. Armenia noted that it has only become possible for this resolution to be adopted by consensus after its language was changed in recent years to specify diverted and illicit transfers, describing it as “pretty convenient … for those who produce, trade, and supply arms.” Armenia also pointed out that these qualifiers were even applied to the language relating to the UNSG’s call for a ceasefire. Pakistan referred to the role of “many leading arms exporting countries” in the watering down of the text, suggesting there is a need for HRC-led accountability around the “egregious” human rights violations that are enabled by arms transfers, including in contexts of foreign occupation.

Also ahead of adoption, India dissociated itself from PP14, which references the ATT; while Uruguay regretted that most of the proposed references to the ATT were removed, observing that “commercial interests are prevailing over human rights concerns”.

WILPF hopes that future resolutions will see a return of focus to the impact of all arms transfers. WILPF and others will look to promote the resolution during the upcoming conference of states parties to the ATT taking place in August, as part of our broader call for accountability around on-going arms transfers that violate the ATT, and which negatively impact human rights and cause human suffering.