ATT provides new hope in 2015 for civilians in conflict

Written by Anna Macdonald, Control Arms

Today, new international law enters into force introducing tight new controls on the $85bn arms trade. Arms campaigner Anna Macdonald here speaks about her hopes for the protection of civilians during 2015.

It’s that time of year again when people start talking about Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. Looking back on 2014, at times, Peace on Earth has felt further away than ever before.

Gaza, the Ukraine, Pakistan, Central Africa Republic, Syria, Iraq. I could go on. The images of devastating violence that have unfolded on our TV screens this year will be impossible to forget.

An unknown number of civilians – far too many of them children – have been killed by armed conflict this year. A child shouldn’t know what a real flechette shell looks like – let alone what it feels like when it tears into his or her body.

It’s human instinct to hope that next year’s death toll will be lower but this year, it is not necessarily a misplaced or naïve hope. Today, new international law, in the shape of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), enters into force introducing tight new controls on the $85bn arms trade.

Now the ATT is international law, before any arms transfer takes place, it must be assessed against strict criteria, including whether the arms might be used for human rights violations or war crimes. If there is a substantial risk the transfer will breach this criteria, then it cannot be authorized.

This treaty is not just a piece of paper. The wide scope of the treaty means that serious questions will be asked every time anyone – whether a government or arms dealer – plans to transfer any weapons on a long list that includes small arms, light weapons, battle tanks, attack helicopters and ammunition.

There is no question that this Treaty is long overdue.

It has taken more than a decade for the ATT to become a reality. Campaigners from all over the world, including Nobel Laureates, have worked for this moment. Survivors of armed conflict who I have met say this treaty gives them hope that others may live though their loved ones died.

Not only does armed violence tear lives apart – but it also stunts the economic development of poor countries. The inevitable result is a lack of investment in basic services such as health and education. According to the World Bank, on average, low-income fragile or conflict-affected states lag 40 to 60 per cent behind other lower and middle-income countries in millennium development goal delivery. And it is ordinary people who pay the price once again.

All states will be affected by this Treaty, not just those that agree with its principles and have signed and ratified it so far. Sceptics say that it won’t make a difference, rehashing the same old arguments used by drug dealers – that exporters such as Russia will simply shrug and say ‘if I don’t sell them someone else will’ and continue to trade – probably handling an increase in demand.

But this argument underestimates the power of creating a new international norm or standard. Now that the treaty has entered into force, it will create a strong deterrent for all countries – even those not a party to it – to end uncontrolled arms transfers.

Of course it is critical that world leaders and politicians to step up their diplomatic efforts to help end many of the seemingly intractable conflicts in the world. Simultaneously, the ATT will provide an important mechanism to reduce the flow of weapons and ammunition into war-zones.

It will take time and commitment for the treaty to be implemented and for us to start to see a difference on the ground.

Change won’t happen overnight, but now that the Treaty has entered into force, I feel more optimistic about the protection of civilians today, than I have at any other time during the rest of the year.

Anna Macdonald is director of the Control Arms Coalition, which campaigns for tough controls on the international arms trade. The coalition has more than 100 member organisations, working in 120 countries and includes international NGOs such as Oxfam and Amnesty International as well as many regional and national-level organisations. Follow her on Twitter @annamac33