How an #ArmsTreaty would help stop weapon flows into #Syria

April 5 2012, 11:07 AM by Oistein Thorsen

Every day our TV screens are full of images of the horror from several cities in Syria where civilians are being abused and killed. Despite worldwide condemnation, the abuse continues, and appallingly, arms and ammunition that are being used to commit human rights abuses continue to be supplied.

Syria is only one chilling live example of why a global arms trade treaty is urgently needed, and tragically there are many more such examples every day around the world.

By ATT Legal

While we realize that an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is not a panacea against all armed violence around the world, countries at the negotiations know that an effective ATT would be based on a simple principle: no transfers of weapons likely to be used for violations of international law. This simple fact would help prevent the escalation in weapons transfers which has now pushed Syria to the brink for the last year.

From a legal point of view, the current draft of the ATT would require states to analyze each potential arms transfer against a set of criteria, before deciding whether or not to authorize an arms deal with another country. The ATT would prevent any country from authorizing arms transfers where there was a substantial risk that the transfer would seriously impair poverty reduction or the socio-economic development of the recipient State.
Additionally, under the ATT countries would not be permitted to authorize any transfer where there was a substantial risk that the arms would be used in a manner that would “seriously undermine peace and security, aggravate instability or be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law or international criminal law, including crimes against humanity or war crimes.” Various acts of the Syrian government during the current conflict, such as the use of lethal force on unarmed demonstrators and the use of tanks, artillery, and combat aircraft in civilian population centers, would clearly constitute such serious violations.

Given the current situation in Syria, if a State considering exporting arms to Syria completed an accurate assessment against the ATT criteria, it would conclude that there is a substantial risk that the sale would seriously undermine a number of the criteria listed above. The exporting country would therefore be required to reject the arms export application and arms would not be legally transferred into the country.
If ratified by a large number of countries, the ATT would “enter into force” and become binding international law. This would create a strong deterrent for all countries, even those not a party to the ATT, to put an end to uncontrolled arms transfers.

As an example, following the development of the Mine Ban Treaty, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) began publicizing and shaming the companies and states responsible for landmine production and use in order to develop and promote the norm against landmines. This stigmatization campaign achieved immediate results.

The mere investigation into companies’ practices prompted seventeen producers to immediately renounce any future involvement in landmine trade. The ICBL also shamed the United States for failing to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, in order to both force its compliance with broader landmine norms and to make an example of holdout states as “rogue states.” President Clinton soon announced a moratorium on the military’s use of non self-destruct landmines with a limited exception in South Korea and he decided to make a non-binding commitment to comply with the Mine Ban Treaty by 2006.

Similar results flowed from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and from the Partial Test Ban Treaty which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Both treaties were initially resisted by some major powers, but helped to establish international norms to which most countries finally adhered.

These examples show how development of a comprehensive treaty, such as the ATT, can help accelerate and develop a specific norm. Over time, international law norms and precedent would put an end to certain arms transfers, particularly those that aggravate armed conflict and facilitate violations of international law such as those atrocities currently taking place in Syria.

This blog has been prepared by ATT Legal – a network of expert pro-bono lawyers, who provide free, real time legal advice during negotiation sessions, are accepting legal questions on an on-going basis and welcome your queries. Its lawyers have fielded questions from civil society and states on various legal aspects of a potential Arms Trade Treaty. If you are interested in joining the ATT Legal Network, have a legal question about the treaty, or simply want more information, please email attlegalresponse[at]gmail[dot]com
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