Victim Assistance at Stake in #ArmsTreaty Negotiations

July 26 2012, 8:13 AM  by Oistein Thorsen

As the negotiations at the Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty enter their last and most crucial days, a number of components that are key to the treaty’s humanitarian goal and nature are at stake. The inclusion of victim assistance is one of them.

An analysis of the oral statements made by delegations during the last two weeks shows broad support, but also some clear opposition to a reference to victim assistance (VA). While the latest draft treaty text does currently mention VA in the Preamble, it is still a polarizing issue.

Champion states for inclusion of victim assistance are led by Norway (Preamble and Principles, Cooperation and Assistance, Implementation on 3, 10, 11, 17 July), Mexico (Preamble and Principles, 9 and 17 July) and Ghana (Implementation, Cooperation and Assistance, 10 July; Preamble, 17 July). They are repeatedly and urgently calling upon other states to include it in different aspects of the treaty.

More than 70 states, including the Arab and African Groups, support them by actively calling for inclusion of victim assistance under Preamble and Principles or under International Cooperation and Assistance. African countries which have spoken for victim assistance include Tanzania (Implementation, 10 July), Sudan (Preamble and Principles, 11 July), Uganda (International Cooperation and Assistance, 24 July), and Nigeria on behalf of the African Group (Cooperation and Assistance, 10 July). Several European States such as Liechtenstein (Preamble and Principles, 17 July), Serbia (Implementation, 6 July) and the UK (Preamble and Principles, 9 July), but also Samoa (International Cooperation and Assistance, 10 July), New Zealand (Preamble and Principles, 11 July), Uruguay (Preamble and Principles, 24 July) and Vietnam (International Cooperation and Assistance, 24 July) have called for the acknowledgement of victim assistance.

Another group of the proponents, including Egypt (International Cooperation and Assistance, 10 July) and Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Arab Group (International Cooperation and Assistance, 5 July) ties their calls for the inclusion of victim assistance to requests for exporting states to assume responsibility for meeting the needs of victims.

However, there is also vehement opposition to the inclusion of victim assistance in the Arms Trade Treaty. The United States in particular keeps reiterating that, according to them, victim assistance should be regulated in forums other than the Arms Trade Treaty (10 July, 17 July). It is not surprising that the US is also calling for removal of references to any humanitarian elements from the treaty, arguing that the ATT is strictly and purely a trade regulation mechanism with no humanitarian aspects. These positions neglect the fact that the ATT is regulating trade in weapons, which are instruments of death and injury, and must not be viewed as trade regulation only.

What is also often overlooked is that the acknowledgement of victims would merely reaffirm states’ commitments to existing international law rather than imposing new legal obligations. As a consequence, failure to include victim assistance in the Arms Trade Treaty would mean to fall behind the existing norm of international humanitarian law. Therefore, the recognition of victim rights to assistance provides an opportunity for states to reaffirm and strengthen their existing commitments, and to respond to the needs of victims of armed violence in a structured and coordinated way.