The Arms Trade Treaty makes it harder to trade in arms than it is to trade in other goods which the international community has long regulated. To date, 96 countries are parties to the treaty, out of which 22 are from Africa. The list from Africa includes countries like Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Zambia. Ethiopia has not yet become a party to the Treaty, write Eyerusalem Teshome and Amen Taye.
The weak controls on international arms transfers across the African continent have been reported to fuel grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. They have also endangered vital humanitarian assistance and prolonged armed conflict, with tragic consequences for civilians and communities.
After years of negotiations and discussions driven by the countless casualties caused by the widespread and unregulated availability of arms, an international treaty that regulates transfer of arms was adopted by the United Nations in 2013. An historic achievement, the Arms Trade Treaty makes it harder to trade in arms than it is to trade in other goods which the international community has long regulated. To date, 96 countries are parties to the treaty, out of which 22 are from Africa. The list from Africa includes countries like Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Zambia. Ethiopia has not yet become a party to the Treaty. It is important to reiterate that the Arms Trade Treaty was voted for by a large majority of UN member states during its adoption, with 153 states in favor and only three against it. African states were particularly supportive. However, to date, no state in East Africa is a party to the treaty.
“It is very positive that close to half of the world’s states are already parties to this relatively young treaty,” Eve Massingham (PhD), ICRC regional legal adviser based in Nairobi, said. “Over time, this will have an impact on reducing human suffering in the same way we have seen reductions in land mine and cluster munition victims since treaties prohibiting these weapons have come into force.” Massingham underscored that “strong regional acceptance of effective implementation of the treaty remains critical to ensure that the treaty can achieve the ends strongly promoted by African states during the negotiations.”
Before the adoption of the treaty, some arms transfers were regulated by regional instruments such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons , the Nairobi Protocol on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the EU Common Position on Small Arms and Light Weapons. These are very useful regional commitments which continue to be relevant. However, they cover only a limited number of states and only small arms and light weapons, not other conventional weapons. Further, the objectives of these instruments are different to the Arms Trade Treaty objectives. For example, the Nairobi Protocol, to which Ethiopia is a state party, seeks to prevent the proliferation of unlicensed small arms and light weapons among the civilian population. The Arms Trade Treaty is therefore complementary to this framework.
From the perspective of international humanitarian law, the treaty can be considered as one of the many ways of giving practical effect to Article 1 of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions which Ethiopia has been a party to for nearly half a century. The provision obliges states parties to take measures to respect and ensure respect to the Convention so as to provide and facilitate protection to the wounded and sick, prisoners of war, civilians, as well as medical personnel and other specially protected groups and objects.
The Arms Trade Treaty breaks new ground by establishing common international standards that must be met before states may authorize transfers of conventional weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty restricts export, import, transit, brokering and diversion of arms if there is a risk that they will be used in serious violation of international humanitarian law, international human rights laws or the UN Charter. The Treaty also requires states to put in place national control systems, based on their national legal systems. States parties are also required to submit annual reports to the secretariat established under the Treaty, on national measures taken to implement the treaty and authorized imports/exports.
The Arms Trade Treaty is not about the prohibition of the international trade in conventional arms, it is rather about the regulation of such trade. It obliges States to ensure that arms transfer be responsible: to make sure that arms don’t fall within the possession of those that are committing or bent on committing serious violations of international norms. A preamble of the treaty reinforces this when it stipulates, on the one hand, that the Treaty ” recognizes the legitimate political, economic and commercial interests of states in international trade in arms” and, on the other, that one of the guiding principles of the Treaty is “respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law…..and international human rights law…..”.
Joining the Arms Trade Treaty would allow Ethiopia to contribute to alleviating human suffering beyond its borders by reducing the number of conventional arms that end up in the hands of those who are using the arms to commit the most serious of international crimes. It is also in tandem with Ethiopia’s resolute statements in the United Nations Security Council persistently calling for injecting a sense of responsibility in arms transfer undertakings. A process leading up to accession and implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty requires a multi-stakeholder exercise owing to the nature of the treaty. The ICRC, within the scope of its mandate in international humanitarian law, assists states in the process of domesticating and implementing the Treaty.
With a view to raising awareness about the treaty, the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia organized a two-day seminar at the end of April 2018. Participating institutions included Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, Federal Attorney General, Federal Police Commission, academia and UN Agencies. The comments and inputs made during the seminar unambiguously reflected the pressing need to alleviate the egregious consequences of ongoing conflicts in the different parts of the world and the Arms Trade Treaty presents a concrete opportunity.
Ed.’s Note: Eyerusalem Teshome is a legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Ethiopia (ICRC). Amen Taye was an intern at ICRC and a member of the team which came 2nd in the 2017 All Africa Universities IHL Competition. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter or the ICRC.