Course Synopses/Outlines:

Arms and Human Rights

Presentation by Joost Hiltermann
Executive Director, Arms Division of Human Rights Watch
AALS Workshop, October 26-28, 2000

This presentation will highlight the importance of the use of certain weapons and the trade in arms as human rights concerns.

I will discuss the role of arms in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, speak briefly about some methodological innovations in the human rights field prompted by the emphasis on arms, and suggest ways of deploying the arms issue to apply pressure on key actors to curb human rights abuses. I will speak on the basis of my work with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, which has been an innovator in this field, and is still the only major human rights organization involved in arms-related investigations.

Arms as a Human Rights Issue
There are two ways of looking at arms and human rights: from the perspective of the nature of the weapon system and whether its effects are consistent with principles of international humanitarian law (IHL), and from the perspective of the trade in (conventional) arms, i.e., to the extent that the provision of arms encourages the abuse of human rights.

Some weapons/weapon systems are considered inhumane under IHL (for example, the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) because they either are indiscriminate or cause unnecessary suffering. I will give examples of both: antipersonnel landmines and weapons of mass destruction as indiscriminate weapons, and blinding laser weapons as weapons that are cruel, causing unnecessary suffering. In some cases, specific treaties exist to ban at least the use and sometimes also the production, stockpiling and trade of these weapons.

Regardless of the weapons involved, the trade in weapons can encourage human rights violations by providing abusive forces with not only the material but also the political toleration to continue and even escalate abusive conduct, especially in cases of (internal or international) armed conflict. Problems of internal distribution (or recycling) of weapons are compounded by renewed supplies from outside regions of armed conflict, and the resulting proliferation of weapons in area of armed conflict tends to bring growing number of noncombatants (especially children) into the fighting. This may lead to weakening lines of command, eroding discipline, a gradual breakdown of accountability for one's actions, and the growth of a climate of impunity in which human rights violations become routine. Such proliferation will also have serious consequences for post-conflict efforts at demobilization, disarmament and crime control, and therefore for a society's security and development.

A number of mechanisms exist to restrict the supply of arms to human rights abusers, though none has proven adequate by itself to tackle the problem, and a binding universal code of conduct for arms exports remains an aspiration. The norm itself ("No human rights abusers should be provided with arms") is still a work in progress.

Curbing Human Rights Abuse Through an Arms Focus
To make an effective argument on the role of the arms trade in encouraging human rights abuse, the research objective must be to expose the role of states, i.e., entities that can be held accountable under international human rights and humanitarian law. (I will make a separate note about the role of nonstate actors.) In the final analysis, it is governments that through acts of commission (the supply of weapons to human rights abusers) or omission (their failure to regulate weapons flow to areas of armed conflict) contribute to the human rights violations. As a result, they may be considered accessories to ware crimes, crimes against humanity, etc.

The focus on arms brings an additional, potentially powerful, tool to our efforts to curb human rights abuse. We can still criticize human rights abusers, and call on more powerful governments to lean on the abusers to modify their behavior. But now we can also go to the suppliers (and transshippers) of the weaponry with which abuses are being committed, and can call on them directly to halt such supplies, using the threat of their stigmatization as an accessory to human rights crimes. In our experience, governments do not like being publicly singled out and branded as contributors to violence and mayhem; it is leverage that the human rights community must be certain to exploit.

Methodological Innovation
In many cases, especially in conflicts involving small arms and light weapons, it has proven difficult to establish the identity of the supplier of arms that are used in human rights abuse. Victims are unlikely to know the type of weapon that was used against them, let alone its origin or the channels by which it arrived in the area in which it was used. This has necessitated field investigations that go beyond the interviewing of eyewitnesses of human rights abuse to the questioning of the very perpetrators of such abuses, as well as of actors involved in the supply and shipment of weapons. There are risks involved in doing so, but there are also ways around it. Two populations that have been prone to provide information are what one might call deserting perpetrators, i.e., perpetrators that have had a falling out with their buddies, and disaffected fellow travelers, i.e., actors who may be involved in shipping arms on behalf of their employer as a secondary activity an activity of which, importantly, they are not enamored but which for economic reasons they are forced to take on.

I will end with a discussion of the strengths and difficulties involved with this the use of this methodology.