States must act responsibly at every step along the arms transfer chain

Fourth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Statement by Dr Helen Durham, the ICRC director of International Law and Policy

Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia and Ukraine are marred by war. Urban violence and organized crime are a fact of life in Latin America. We at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have witnessed time and again the dreadful impact that armed conflict and other violence have on people's lives. And the brutality can be shocking. Scores of civilians are killed. Essential infrastructure is destroyed. Local authorities and humanitarian organizations are prevented from keeping basic services running. And people are denied safe access to the land, resources, markets and health-care services they need to survive and thrive.

Today in the Lake Chad Basin, armed conflict has forced more than two million people to flee their homes. In some places, they suffer from critical food shortage and severe malnutrition. According to the UN, more than half of internally displaced persons in Nigeria are children. One child reunited by the ICRC with his displaced family recounted how he would play using toys made to resemble guns, imitating the violence he witnessed around him.

And you don't need to travel far from where we are today, in Tokyo, to see just how devastating violence can be. Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a long history of tribal fighting. But semi-automatic weapons have made the violence all the more destructive. Thousands of people flee their homes every year. Entire villages are burned to the ground. And families are robbed of their lives and livelihoods.

We recently met Ben Ali, a Wambia man from PNG's Southern Highlands Province. He recounted how, one morning, he woke to the terrifying sight of armed men from an opposing tribe in his doorway. He managed to escape, but his wife and sons were shot dead and his home was later burned down. The sad truth is that people around the world have horrifying experiences just like Ben's every day. And a ready supply of arms and ammunition almost always makes matters worse.

Humanitarian agencies like the ICRC – a neutral, impartial, independent organization – bring much-needed relief to the many places around the world where peace remains elusive. But aid alone cannot solve the problems we face. You, the States gathered here today, also have a vital role to play – by upholding international humanitarian law and by acting responsibly at every step along the arms transfer chain. That way, you can prevent the devastating and irreparable harm that comes when weapons fall into the wrong hands.

At no time in history have there been more rules to prevent the suffering that violence causes, or stricter international controls to halt the flow of weapons to belligerents and violent extremists. These rules are founded on the duty to uphold international humanitarian law, which is enshrined in Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions and in the principles of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Yet these rules have never been under greater pressure than they are today. At the ICRC, we see parties to conflicts breaking the rules of war with alarming regularity, even as we urge compliance. And with economic, commercial and strategic interests too often taking precedence over civilian protection, peace, security and stability, the principled, rules-based order established by the Arms Trade Treaty faces an unprecedented threat.

The very purpose of the Treaty is to prioritize humanitarian interests and, in doing so, to reduce human suffering. Yet we are concerned by the growing gap between States' absolute commitments to human rights and international humanitarian law – in the Treaty and elsewhere – and how arms are transferred in practice. This gap must be closed before it threatens our hard-won achievements.

Fighters and commanders are ultimately responsible for abiding by the law on the battlefield. But arms suppliers have a duty to consider the risk of the weapons they provide being used to commit, or facilitate, serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Put simply, there should be no transfers of arms to warring sides if they do not abide by the rules of war. The Arms Trade Treaty can only stop weapons falling into the wrong hands if the rules are applied in good faith, consistently, without bias or discrimination – and by decision makers at every level.

Responsible arms transfers, and peace and security, are two sides of the same coin. Failing to properly control the movement of arms and ammunition – and the violations that they enable – serves only to aggravate and perpetuate cycles of violence and increase the threat to security. Breaking these cycles is a challenge that all States must address.

Openness and transparency are instrumental in building confidence – among States Parties and the wider public – that the Treaty is being implemented in good faith. Indeed, they are vital to its very credibility. The measures laid down in the Treaty, including on preventing and addressing diversion, can only work if all States involved in the arms transfer chain share information. States must work together to assess the risk of proposed transfers – focusing on the practical aspects and having the courage to tackle the hard questions. Doing so will improve practices across the board and help bring the arms trade out of the shadows.

The Arms Trade Treaty is a relatively new instrument. Now is the time to defend – not dilute – a still-fragile international rules-based order. The system must work. And it must be seen to work – not on paper, but on the ground, where it matters most.

At the ICRC, we are not in the business of apportioning blame. We recognize that, despite well-meaning efforts, implementing the Arms Trade Treaty remains a challenge for many States. It is a process that demands cooperation between all States Parties. We stand ready, alongside other organizations, to help States achieve these goals in whatever way we can.

Fully implementing the Arms Trade Treaty would make the world a better place. Building a rules-based system is a step in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go on implementation. We must not stumble at the final hurdle.