Biting the Bullet – Why the Arms Trade Treaty Must Regulate Ammunition

By Conor Fortune, News Writer at Amnesty International

This post is part of a special series on the Arms Trade Treaty. From March 18-28, world leaders from more than 150 countries are gathering for the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in New York. An Amnesty International delegation with representatives from every world region is participating and will be pressing leaders to agree to a strong treaty that upholds international human rights law.

“When she came out she was covered in blood. There are two bullets still in her head.”

No mother should ever have to utter such a chilling line about her child. But in Côte d’Ivoire, one woman recently told our researchers the harrowing story of how her 12-year-old girl survived a deadly attack on their village in the west of the country amid the post-election violence of early 2011.

The guns and ammunition used by Dozo militias were among those illegally smuggled into the country via Burkina Faso, in contravention of a UN arms embargo in place since 2004. Since before the embargo, weapons and ammunition were irresponsibly shipped to both sides in the Ivorian armed conflict.


Would You Ignore This Child Soldier?

Former child soldier, now rapper, Emmanuel Jal has an important message for President Obama that can save lives. Jal is speaking out and joining thousands of activists around the world in supporting a treaty that would end the unregulated flow of weapons globally.

Every minute, at least one person dies as a result of armed violence and conflict. There is currently no universal piece of legislation to regulate and monitor the international trade of arms. Beginning this week, world leaders from roughly 150 countries have gathered in New York to negotiate such a treaty that could keep weapons out of the hands of bad guys likely to use them to rape, recruit child soldiers or commit other severe human rights abuses.


Inside Syria: Documenting The War On Civilians

Citizen video coming out of Syria continues to uncover abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed (Photo Credit: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Citizen video coming out of Syria continues to uncover abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed (Photo Credit: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Syrian crisis hits its two-year mark, the toll on civilians continues to grow exponentially. Peaceful protests that started in March 2011 were quickly met by government authorities responding with deadly force, leading to systematic and widespread human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. Followed by the escalation into a full-fledged armed conflict by mid-2012, today, both government and armed opposition forces continue pursuing a military solution to the conflict. Caught in the middle are civilians, paying a horrendous price for this deadly stalemate.

Based on field research conducted over the last weeks, an Amnesty researcher inside Syria uncovered new evidence of the government’s assault on civilians, and its outright disregard for the laws of war. This is most dramatically symbolized by the government’s recent ballistic missile strikes against eastern Aleppo, flattening entire blocks and killing 160 residents; or by the increased use of internationally banned cluster bombs.


Mali Intervention Called a Success…Corpses of Civilians Poisoning Wells.

Idrissa Maiga, a Malian farmer, prays among the graves of his wife and three of his children in a cemetery behind the Konna school on January 27, 2013 who were reportedly killed by French army air strikes on January 11. Maiga's second wife, 41, and two boys and a girl aged from 10 to 14 allegedly perished on the morning of the 11th during the air raid and were buried the same afternoon.  (Photo: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Idrissa Maiga, a Malian farmer, prays among the graves of his wife and three of his children in a cemetery behind the Konna school on January 27, 2013 who were reportedly killed by French army air strikes on January 11. Maiga’s second wife, 41, and two boys and a girl aged from 10 to 14 allegedly perished on the morning of the 11th during the air raid and were buried the same afternoon. (Photo: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

For background information on the French intervention and human rights situation in Mali, see here.

The French Defense Minister on Thursday said publicly that the “French intervention has succeeded.” Insofar as armed opposition and armed Islamist groups have either abandoned areas in the north of the country or tactically retreated—and this is a measure of success—that statement may be true.

Also released Thursday were initial findings from a ten day research mission in Mali by Amnesty International. In an unfortunate confirmation of the realization of  Amnesty International’s fears raised in December, the findings from this mission tell of the executions and disappearances of civilians, arbitrary arrests, beatings and ill-treatment, inter alia.


“I Never Thought It Was The Last Time I Would See My Family”

Ahmad Kayali

Ahmad Kayali was killed along with this mother, two sisters, uncle and cousin when his home in Aleppo was destroyed by an airstrike by the Syrian army.

“When I went to work, I never thought that it was the last time I would see my family. I lost all that was dearest to me, my children, my wife, my brother, my cousins, everybody.”

This statement by the husband of Asma Kayali, 25, sums up the situation civilians in Aleppo. Asma was killed with her three children – her daughters Kawthar and Fatima, aged nine and seven, and her four-year-old son Ahmad – when her home was bombed to dust by an air strike on August 6. In total, 10 members of the Kayali family – seven of them children – were killed in that attack, which is emblematic of Syria’s spiraling human rights crisis.

Today, the assault on Aleppo continues unabated, and more civilians are at risks to get killed by indiscriminate attacks carried out by government forces.

Unfortunately, my recent concerns about the specter of an imminent deployment of heavy weaponry in the densely populated environment of Aleppo have become a reality (also check out these pictures of urban warfare from a Reuters photographer). The result is a mounting number of war crimes piling onto an already extensive list of atrocities committed in Syria.


UN Reveals Further Evidence of Atrocities in Syria

In its newest report on Syria, the UN Commission of Inquiry today revealed further evidence that the government and associated Shabbiha militias have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes over the last few months. In addition, the report found that armed opposition groups have also committed war crimes, although these crimes “did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by Government forces and the Shabbiha”.

Most importantly, the commission announced that it will provide a confidential list of individuals and units it believes are responsible for these atrocities to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This announcement is significant, and supports the statement I made last week that human rights violations and abuses in Syria, committed by either side, will not go unnoticed.


Aleppo: Why We Should Be Alarmed

syria aleppo

Syrian men look at a destroyed Syrian army tank parked outside the Azaz mosque, north of the restive city of Aleppo, on August 2, 2012. (c) AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GettyImages

News reports coming out of Aleppo paint a grim picture of the confrontation between opposition fighters and the Syrian armed forces, who are describing this as the “decisive battle”. If the past 16 months are any indication, we have to brace ourselves for a new wave of human rights violations, as well as grave breaches of international humanitarian law. As has been extensively documented by Amnesty International and others, the atrocities committed in Syria have steadily continued to climb.

For example, one of my colleagues who recently returned from Aleppo, documented crimes we believe amount to crimes against humanity. Her reporting from late May describes how government security forces and the notorious government-backed shabiha militias routinely used live fire against peaceful demonstrations in Aleppo, killing and injuring protesters and bystanders, including children, and hunting down the wounded, the medics who treated them, and opposition activists. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Colombia: Where Being a Civilian is Dangerous

By Peter Drury, Colombia campaigner at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London


Members of the Peace Community at the commemoration of the massacre of February 2005. (c) Amnesty International

It’s 3:00am, it’s the center of the village of San José de Apartadó, dominoes are slammed on a table, children play football, cycle around the square, play ludo. There’s a hum of voices and the sound of frogs pierces this tropical night. This all sounds fairly tranquil. Only it’s not.

The year is 1999 and these people are staying up all night, knowing that at any moment, they could be attacked by paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army. Only a few months earlier paramilitaries stormed the community killing at least two people and injuring other members of the Community. After this attack members of the community take it in turns to stay up on guard, ready to react if the paramilitaries strike again.


Justice for Guatemala's Disappeared?

Yesterday, The Washington Post published an article highlighting the opening of Guatemala’s police archives. The archives — which contain documentation of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that killed approximately 200,000 people – could provide long awaited justice to families who never got answers about disappearances and murders of their loved ones.

The article continues with a comment from Amnesty International: “I don’t think anyone truly believed this day would come,” said Barbara Bocek, the Guatemala country specialist for Amnesty International USA. “It’s an incredible achievement, especially for Guatemala. In other countries these records would be buried underground, shredded, destroyed.”

However, AI has expressed concern about intimidation of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the agency credited with discovering the warehouse of documents: “The wife of the Director of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was kidnapped on Wednesday and tortured. One official was beaten up, whilst a number of threats have been made against other officials of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. These include a bomb threat and a threat against the life of the Director of the Office. ”

WIth such an incredible opportunity in Guatemala comes the familiar forces of intimidation and secrecy. Do you think the opening of Guatemala’s police archives will bring long awaited justice to the families of the disappeared?


Letters to the Editor about Gaza

Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) received a number of letters about our recent action asking the State Department why they allowed a massive shipment of arms to Israel despite clear evidence of Israel violating international law during the recent Gaza conflict.  We thought it might be useful to publish anonymously some of these letters, along with our response, so readers could better understand why we’re promoting such an action.

I think Amnesty International also needs to determine if arms shipments to Israeli may be a response to the ongoing policy of Hamas. The policy includes provocative shelling of Israeli communities and an avowed position calling for destruction of Jewish State.

Surely a more moderate coalition of Palestinian interests would be a step toward a more stable two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

It would be a far better policy choice than random shelling of Israeli communities and incidental suicide bombings  within Israeli borders  to disrupt the peace process and give a poltical edge to hardliners within Israel.

Those who have supported the work of Amnesty International expect more even handed and less partisan posturing in this delicate situation.

As an organization that promotes the respect of internationally recognized human rights laws and principles, AIUSA believes it is critical to address violations by all parties to the conflict.  As such Amnesty International’s International Secretariat (IS), the part of Amnesty that is engaged with most of the investigative research, has repeatedly condemned both parties to the recent conflict in Gaza for violations or abuses of human rights.    For an example of an Amnesty report on Hamas, please see: “Hamas waged a deadly campaign as war devastated Gaza dated February 12, 2009“.

Since AIUSA is the U.S. section of Amnesty International, we have a special duty to ensure the U.S. government is promoting the respect of human rights when it provides arms and other military equipment to Israel and other fighting forces around the world. Amnesty’s investigative research uncovered significant evidence that Israel violated international humanitarian law during the recent conflict in Gaza, which is why we are asking Secretary Clinton to explain why and under what conditions she approved the recent delivery of tons of weapons to Israel.

What is the history of A.I. regarding the acts of terrorism against Israel for the past 60 years?

You can find statements, reports and actions on Israel/Occupied Territories here and here.

Where can I find the report about Israel’s use of white phosphorous?  This email makes it sound like it is certain that these chemicals were used: I need to see the report because the speculation has not been proven elsewhere as fact.

Our report Foreign Arms Supplies To Israel/Gaza Fueling Conflict includes evidence of the use of white phosphorous during the most recent conflict in Gaza.

I would like to know what advice Amnesty International would provide to the United States if the United States were to unilaterally reverse the Gadsden Purchase <> and return this land to Mexico, and then Mexico were to use this returned land to launch missiles, several times a day, on Phoenix and other nearby cities, and if this behavior continued for several years, and if the missiles were launched from population centers, including hospitals and elementary school yards.

California, Texas, and other southwestern states were once part of Mexico and are now part of the United States, and some people may view this as a historic wrong perpetrated by the United States against Mexico. But this would not cause right-thinking people to think that Mexican terrorist groups should be allowed to continue their murderous missile attacks against the United States.

If all this were happening, I think at some point the United States might conclude that there was no choice but to invade Mexico to stop the missiles.

So, by all means, continue to spotlight human rights abuses anywhere in the world, including those perpetrated by Israel, but a little context, please. Israel does not kill Palestinians for pleasure. With respect to Israel’s late 2008 invasion of Gaza, Israel used more care in avoiding civilian casualties than just about any other country in the world has ever done. (I challenge Amnesty International to identify any other invasion by any other country that faced similar challenges of rooting out multiple missile launch sites from population centers, and achieved any bit of this objective, with a smaller impact on non-combatants.)

The fact that civilians were killed and injured is attributable not to Israel, but to the abuse of human rights on the part of Hamas and other terrorist groups that choose to locate their missile launch sites in the most sensitive population centers.

(In contrast, Israel locates its military sites far from population centers, so that attackers can attack Israel’s military sites without fear of harming civilians. But those who attack Israel always go for maximum Israeli civilian deaths and ignore Israel’s military sites.)

By not providing any context and placing all of the blame on a party that responded to years of extreme provocation, Amnesty International is marginalizing itself among many knowledgeable, compassionate people, Jews and Gentiles alike, in the United States and around the world.

As the UN Charter enshrines, governments have a clear right and duty to defend itself and its citizens and residents.  It is in when governments fail to respect international humanitarian or human rights law that Amnesty raises concerns.  In the most recent conflict in Gaza, it was clear that in some cases the Israeli military did not take the necessary precautions to avoid civilian causalities.  Responding specifically to the example you have raised, it is quite true that Hamas has launched missiles from civilian/residential areas.  It, however, is also true that it is Hama’s modus operandi to leave the area within a minute of shooting the rocket.  Thus, when the Israeli military launched attacks on these areas two hours after Hama launched the rockets, there were only civilians in the area.

I have no problem with the arm shipments to Israel,. That is a sovereign nation protecting themselves from an outside force that keeps attacking it to “push them into the sea”.

I do have a problem with AI lack of outrage and letter writing on the genocide of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Tons of weapons are being shipped to that govt. and an ongoing genocide is happening right now in that country every minute…A sovereign government that is killing, maiming and starving their own citizens.!!! and your organization does not show much outrage.. and doesn’t make it a AI alert..

For as long as the conflict in Sri Lanka has been going, Amnesty has been raising concerns about both parties to conflict. Outside of arms transfers to Israel and Sri Lanka, you should also be aware that Amnesty has written reports and pushed for changes on arms transfers to many other countries such as Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.