It’s Official! United States Signs U.N. Arms Trade Treaty

Secretary of State John Kerry signing the Arms Trade Treaty (Photo Credit: Adotei Akwei).

Secretary of State John Kerry signing the Arms Trade Treaty (Photo Credit: Adotei Akwei).

By Nate Smith, Amnesty International USA MSP Thematic Specialist

In an important step forward for human rights and international law, Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on behalf of the United States earlier today.

Coming in the midst of concerns about the supply of weapons to Syrian government and Syrian rebels, Kerry’s signature signals the intention of the U.S., the world’s largest arms exporter, to abide by the terms of the treaty.

The treaty unequivocally bans arms transfers that are in violation of a U.N. arms embargo or that exporters have reason to know will be used to commit genocide and other grievous war crimes. Under the treaty, all exporting states have a new obligation to assess the risk that the weapons they provide will be used in human rights abuse and to halt such transfers where that risk is overwhelming.


Syria's Assad Targets Children for Detention and Torture

Syrian refugee children fleeing the violence in their country gather at a partially set up camp near Jordan's northern border. © KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

It’s almost unbelievable, a government targeting children in an attempt to repress popular uprisings.

The latest reports from the BBC that Syrian children are being targeted for detention and torture are shocking but coincide with evidence Amnesty researchers uncovered in a recent mission to the region.

According to UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, these actions against children seem “systematic and targeted” and are being carried out by Assad’s security forces:

“They’ve gone for the children, for whatever purpose, in large numbers – hundreds detained and tortured.


Mines Pose New Danger As Libya Battles Rage On

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher

As fighting continues between forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi and those opposed to his rule for control of the strategic oil-rich region west of Ajdabiya, yet more families are being displaced by the conflict. Evidence that al-Gaddafi’s forces have laid anti-personnel mines – which are internationally banned on account of the grave danger they pose to civilians – beside the main road on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, not just anti-tank mines, has heightened concern for the safety of local residents and people travelling in the area.

Evidence that al-Gaddafi’s forces have laid anti-personnel mines has heightened concern for local residents © Amnesty International

The anti-personnel mines were discovered only by chance when an electricity company truck drove over and detonated two of the mines on the morning of 28 March, just two days after Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces had been forced to retreat from the area.

‘AbdelMina’ im al-Shanty, the company’s operations director for eastern Libya, told me that electricity supply workers had been dispatched to the area to repair power lines damaged during the two-week siege of the town. Fortunately, no one was injured in the blast, thanks to the sturdiness of the truck, but if any of the workers had stepped on the mines they would almost certainly have lost limbs or worse. Anti-personnel mines are banned internationally and must not be used anywhere or under any circumstances. That these anti-personnel lines were planted close to a significant population centre and in area of frequent passage is even more reprehensible.


DoD Risks Hiring Unscrupulous Arms Brokers with Foreign Arms Purchases

The Washington Post’s Saturday front page article “U.S. military criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps” once again raised concerns about the Pentagon’s purchase of foreign-sourced arms.  While the Post highlighted opposition of the helicopter deal by U.S. Senators such as Richard Shelby for “massive waste, cost overruns, schedule delays, safety concerns and major delivery problems”, it failed to mention the serious risk of DoD hiring unscrupulous or problematic arms brokers in such deals.  As DoD continues to purchase foreign-sourced arms, including 10 new Russian helicopters for Afghanistan, additional controls are urgently needed.

In September 2009, Amnesty International USA published a policy briefing that highlighted six cases in which Pentagon funds were used to contract arms brokers that had been either connected to breaches of international arms embargoes, named in reliable UN reports as being involved in illegal arms trafficking, listed on the U.S. Department of State’s Watch List, or whose agent had been indicted for breaches of U.S. arms control laws.  All of these contracts were for foreign-sourced assault rifles or ammunition.  As a result, millions of U.S. dollars were given to these individuals and in at least one case the U.S. government received tons of faulty ammunition, putting Afghan and U.S. forces at risk.

One of the key reason’s DoD funds were funneled to these arms brokers is a significant lack of controls on foreign-sourced arms purchases compared to controls on U.S. arms exports.  For example, in some cases DoD officials are not aware of or do not screen all of the subcontractors involved in a contract to procure or transfer foreign-sourced arms.  There are also no contract clauses that specifically prohibit prime contractors from subcontracting with entities that have been accused of transferring arms in contravention of U.S. national laws or convicted of arms trafficking in foreign courts.

Although some may think purchasing larger arms such as helicopters diminishes the risk of hiring problematic arms brokers, look no further than the Army’s past purchase of Russian helicopters for Afghanistan.  According to a blog in early 2009 on Wired, the U.S. Army reportedly hired an unknown Slovak ambulance company to supply three of the Russian Mi-17 helicopters to Afghanistan, and the helicopters had to be returned.

Were US missile and cluster munitions used in a fatal attack in Yemen?

The 17 December 2009 attack on the community of al-Ma’jalah in the Abyan area in the south of Yemen killed 55 people including 14 alleged members of al-Qa’ida.

Amnesty International has today released images of a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions, apparently taken following an attack on an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in Yemen that killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children.

Yemen munitions

Unexploded BLU 97 cluster bomblet - the Tomahawk BGM-109D cruise missile would have carried 166 of these.

The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions.

The Yemeni government has said its forces alone carried out the attack on al-Ma’jalah, the site of an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in al-Mahfad district, Abyan Governorate. But shortly after the attack some US media reported alleged statements by unnamed US government sources who said that US cruise missiles launched on presidential orders had been fired at two alleged al-Qa’ida sites in Yemen.

“Based on the evidence provided by these photographs, the US government must disclose what role it played in the al-Ma’jalah attack, and all governments involved must show what steps they took to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries,” said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.


Guinea's Bloody Monday Demonstrates Need for Greater Arms Control

Cartridge casing from a bullet, for a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle, found at Conakry stadium. Copyright Amnesty International

Cartridge casing from a bullet, for a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle, found at Conakry stadium. Copyright Amnesty International

There is no question that the September 28th, 2009, Bloody Monday massacre in Guinea was an unprecedented episode of violence and brutality by Guinea’s security forces. But let’s not forget that this was not the first time that Guinea’s military and security forces have used excessive force and acted with impunity in the past decade. In fact, the behavior of the security forces has been defined by a clear pattern of unlawful killings, extrajudicial executions, rape, arbitrary detentions, torture and grossly excessive use of force.

You did not want the military, so now we are going to teach you a lesson – member of the security forces present during the 28 September 2009 violence

Yet, as Amnesty’s new report demonstrates, a number of governments and companies have continued to finance, train and supply Guinea’s security forces, ignoring the numerous human rights violations they have committed over the years. In fact, several of the military and security units whose members were directly involved in the commission of human rights violations during Bloody Monday and in previous years had received training from states including France, China and the US. Weapons and security equipment supplied from South Africa, France and elsewhere provided the tools for the crimes perpetrated on Bloody Monday.

The decision by several states to suspend military cooperation with Guinea, including the US after the December 2008 coup and France after the September 2009 massacre, was too late. While such suspensions will certainly help minimize the capacity of the security forces to commit human rights abuses in the future, the signs were there long before December 2008 and military cooperation should have been suspended much earlier.

What the case of Guinea shows is the need for all states to adopt international standards to assess arms transfers on a case-by-case basis. This would ensure that states adequately assess the risk of exporting arms and training to countries such as Guinea and that such transfers do not facilitate serious human rights violations.

US Weapons Pour Into Israel

Despite reports of US weapons used in human rights violations in Gaza, another shipment has arrived and been unloaded in Israel. In January, Amnesty International along with other groups in Greece were able to divert and delay this shipment of arms, but on January 12, in the midst of the conflict, the ship disappeared from the radar near Greece. It reappeared March 23, traveling from Israel to the Ukraine.  The Pentagon confirmed that on March 22, the cargo ship unloaded 300 containers of munitions to the Israeli port Ashdod. There is not too much to add to the statement of Amnesty’s Brian Wood:

Legally and morally, this U.S. arms shipment should have been halted by the Obama administration given the evidence of war crimes resulting from military equipment and munitions of this kind used by the Israeli forces.

Even still, President Obama has committed to a 10-year contract with a 25% increase in military aid totaling around $30 billion. There must be an immediate cease of arms trade to Israel and all Palestinian armed groups or the risk of serious human rights violations continues. The US government clearly owes us some answers as to why the recent arms shipment was delivered.

Weapons in Iraq Still at Risk of Loss or Theft

Tens of thousands of arms captured from insurgent armed groups in Iraq have yet to be recorded by Iraqi or U.S. authorities making it easier for the weapons to be lost or stolen, according to a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General’s issued just before the Christmas holiday last year. Poor accountability of night vision devices (NVD) remains a problem.

In the last few years, several reports have revealed the dangers of failing to properly secure and manage weapons in Iraq. For example, described in a November 2008 Amnesty report, some members of Iraqi insurgent groups have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and used police arms to carry out serious human rights abuses. U.S. military officials have also accused Iraqi security guards of stealing hundreds of weapons in 2006 at arms depots such as Taji National Army Depot (NAD).

While there have been significant strides in improving the accountability of U.S. provided weapons in Iraq as well as helping Iraqi authorities properly manage arms and ammunition under their control, a few areas such as the accountability for captured weapons and NVDs still need focused attention.

According to the DoD Inspector General’s report, only around 20,000 of the estimated 80,000 captured weapons stored at various depot locations throughout Iraq had been processed. Processing includes having the weapon’s serial number recorded and inspecting the quality of the weapon. Some of the unprocessed arms are at the Taji NAD and Kirkush Military Training Base among others.

In addition, the DoD Inspector General raised concerns about the accountability of U.S. issued night vision devices (NVD) to the Iraqi security forces. NVD receive extra scrutiny under DoD regulations because they significantly increase a fighting forces’ tactical ability. A DoD investigation showed 26,000 NVDs lacked proper documentation, raising the risk of loss or theft similar to captured weapons.