March 22nd, 2013
09:44 AM ET

Amnesty's Shetty: Human cost of arms trade is mind numbing

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty answers GPS readers’ questions on the arms trade, social media and LGBT rights.

You’re at the United Nations in New York this week for discussions on a new conventional arms treaty. Nuclear arms, rockets, missiles – they tend to be what grabs headlines. Why should more attention be paid to what’s going on with conventional arms, and a treaty specifically?

There are two reasons why this is so important. First of all, the catastrophic human cost of the unregulated flow of conventional arms is mind numbing – the numbers are just unbelievable. There are half a million people dying every year. If you take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, then since 1998 almost 5 million people have died either directly or indirectly as a result of armed conflict and persecution.

The people who are affected most are also the most marginalized. Often when we think of conventional arms, we think of soldiers who are dying, but civilians are also dying – woman, the elderly and children are dying, too. And most people are not aware of the extent to which arms are also used as a weapon in rape and other crimes of sexual violence.  And it is not just women who are raped.  We see gender based violence of a sexual nature against boys and sometimes men. Amnesty International’s work on the ground has shown so much evidence of this. This week, we released a report on Cote d’Ivoire. Another report my colleagues have been working on covers Guinea. There was a woman there who was being raped by a soldier, while another soldier was holding a gun to her head. Then there’s Mali. The research we did there had so many examples of child being conscripted, particularly by the militias. In the last couple of years, we have examples of almost 20 countries in which we have documented the use of child soldiers.

All this comes back to the fact that many countries are awash in arms.  There needs to be an international treaty that prohibits irresponsible transfers of arms and ammunition. In Cote d’Ivoire, because of the irresponsible flow of arms there, all sides in the conflict have been involved in serious human rights and humanitarian law violations. The human costs are so high, and this doesn’t even take into account the disruption to social services such as health care and the education system and how people’s livelihoods are devastated.

The other side of this is the fact that a lot of this is preventable. You may not be able to completely stop this happening, but you can significantly reduce this. But the only way you can address this is with a global treaty. You can’t have an uneven playing field, because if the Americans feel that the Chinese can get away with it, or the Chinese feel that the  Europeans can get away with it, then it won’t work. So we need a global regulation framework that everyone signs up to that is strong, effective and comprehensive.

This is a historic moment. Amnesty International has been campaigning on this for almost two decades now, and we are close to creating history. And it’s history because the benefits of creating this treaty will not just be seen by us, but by future generations. You know, even bananas are regulated these days, and yet the most dangerous products in the world, which are designed to maim and kill, are just flying around without regulations.

“100% ethio” asks what Amnesty’s role has been in all this. How confident are you some sort of deal can be reached?

One of the things that we always do is try to stick to something until it has been achieved. But this means being very persistent. Imagine hanging out in the cold at the U.N. for 20 years with no smoke coming out of the chimney! But now we are very close to the finish line, and we are confident there will be a positive result, if not by March 28, which is when the conference ends, then soon after at the General Assembly. So one way or another, we are going to get an arms trade treaty. It is a tragedy when you think about it because in this 20-year period that these discussions have been going on at the U.N. as world leaders have failed to come to a conclusion, the human cost has been in the millions.

The question is what kind of treaty we are going to end up with, because it is one thing to have a treaty, but the big question is whether it will be a robust one. I remember when I was in Cairo after the Egyptian revolution two years ago, and talking to activists in Tahrir Square. And they said they were willing to stand in front of Mubarak’s bullets and tanks, and they were willing to put their lives on the line for freedom and dignity. But then you’re thinking, why does Mubarak have these bullets and tanks? Why are young people able to be killed like this by regimes across the world?

Syria is the worst example of what is happening. Tens of thousands have lost their lives, and the regime is committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. And you now also have abuses by the rebels. Meanwhile, there are arms flowing into Syria from all directions.

Getting a deal in place is one thing, but “j von hettlingen” asks about the challenges of policing it.

Amnesty International calls it a golden rule that before a country sends out arms, they have to go through a systematic process of assessing whether there will be a risk of humanitarian law or human rights violations. If there is a substantial risk of such violations, then such a transfer should be prohibited.  And we also want the scope to be comprehensive – we cannot afford to have any loopholes. So, for example, right now arms are in, but ammunition is out, or official sales are in, but gifts and transfers are out. The US is behind the exclusion of ammunition, and China behind the exclusion of gifts.

Enforcing it is going to be a challenge – but no government wants to see another government step in a sell arms where it has not.  So there will be a lot of peer pressure not to violate the terms of the treaty.

In addition to a process of peer review, and there will be a conference of state parties that will review progress. And there will be an agreement about public reporting so civil society will still have an important role to play. That is where all the haggling is happening right now, over how exactly that is going to work. Of course, if there is a dispute with any country, any state can take another state to the International Court of Justice. But this is where your readers and viewers can help. The only way to keep governments accountable is for people to hold their leaders to account and expose all wrongdoings and any breaches to the arms treaty once it is up and running. And as far as Amnesty International is concerned, this is not the end for us, but an ongoing process.

Speaking more generally, “Shelagh Marks” wonders how developments in technology, especially social media, have affected Amnesty’s work?

There has been a transformation. But even more than social media, it has been mobile phones. Social media is the next layer up, but the fact that people are able to communicate, and even film, violations as they are happening and upload them to YouTube or other sites provides real time information. Twitter has also been central to mobilizing young people. In Asia, with the violence in Sri Lanka, one of the campaigns that we have used in India to mobilize pressure against the Sri Lankan government is called “missed call action” on mobile phones. Missed call action means that we asked whether people were ready to sign a petition for the Indian prime minister, asking him to take a very clear position on the Human Rights Council on whether Sri Lanka should conduct an international investigation into crimes against the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka. So what we did was provide a number, and people could give a missed call to that number, meaning they don’t incur costs. And we had over a million people signing up in a matter of weeks. Of course Amnesty International can do more – we are only in the early stages of utilizing social media. But it has already had a transformational impact.

Of course, I always add that none of this is a substitute for real passion and action. So the people that put their bodies in front of tanks in Tahrir Square aren’t tweeting – they are actually putting their lives on the line. There is no substitution for human compassion and action. But these things have democratized public information – and there’s no going back. Our annual report this year will actually be focusing on some of these very issues – what technology has done for human rights in the world.

“Alexander Mitchell” raises through Facebook the issue of LGBT rights. Should gay marriage be considered a fundamental human right, and what are the pros and cons of pressing for this, including in some developing countries where this is particularly controversial?

I come from a developing country, India, and it took me personally a lot of time to get my head around this issue, because where we come from, it’s not something that you naturally accept. There is a clear cultural divide between the way I am trained to think about it, and how it looks from a global perspective. So the way I understand this question is that it is a discrimination issue, and discrimination can take many forms – it can be about gender, caste, religion, age. All of these things are the same.

If you look at the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, there is the idea that people are born free and equal. That everyone should be allowed to have their own freedom and right to make decisions. In this case, it’s sexual expression, but it could be on any issue. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Uganda or Manhattan – you can’t have double standards. In addition to the idea of dignity and equality is the right to marry and found a family.  You can’t just say only I and people like me get to enjoy this right. The essence of non-discrimination is that everyone should be able to claim his or her rights.

There is no question that socially and culturally we are a long way from getting to that point. You know, I was in Uganda with David Kato, a gay rights activist, and we sat together in Kampala. And a few months later he was murdered. So personally, that reminded me of the level of prejudice some groups face. In Tanzania, for example, albino children are being killed on the streets just because they are albino. So human prejudice is so deep on so many counts, including over issue of sexual orientation and fender identity.

Take the recent Delhi gang rape case. Many countries are in deep denial over these kinds of issues. But the fact that this incident became so visible has allowed a new anti-rape law to be passed this week in India. There are many improvements that need to be made to that law, but the fact that it got passed is important. The LGBT issue is the same –  we need to expose the violence so that the problem people face is not hidden.

I used to think that gay couples and gay marriage was something that happened in the U.S. or somewhere else. But the fact is that this is a reality everywhere, and you can’t ignore or deny it. People need to be confronted with this on a personal level. And we all need to take action to build respectful and rights respecting societies.

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Topics: Human Rights

soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    I noticed how the use of those ungodly drones and Apache helicopters by the C.I.A. and the military to slaughter people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are not being mentioned in this post. I guess that this Salil Shetty must be a supporter of the right-wing thugs in Washington. This is truly disgusting!

    March 22, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
  2. 30 seconds of research later

    Quigluey, you guess wrong....http://blog.amnestyusa.org/africa/secret-us-drone-program-still-getting-away-with-killing-children/

    March 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  3. karthick

    I strongly support sahlil shetty.not that he doesn't care about drone attacks in Africa he do care the thing is the Americans know what is human rights but other countries and its soldiers doesn't know human rights that is the problem. I owe him a lot as a Tamilian .he is the first person to take more responsibilities in maintaining civil rights in Sri lanka where the western countries did not. he is the right person for the job, I personally feel it is the responsibilityof all western nations to protect the humans and punishing the guilty during civil wars like what happened in Sri Lanka as you are all humans first .

    March 22, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Mr. Shetty, there are ways to flout a treaty. A country can sell arms to another state, which are being used in a third – rogue – state.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  5. Palihapitiya

    Conventional arms treaty is a beacon in the march of civilization towards sanity. It is high time that we say good bye to all forms of violence and face differences among us with compassion, compromise and consensus. Definitely not with tools of destruction.

    April 2, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply

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