International justice as exemplified by the decision in the Charles Taylor case at the Special Court for Sierra Leone late last month [26 April] highlights once more how the proliferation of arms in areas of conflict around the world is a significant contributor to the displacement, injury, rape, and terrorisation of civilians. Small arms and a ready supply of ammunition are particularly problematic. The ICRC reports that in some areas of the world, even after a conflict has ended, weapons are so easy to obtain and violence so prevalent that civilians continue to face many of the same threats as during it.
When listening to the Taylor decision being delivered, one of the things that struck me was the significance of the trade in weapons to what occurred in Sierra Leone. Without a supply of arms and ammunition, many of the horrific violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) against civilians may not have occurred.
This July, members of the United Nations, including Ireland, will meet in New York for the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. Hopefully by the end of this conference, a treaty text will have been agreed. Underpinning such a treaty must be a desire to reduce the human cost of the availability of weapons by setting clear norms for the transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.
Under the Geneva Conventions, States are obliged to ensure respect for IHL. Inherent with this obligation is a duty to make every effort to ensure that the arms and ammunition they transfer do not end up in the hands of persons likely to use them in violation of IHL.
Until weapons are less easily available, serious violations of IHL are likely to continue around the world and provision of humanitarian assistance to effected populations will continue to be endangered.