Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Is there still room for victims’ rights in the ATT?

by Hector Guerra, Coordinator of the IANSA Survivors Network

For many member states,  any reference to the rights of victims or victims’ assistance in the final treaty language of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will be particularly difficult to adopt and it will be unlikely that states in favor of these references will be able to convince their counterparts to include such a provision in the final document. This opposition to adopting victims’ rights language corresponds to both a realpolitik perspective, which would limit the Treaty to such a minimal expression that, if possible, would not even include references to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in the instrument, as well as to the perspective of those states that are in favor of basic references to IHL and human rights but believe it is necessary to make concessions, such as foregoing victims’ assistance, for the sake of consensus.

These positions are understandable, but not necessarily justifiable. More than ever, within the context of armed violence, increasing levels of arms production and its trade are killing civilians around the world, both in armed conflicts and in other situations of violence. Every minute one person dies due to armed violence, and for every fatality, ten more persons are injured (Time to Act: ATT Basics 2012), maimed or traumatized. The welfare of entire families is gravely affected.

The omission of victims’ rights is even less justifiable in the context of the advances made in national laws for the rights of victims, as has been the case in Colombia, and more recently in Mexico. These national advances represent just a portion of what countries are willing and able to do for access to justice, restitution, compensation, and assistance when, around the world, over half a million people die each year as a consequence of armed violence (Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011).

On the other hand, there are existing international and regional instruments that address the rights of victims of different forms of violence, namely the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, as well as the UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. Even more directly, with regards to disarmament, there are two pertinent examples of international law that have set the foundation for humanitarian disarmament: the Mine Ban Treaty of 1997 and the Convention on Cluster Munitions of 2008.

Accepting, producing, storing, selling, and otherwise using weapons, even when it is done legally and legitimately, bestows a certain responsibility and acknowledgment of the potential effects of such weapons on innocent unarmed victims. Therefore, states must seize every opportunity to make advancements in disarmament and arms control and to include, as much as possible, the rights of victims, specifically victim assistance and survivor participation. Victim assistance should be part and parcel of multilateral disarmament agreements, while survivor participation should be included explicitly in national positions, survivors should be engaged with national focal points, and national delegations.

It is worth remembering that the big push for the ATT, for over a decade, has not been for abstract or theoretical considerations, but for explicit humanitarian reasons calling for an international legally-binding instrument with tangible effects for individuals and communities in armed-violence ridden zones.

If states are true to their international commitments as signatories of at least the most basic IHL and human rights treaties, they will take into account the fate of victims—and not just within their territories, but address victims’ rights on a global scale.

In the case of the ATT, at the very least, a preambular reference to the rights of victims and the inclusion of victim assistance in the section on international cooperation and assistance should be adopted. In this sense, consistent communication with civil society organizations with expertise in this area, backed by the direct participation of victims of armed violence, will provide for excellent background on and movement forward on this issue.

This is not too much to ask when there is a growing need for an international registry of victims and a fund to produce repairs and compensations, among other steps that should include guarantees of non-repetition and memorials.

Perhaps the aforementioned elements (preambular reference to the rights of victims and the inclusion of victim assistance in the international cooperation and assistance section) do not seem so superlative, but in the big picture they represent a decisive step toward the construction of an international regime for the protection and promotion of the rights of victims of armed violence. Excuses for putting victims aside should not continue, as these victims represent some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.