Thursday, July 19, 2012

Suffering servant

by Dr. Robert Zuber, Global Action to Prevent War
The Wednesday morning open meeting of the arms trade treaty (ATT) negotiations focused on goals and objectives and was a fair, balanced, and respectful discussion. Among the many points of contention was the reference to 'human suffering' in bullet point 4 of the Chairman’s text. GAPW does believe that some reference to humanitarian and international human rights law is imperative, and such reference was reinforced in many delegate statements. We are not, however, as convinced about the need for a 'suffering' reference.

This is a treaty process, and while humanitarian norms should be reinforced, norms do not have the same accountabilities as laws. As much as we might like it to be otherwise, human suffering is not a legally actionable term since it does not specify whether the suffering is caused by stray bullets, sexual violence, or common stress. Nor is there medical consensus on the point at which pain turns to suffering, though there is a widespread implication that suffering is a more permanent condition with deeper causes and more complex processes of remediation.

To the degree that we can successfully define and recognize it, we acknowledge with most diplomats and UN agencies that 'suffering' has specific implications for women. Fortunately, several existing UN treaty bodies, agencies, and NGOs take great care to address the gender implications of all UN obligations. For example there will be an event hosted by UN Women on Friday examining the linkages between the ATT and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Moreover, numerous NGOs including WILPF, IANSA, and ourselves have highlighted for many policymakers in New York and in capitals the gender dimensions of illicit arms and the violence associated with them. Further articulation of these linkages is needed, and more will come.

The question for delegations is whether inclusion of unspecific language in this treaty makes the reduction of 'suffering' more or less likely in the long term. Since the UN and its member states have already worked through complex human rights/humanitarian law formulations and since the upholding of such obligations will fall much more directly on other treaty bodies, agencies, and offices of the UN system than on any ATT structure, the strong reference to existing human rights/humanitarian standards seems more reliable than introducing new and ill-defined language into a legally-binding treaty. This would most especially be the case if the language of 'suffering' becomes a potential deal breaker for states otherwise committed to a successful treaty process.