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March 08, 2013

Amnesty Warns of Misuse of Traded Weapons

by Joe DeCapua

Amnesty International says women and girls are often targeted in armed conflict. But it says very often, even after the conflict ends, they continue to be victims of violence. On International Women’s Day (3/8), the human rights group says controlling the arms trade could help reduce that violence.


Widney Brown says the effects of conflict on women and girls have been well-documented.

“We’ve done a lot of research in which we’ve understood how much women, as civilians, are often caught in the middle of a conflict – sometimes the unintentional victims and sometimes the targeted victims,” she said.

Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, said, “Where I first became aware of it was in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia, where I think the women’s rights activists were very well organized – were very articulate – in talking about this.”

Just because a conflict has ended, does not mean violence has stopped.

“Many of the men, who were combatants, often keep their weapons. And, if you think about it, a lot of them are themselves traumatized. But they’ve also been living sometimes for months, sometimes for years, in which using their weapon is sort of the solution to the problem. And so violence becomes rather normative in their societies. And in these cases, what happens, it’s often in the private sphere of the family that you end up seeing a lot of violence against women,” she said.

She added, however, that conflict or post-conflict violence against women is not isolated to domestic situations.

Brown said that governments and private brokers should be aware that the weapons they sell could end up in the wrong hands.

“Are they actually looking at where those weapons are ending up and who’s actually at the lethal end of those weapons?”

Amnesty proposes that governments and arms dealers conduct an assessment of countries or groups before finalizing the sale of weapons.

Brown said, “The assessment is: is there substantial likelihood that these arms will be used to commit atrocities. So that’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide. For instance, much of the arms flowing into the Democratic Republic of Congo are actually being diverted from the intended user – picked up by groups like M23, who are quite notorious for their current practice and historical practice of intense violence against women.”

M23 is one of the many rebel groups in eastern Congo.

The United Nations will soon work on the final text of the proposed arms trade treaty. It’s scheduled to meet from March 18th through the 28th in New York. The meeting was called after intense negotiations late last year failed to reach agreement.

Brown said that the arms trade is a $60 billion a year industry. The U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France -- five permanent members of the Security Council – are also major arms suppliers. Nevertheless, she said governments have an interest in making sure the weapons are not diverted.

“So the U.S. doesn’t want to find out that weapons it ships to Egypt end up in the hands of a group they think might turn around and target the U.S. Equally true, Russia doesn’t want to ship arms to Syria and find out that they actually got diverted and are being sent to rebels in the Caucuses. China doesn’t want to send weapons to Zimbabwe and find out they ended up in Xinjiang. So there is a self-interest level to this treaty.”

The arms trade treaty is not a weapons ban, like the landmine or cluster munitions conventions. Amnesty International says it recognizes the right of nations to self-defense. However, it says women and girls suffer due to the “proliferation and misuse of arms.”