In the Name of My Grandfather: My Personal Search For a Lifesaving Arms Trade Treaty

April 4, 2013

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images).

By Alberto Estévez, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Coordinator for the Arms
Trade Treaty

It was a special moment I’ll never forget.

On Wednesday, March 27, as I walked towards the UN official giving out copies of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), I held my breath wondering how the Golden Rule principle of “No Arms for Atrocities” had been worded in the final treaty text.

I glanced at the preamble, scope and implementation articles and rushed to read
articles 6 and 7, encompassing the Golden Rule. I read it again, in case I had
missed something. Then I had a look at the provisions on reporting, diversion
and how the treaty can be changed in the future. I took a deep breath and said
to myself: “Well done to Amnesty, we’ve got the Golden Rule in.”

After nearly 20 years of working on this issue, I felt relieved, but the battle
was not over yet. I have many fond memories of this long process, but a
particular one came to my mind when I held the text in my hands. I remembered
walking on the frozen sea in the winter of 2001 as we came out of a successful
meeting in the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry with my friend Frank Johansson,
Director of AI Finland.

Of course it was Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s Head of Arms Control and Human Rights, who, 20 years ago, came up with the concept of the ATT, sitting in small room with colleagues from Saferworld, BASIC and the World Development
Movement. He has been instrumental in getting us here, as has Clare da Silva,
our bright ATT legal advisor, the real legal brain behind the ATT text and many
of our suggested recommendations.

I think a turning point in this long struggle was when Frank managed to “sell”
the idea to Erkki Tuomioja, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was our
first champion beyond Costa Rica and managed to get the support of other
governments, including the UK – whose support has been key and was achieved
through sustained campaigning and lobbying by Amnesty International and others
– Australia, Japan and other states known as the “co-authors.” They,
along with Kenya and Argentina, launched the ATT process in the United Nations.

But I had no time to waste. I quickly ran back to Amnesty’s office close to the
UN to meet our legal and policy experts to analyze the text. The devil is in
the details, but the overall feeling was, “Yes, we like it.” Of course
it could be better, but the hard work put in by some 25 Amnesty International
lobbyists from all over the world over the past two weeks seems to have paid
off. We’re certain that none of this would have come about without the support
of campaigners, lobbyists and media workers back in capitals, supported by
Amnesty members.

Although the final ATT has some deficiencies, we think it includes some strong
rules to help protect human rights.

Article 6 of the treaty includes strong prohibitions on arms transfers that
fuel genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – giving states no
wiggle room to continue sending arms to fuel atrocities.

We are also encouraged by the wording in Article 7, which obliges states to
assess the overriding risk of serious human rights violations – including
extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances –- before giving
an arms transfer the green light. This is a major breakthrough, and hopefully
we won’t ever again face a situation where a legal loophole allows unscrupulous
arms brokers to profit from selling arms to fuel atrocities without ever being
brought to justice. Think of the Rwanda genocide in the mid 1990′ s.

Apart from preventing future Rwandas (or serious human rights violations we
have reported more recently in countries including Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo and others), I have a very personal reason for having pursued a lifesaving ATT that protects human rights.

In the early days of the Spanish Civil War, my grandfather Javier Estévez, then
33 and a member of a Republican leftist party in Spain, was severely tortured
by his fascist cousin (an irony of fate, as there is always an element of envy
in these tragedies). Later, on the morning of September 14, 1936, he was shot
in the head by his cousin, just outside the cemetery of Ponteareas, the small
town where he lived in north-western Spain.

My grandmother was left alone with four kids and the stigma of being the widow of
a “Red.” If only an ATT had been in place in those days (the League of Nations did try something similar in the 1920s, but failed), maybe the transfer
of the pistol used to kill my grandfather would not have been authorized, his
life would have been spared and my grandmother saved from years of hardship.

I am sure that this ATT will help save other people’s lives. So I dedicate this to the memory of my grandfather.

The litmus test will be how the Treaty is implemented, but before that we
needed to get the vote through on Tuesday, April 2. That was a historic moment
we enjoyed from the balcony of the UN General Assembly hall. That memory of the
large screen with the results of the vote will be with me forever. We made it
happen! 154 “yes,” 23 abstentions and 3 “no” votes. Amazing!

The ATT will be signed on June 3 and we need 50 ratifications for a speedy
entry into force – meaning if enough states get on board quickly, we could have
a functioning treaty within a little more than a year. So we’d better get
cracking on the ratification campaign!

Last week, we saw a repeat of last July, where our hopes to see the treaty text adopted by consensus were dashed. But it was only a delay. We knew it could

Over the long weekend, we emailed and called scores of diplomats to get them to
co-sponsor or vote “yes” to the resolution Kenya submitted to the UN
General Assembly.

This went to a vote by all UN member states Tuesday, April 2, sometime after 11
a.m. New York time. Almost 100 states co-sponsored the resolution. We were
confident that this time, we would win through.

We didn’t get an ATT last July, or last week. But on Tuesday April 2, 2013, it happened. A historic day for human rights. As the saying goes, “third time’s
the charm!”