This is the sixth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2017 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Beginning early in the year, a UK court case initiated by civil society will address the legality of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, with potential ramifications on the European Union and more broadly on all states party to the Arms Trade Treaty. Already, legal concerns have been expressed in the United States by leading independent experts about sales and assistance to Saudi Arabia, and could be renewed should the incoming Trump administration continue a policy of arming Riyadh during the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The persistent investigative efforts of many civil society groups, including by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that documented indiscriminate use of weapons by the Saudi-led coalition undoubtedly played a role in the Obama administration’s recent decision to hold off on delivery of precision-guided munitions. That research work also helped push the UK government to reverse its earlier conclusion that the coalition had not used cluster munitions in Yemen; explicitly in reference to weapons that had originally been supplied by London more than a quarter century ago. On Monday this week, the UK Secretary of State for Defence confirmed a pledge by Saudi Arabia not to employ the weapons (BL755s) again.
The stigma on cluster munition use, in particular, has been strengthened by the creative financial focus of the Stop Explosive Investments campaign that publishes original research into the financial institutions (and states) that invest in -- or pledge not to invest in -- companies producing cluster munitions. As such efforts help shrink the financial incentives and marketplace for indiscriminate weapons, it makes more likely decisions such as the one taken recently by Textron to suspend its product line, functionally ending production of cluster munitions in the United States.
Other industry members, including the scientists and researchers that make sophisticated weaponry possible, have taken a proactive position for a ban on so-called “killer robots.” In 2015, thousands of artificial intelligence experts and researchers -- including prominent scientists and industry leaders such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak -- issued an open letter calling for autonomous lethal weapons not to be developed. In 2014, the first robotics company -- Clearpath Robotics in Canada -- pledged not to make killer robots, In 2017, work on this issue will enter a new phase as states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons agreed last week to formalize discussion on the topic, a step that may lead to an official protocol that the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and a growing number of states say should ban the weapons.
Civil society will also play a critical role in improving transparency in many areas related to the arms trade and security assistance, at times by making sense of public-but-hard-to-gather-or-understand data. For example, SIPRI will continue its highly respected research and publications on global arms trade trends, especially related to major weapons systems. Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor will track global developments on landmines and cluster munitions, serving as the de facto monitoring regime for two treaties. For the newer Arms Trade Treaty, projects such as the ATT Baseline Assessment Project and the ATT Monitor have already established a track record of aiding states in understanding their obligations as well as assessing their efforts. In the United States, the Security Assistance Monitor is now pulling together vast amounts of U.S. data into one place for improved transparency on the world’s largest arms and security assistance provider.
In looking ahead, these civil society members and many others should be watched as they employ and develop the tools that shape change in 2017 and beyond.
Jeff Abramson, who coordinates the Forum on the Arms Trade, is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and manager of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition’s (ICBL-CMC) Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor program