When I was a child under the seemingly omnipotent Soviet Empire, I never thought I’d live to see a world where the big, powerful nations agreed to disarm their nuclear programmes. I was 14 years old when the Intermediate-Ranges Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed, and then when I reached 18 in 1991, Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union. The start of my adulthood became a hopeful time, when the stark threat of the Cold War seemed finally over, and a new era for my own country was beginning. That’s why I’m so sad to see the INF apparently go up in smoke due to non-compliance by one party.
It’s also why, during the course of this year when my country has had the presidency of the ground-breaking Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), I’m determined to make sure we don’t let that happen to this important agreement on conventional weapons.
For decades, we have invested in addressing the risks of Weapons of Mass Destruction - chemical, biological, nuclear and also radiological weapons - which is quite correct, as the risks are devastating. However, the largest numbers of victims come from the everyday use and abuse of conventional weapons – everything from fighter jets to guns – and, of course, from the munitions that make these small and large weapons lethal.
No country is left untouched by the international arms trade. Its interconnected nature means that all are affected - and all are responsible. A country may be an importer or an exporter. It might be a transit country or suffer from the consequences of illicit arms flows through its porous borders. The ATT is a wide reaching treaty but its basic premise is simple: governments must take responsibility for authorising arms which enter or leave their borders, and they must do this based on international human rights and humanitarian law.
Where the risk of arms being used in violation of these globally recognised rules is high, they must deny the transfer. Rigorously applying this will mean less weapons seeping from the legal to the illegal trade and create greater stability - and less human suffering for all.
104 countries have now ratified the ATT, and they will meet this week in Geneva for the Fifth Conference of States Parties. This annual meeting is the main mechanism for the implementation of the treaty, and sees states report on the progress of effective implementation, transparency and universalisation of the treaty.
On paper, the objectives are clear. In reality, much more work needs to be done by all signatory countries. The illegal and unregulated flow of weapons is clearly visible from Syria to South Sudan, and from Somalia to Eastern Ukraine. If countries are exporting to warring parties which clearly do not comply with the law, or when there is a substantial risk of weapons misuse and high civilian casualties, then the weapons must not be transferred.
Latvia has spent its year of presidency calling on countries to roll out the convention in more robust ways, and to have a particular focus on the gender-based violence provisions within the treaty. The ATT was the first treaty in the world to make the connection between arms deals and violence against a person based on their gender. Put simply, armed violence affects women and men differently, so both preventative measures and interventions need to be designed accordingly.
During my time in office, I have seen with my own eyes the damage done by the proliferation of weapons and how gender is a driver in many incidents of armed violence; be they mass shootings or conflict situations.
Recent research from the aid agency Oxfam has underlined that there is a gendered impact from the use of all weapon types. In Yemen, for example, where war has precipitated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, they have found that men are more likely to be direct victims of explosive weapons, but women are more likely to suffer longer term and more varied consequences going far beyond death or injury. These include lack of access to food, water and other aid, an increased risk of sexual violence, lack of access to medicines and medical care, social exclusion and other issues.
So, I am determined but I’m also worried. The treaty is holding and is having a positive impact for millions living in the shadow of armed violence, but its impact will be threatened if we cannot continue to work together within the multilateral system and hold strong to its obligations.
I passionately believe that we can - and must - work together harder to stop this injustice, and that the ATT provides a robust global framework for that cooperation. Latvia has put forward a range of practical actions that we hope states will agree on in order to make the reduction of armed violence - and particularly gender-based violence - a reality.
I sincerely hope that my fellow foreign ministers around the world will join me in pushing to maximise our efforts to ensure the ATT stays firm and prevents untold human suffering.
Edgars Rinkēvičs has been the Foreign Minister of Latvia since 2011
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