The ‘Massacre’ in Egypt: Implications for International Human Rights Law and Arms Control Law

It is extremely disturbing and sad for the people of Egypt and to humanity that hundreds of people have been killed in Egypt by the army; the interim Government blames the Muslim Brotherhood for engaging in armed violence. The situation may, or may not, deteriorate further. The response of the international community ranges from condemning the violent crackdown against protesters to that of calling restraint on both sides of the equation in Egypt.  It has to be underlined that the AU appears to be the only international organisation which acted decisively and principally, if not without shortcomings, as I argued and highlighted  in my recent post with EJIL: Talk (http://www.ejiltalk.org/author/zyihdego/).

Clearly, the situation was, and still is, complex.  The way the military took power can thus be controversial. What is not controversial, however, is the massive violations of international human rights law – arbitrarily detaining Morsi and his officials and harassing and now killing their supporters.  More specifically, Arts 6 (1) and  9 (1) of the ICCPR requires states and their agents  to respect  and protect the right to life and the dignity and security of a person.  The Egyptian military (and other security forces) have violated this core obligation of the State of Egypt by killing dozens of their citizens. It has to be emphasized that those who participate in religious or other ideological groups are also protected by this fundamental human rights.  The 1979 UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law enforcement Officials of 1990 prohibit illegal, disproportionate and unnecessary use of force against civilians. Both instruments reflect rules of customary international law as indicated in McCann v. UK (ECHR, 5 September 1995).  For further and detailed discussion on the principles see Z. Yihdego, The Arms Trade and International Law, Hart: Oxford, 1997, pp 242-250).

Article 9 of the 1990 Basic Principles underlined that:

‘Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence of other against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the preparation of a particular serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event , intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life’.

Without going into polemics of what happened in Egypt before yesterday, the killing of more than 600 people in one day including foreign journalists, using the army and their bulldozers was clearly unnecessary and disproportionate.  Even if there were some armed men among the protestors, as claimed by Egyptian State TV that does not give the Army to fire indiscriminately. I would therefore argue, although further investigation might be necessary to establish the details, as demanded by the UN human rights Commissioner, that, what has happened in Cairo was a blatant violation of fundamental human rights in a larger scale.

 These serious violations of international law in Egypt have implications for arms control law in general and the arms trade in particular. The USA announced that it is suspending its joint military training with Egypt;  but questions will further be asked regarding arms supplies to the Egyptian army under those circumstances by the USA or other weapon supplying countries.  Although the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)  is not yet entered into force, the US and other major exporters,  West European States in particular strongly supported the ATT.  84 state signed and 4 of them ratified the Treaty in just one month time since it was made open to signature and ratification.

Article 7 of the Treaty  obliges States to assess the international human rights risk of arms exports in country of destination. If there is overriding risk that the weapons will be used against these and other values of the international order arms exports shall not be authorised.  It may well be argued that the ATT is not yet in force and thus not applicable to the Egyptian situation. However,  the ATT’s most obligations are deduced from existing legal obligation of states to refrain from contributing or assisting a third state who is engaged in seriously offending  international norms. Even if one doubts this assertion most, if not all, arms exporting countries, including the USA have domestic laws which prohibit such practices. The US domestic law  is robust and clear enough, although  not without shortcomings.  For instance, the USA said that among its Red-Lines with respect to the ATT include:

‘There will be no lowering of current international standards.

Existing nonproliferation and export control regimes must not be undermined.

However, it is open-secrete that the USA is one of the major arms suppliers to Egypt which includes the supply of F-16 modern fighters.  The US may justify this by its national security and other regional interests but would it be lawful, ethical and politically acceptable to arm the Egyptian army?

Amnesty International was urging governments to halting their arms transfer to the Egyptian army since 2011.

Global arms suppliers must halt the transfer of small arms, ammunition and other repressive equipment to the Egyptian military and security forces, Amnesty International said today after the army again violently dispersed protests in Cairo.

The situation has now been escalated to a different level where hundreds of civilians who are demanding  for reinstating a democratically elected government, irrespective of their religious ideology or whether they are bad or good, have been massacred on a broad daylight.  The USA and others who supply armaments to Egypt must re-think about their policy of supplying with weapons to Egypt.  Cancelling a joint military exercise is a good move but not enough. 

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3 Comments on “The ‘Massacre’ in Egypt: Implications for International Human Rights Law and Arms Control Law”

  1. ZHENG Xi (Brooke) says:

    Thank you for this enlightening post on arms trade control in the context of Egypt.

    It is important to acknowledge the tight relations between international human rights law and arms control law. In the context of serious human rights violations, states have both moral and legal (for states parties to the ATT) obligations to refrain from supplying weapons to the country where these violations take place. Sadly, supplying weapons to Egypt is not the only case. During the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the West keep supplying weapons (even though some claim that they do not supply lethal weapons) to the Ukraine government, given that last month, even primary schools were attacked and that school children were injured. Russia keeps supplying weapons to the Ukraine opposition group. This year, MH-17, a civilian aircraft carrying hundreds of innocent passengers, were shot down in the air space of Ukraine. All 298 passengers onboard died.

    Apart from supplying weapons to state actors, we should also reflect on how non-state actors gain their weapons. Non-state actors, especially terrorist groups, post a larger threat to international human rights and peace and security. They act less rationally and more cruelly. Weapons can be more dangerous in their hands. There are basically two arguments on how they get their weapons. First, through black market and illicit circulation of arms; second, through winning a battle and getting the arms of the opposite military. It is very difficult to stop non-state actors from getting weapons by cutting the supply through these two ways. Regulations on arms trade between states is available now (even though the effectiveness of the ATT is yet to be seen). However, the regulations on black market and illicit circulation cannot simply be addressed by establishment of international treaties and conventions or UNSC resolutions. This posts a larger question to the international community.

  2. Thank you. I completely agree that arming terrorist and other criminal groups is not acceptable in international law. you have made a very good point. However, it is always difficult to define who a terrorist or a freedom fighter is- which often lead to mistakes and abuses of the prohibition to supplying with weapons to armed groups.


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