Ultra Vires


Arms as Aid

International Arms Transfers, Law, and Human Rights

It is an unfortunate fact that conflict has persisted throughout human history, but a recent global flare-up indicates that the trend will continue. These armed hostilities have caused some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. As the global uptick in warfare highlights, there is still a pressing need for aid on a global scale. When you hear “foreign aid,” what is your first thought? For most, the answer is likely food and water, medical supplies, or household necessities. In reality, the proliferation of international trade and resurgent inter-state competition since the end of the Cold War has led to foreign aid which increasingly includes weapons systems and military equipment. Therefore, participants in the global community will increasingly benefit from understanding the role arms transfers play in human rights, law, and foreign aid allocation.

With the extravagant cost of weapons production, military hardware can make up the bulk of aid a country receives. Take Ukraine as an example. The dollar value of foreign aid pledged to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022 is eye-watering. The United States (“US”) alone has committed over $75 billion to support the Ukrainians. Yet, 61% of the American commitment consists of military assistance, including weapons, equipment, and training. Critics of aid to Ukraine often fail to consider the diverse purposes behind dollar amounts featured in media headlines which could be humanitarian, military, or developmental. 

A failure to understand the role of arms as aid can contribute to misguided notions of aid allocation, with valuable equipment transfers precipitating the view that significant dollar amounts equate to blank cheque monetary support. Subsequently, critics call for reducing the amount of vital aid to worthy recipients such as Ukraine. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is also an example of states providing lethal equipment to a belligerent party, in this case Western Countries, without themselves entering the conflict, and this can be confusing from a legal perspective.

The legality of arms as aid in the modern world is a complex and inherently political issue. At the international level, arms transfers have been governed primarily by the Arms Trade Treaty (“the Treaty”) since December 2014. States party to the Treaty are required to regulate the export of a broad range of conventional arms and ammunition and annually report imports and exports. Notably, Article 6 of the Treaty prohibits arms transfers that would be contrary to international legal obligations or where the transferring state knows the receiver will use the arms in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, or other specific war crimes.

The Treaty has the potential to be an effective legal tool for preventing the misuse of foreign weapons and equipment in human rights violations. However, only 113 states have ratified the Treaty. While Canada has ratified the Treaty, it is problematic that the US and Russia—responsible for over half of the world’s arms exports—are not party to the Treaty. Additionally, states have gradually neglected their reporting duties under the Treaty, demonstrated by a steady decrease in the percentage of reports submitted since 2015.

Parallel to the Treaty, states have increased the establishment of bilateral weapons agreements between them and their partners. Such bilateral agreements are created between states to facilitate weapon sharing and rely heavily on the relationship between the parties, emphasizing the political nature of arms transfers. For example, democratic states have demonstrated a tendency to engage in bilateral arms trade with other democratic states, and the same trend occurs between autocracies. Bilateral agreements give states the autonomy to trade arms how they want. More importantly, the Treaty’s regulatory requirements and prohibition on arms transfers facilitating harm are not an inherent feature of state-to-state weapons agreements, meaning there is a higher risk that weapons can be procured for nefarious purposes.

In many cases, arms transfers allow actors to perpetrate gross human rights violations they could not achieve without access to foreign arms and equipment. One key example of conflict perpetuated by arms transfers is the ongoing civil war in Yemen. The Yemeni civil war has been prolonged by foreign arms, displacing millions and massively increasing the number of excess deaths in the country. Canada, in particular, provides light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia in direct contravention of Article 6 of the Treaty due to their documented, albeit disputed, role in human rights violations linked to Saudi intervention in Yemen. Yemen is just one example of arms transfers contributing to human rights issues and includes parties to the Treaty, with countless other examples of weapons provided by non-party states deteriorating the humanitarian situation in conflict zones around the world.

Beyond specific examples such as Yemen, the list of the potential human rights impacts of arms transfers is broad. Adverse effects can include the diversion of resources from other valuable government expenditures, exacerbation of gender-based violence, exporters leveraging weapons supply as influence, and long-term environmental damage. Additionally, prolonged armed conflict can spill over borders and destabilize entire regions, especially where belligerent parties can see their opponents receiving external support. Collectively, the possible outcomes resulting from arms transfers can transcend numerous areas of human rights activism.

The intersectional impacts that arms transfers can have on human rights requires a comprehensive approach to addressing shortcomings in existing practices. There is a role to be played by governments, international organizations, civil society, and academia. Governments should remain committed to obligations under existing legal regimes such as the Treaty and prioritize alternative forms of aid aimed at development over weapons supply. Enforcement, a persistent struggle in international governance, will require international organizations to take greater steps to promote accountability. Beyond enforcement, providing incentives—such as promoting investment to countries with responsible arms transfer practices—can drive state compliance. Civil society must pressure governments and weapons manufacturers to adhere to obligations or ratify the Treaty. Lastly, academia can educate citizens and governments on the impacts of arms transfers to ensure adequate human rights considerations are being made.

The surge in global conflicts highlights an urgent need for aid, but the role of arms as aid demands a reassessment. Proliferation of conflicts around the globe will provide new political and economic incentives to supply weapons, and the human rights impacts could be detrimental. The Arms Trade Treaty offers potential, yet its impact is hindered by incomplete global participation, notably with major arms exporters like the US and Russia opting out. As arms exacerbate crises, immediate action is imperative. Governments must prioritize development-focused aid, international bodies must enforce obligations, and civil society should exert pressure for accountability. The wide range of consequences from irresponsible arms transfers demand a united front—failure risks a world where aid becomes a tool of destruction rather than salvation.

Recent Stories