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Op-Ed: Saving Rhinos while Protecting Human Rights: The Value of the Arms Trade Treaty for Global Anti-Poaching Efforts


Republished from the Forum on the Arms Trade’s “Looking Ahead 2017” blog series.

The world is facing what the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has described as an “Environmental Crime Crisis,” with an unprecedented slaughter of large mammals, particularly in the African continent. More than 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers in the last five years and, over the same period, the number of rhinoceroses poached has increased every year.

The illicit wildlife trade is now increasingly sophisticated, dangerous and globalized, integrated with armed groups and organized crime. It has been fueled by a proliferation of military-grade guns in unstable regions with high concentrations of rhinos and elephants. Since 2014, the UN Security Council has identified poaching as a regional security threat in Africa (S/RES/2134 and S/RES/2136). This month UNEP released a new report showing how environmental crime “threatens peace and security.” In 2017, the Arms Trade Treaty and other international measures could offer tools to address these problems in an integrated way.

United States Contributes to Militarization of Counter-Poaching

There is an emerging global trend toward militarizing wildlife protection, including expansive arming and training of paramilitary rangers. These aggressive counter-poaching tactics are supported by policy changes that have reframed wildlife crime as a security issue. In 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13648 on Combating Wildlife Trafficking, stating that poaching had “significant effects…on the national interests of the United States.” This October, Congress passed the bi-partisan Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act, which encourages the administration to “provide defense articles (not including significant military equipment), defense services, and related training to appropriate security forces” to African countries for counter-poaching.

It is unclear how seriously the incoming administration will take the threat of global wildlife crime. Trump’s climate change-denying pick for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, wants to strip away protections from the environment. Trump has defended his sons’ hunting of endangered species in Zimbabwe; photos surfaced last year of Donald Trump, Jr. holding the severed tail of an elephant and of him with a dead leopard. Nevertheless, co-sponsor of the Wildlife Trafficking Act Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) told National Geographic that he will continue to advocate for action on poaching in the incoming Congress.

The Human Rights Impact of Militarization

As with the “War on Drugs”, the militarization of poaching has had unintended consequences. In several countries, the military, police and even wildlife rangers have been involved in poaching, either directly or indirectly. The flow of arms into already unstable regions also means that many poachers obtain their weapons and ammunition from state sources, either through theft or corruption. Militarized rangers have also been implicated in human rights abuses (see, for example, this disturbing report about a counter-poaching operation in Tanzania).

Last week, I was speaking with wildlife rangers in a major East African national park, home to many rhinos. The park has suffered due to serious threats from poaching since 2011; two rhinos were recently killed by poachers using large-caliber rifles. In the last few years the country has stiffened the penalties for wildlife crimes and deployed an eight-fold increase in rangers – many with paramilitary training – in the park. The government attributes to this more aggressive response a reduction in killing of rhinos in the park from 24 in 2013 to three this year.

However, many of the poachers caught following incidents in the park are low-level criminals, often from poorer, rural areas around the park where the profits from rhino horn can be very tempting. They risk being killed on the spot or long-term prison sentences, while the international organized crime bosses evade punishment.

The paramilitary rangers’ rules of engagement are also concerning. I asked a ranger about his rules of engagement when encountering a suspected poacher. He replied that if they are armed, “You shoot to kill, that’s what we are told in training. If someone has a rifle, what do you do? That’s why we shoot first.” Shoot-to-kill policies contravene international human rights law. Police (and rangers) are supposed to try to persuade a suspect to lay down their weapon, avoid killing a suspect if possible and try to make an arrest. The ranger told me, “if they pose a threat you forget about human rights.” But governments are not allowed to forget about human rights, even if they are inconvenient. The ranger also admitted that the militarized tactics could encourage poachers to also be better armed and more aggressive themselves.

Addressing Poaching through International Arms Control

If Trump does decide to take wildlife crime seriously (or is encouraged to by Congressional Republicans) it is unlikely that he will be a strong champion for addressing the human rights concerns of militarized counter-poaching. Congress, the policy community and activists must therefore make a compelling case for alternative methods of addressing poaching, while respecting the rule of law.

The last African elephant poaching crisis, in the 1980s, was fueled by the influx of guns in Africa’s Cold War proxy conflicts. It was stopped not so much by militarizing wildlife protection, but rather through international legal and normative change, including the ivory ban and a broad-based public awareness campaign in countries creating the demand. More recently, the Obama Administration has supported diplomatic and aid efforts beyond militarized conservation, raising awareness of the impact of poaching, seeking a stronger ivory ban and supporting peace and conservation projects in affected areas.

This September, I authored a report, published by Control Arms and Pace University, that outlines how the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) could be used as part of a broader effort to address poaching in ways that are consistent international human rights standards. The report was produced for a  training program on the ATT for East African officials and civil society advocates.

The ATT, negotiated within the UN, establishes global rules for the transfer of conventional weapons, preventing the sale of arms to those who engage in human rights and humanitarian law abuses, organized crime, terrorism and gender-based violence. It provides a framework for governments to engage collaboratively in “risk mitigation measures” to prevent potential diversion of guns to unauthorized people or uses. It has 91 member governments, including several major exporting countries.

In my report and the training of officials we argue that governments should use the ATT to reduce the risk of automatic and large-caliber weapons being diverted to poaching. We also show how to use the treaty to improve armed rangers’ respect for human rights.

The United States has signed the ATT, but not yet ratified, stymied by gun lobby conspiracy theories claiming the treaty would threaten Second Amendment rights. In fact, the treaty affirms governments’ right to allow “lawful ownership” of guns, such as for “recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities.” In 2014 President Obama revised U.S. arms export control measures, which are broadly consistent with the ATT, without actually fully joining the treaty. Given the NRA’s endorsement of Trump, it is unlikely the incoming administration will think highly of the treaty’s potential.

But multilateral diplomacy, international law and arms control offer sophisticated tools (such as the ATT) for solving global problems (like poaching) that cannot simply be shot at. They make it possible to defend wildlife and human rights at the same time. In 2017 we must mobilize to shield both rhinos and people from roll back of their much-needed protections.

— Matthew Bolton, Director, International Disarmament Institute.

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