On this day, December 24 2014, enters into force the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. This agreement is meant to regulate international commerce of conventional weapons and to eradicate the illicit traffic thereof, so as to contribute to peace, security and the reduction of human suffering.
These purposes, especially the last one, transform the new treaty into one more conquest within a long tradition of international treaties of humanitarian law, or the laws of armed conflict. The Arms Trade Treaty comes to crown a process which – although preceded by custom – began with the first Geneva Convention of 1864, and continued with a plethora of other documents.
The cornerstone principle of this development is contained in the so called “Martens clause”, included in a Hague Convention of 1907 and reaffirmed in subsequent treaties. According to it, in cases not foreseen by humanitarian law treaties, civilians and combatants anyway “remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience”.
The aforementioned Martens clause opens a way of hope: that a moral international community could be forged on the grounds of the principles of humanity and of the dictates of public conscience. For decades now, these principles have been represented by the ideas of human rights and human dignity, of wide international adherence.
Also on this day, it is the 100th anniversary of the so called “Christmas Truce” of the First World War, by which troops in the trenches momentarily deposed their weapons to fraternize and celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, given their shared religious ethos.
Thus, to borrow an expression from Hannah Arendt, one could say that one of the most powerful “subterranean streams” that have flown throughout history under the overt torrent of religious solidarity has been the desire to alleviate human suffering, both in war and in peace.
The signing of this new Arms Trade Treaty by 130 countries, in only a year’s time, is a favorable sign of the progressive emergence of such subterranean stream in State practice and in the conscience of peoples. It is indeed good news, which humankind has given to itself after centuries of suffering.