Get the arms trade controlled for human rights!


People Before Profits: Convincing the World to ‘Control Arms’

After two decades of lobbying, the Arms Trade Treaty was adopted at the UN earlier this year. While thousands of people were instrumental in helping to achieve this goal, Amnesty International is credited for spearheading the international campaign that initiated the complicated turn of events that eventually swayed government officials and heralded unprecedented public support. How did they do it?

It started with an idea, borne out of horrifying statistics: 500,000 dead every year, with millions more affected by injury or displacement. The destruction of entire economies, rampant corruption and diversion of public finance, and diminishing access to healthcare, water, food and shelter in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Most unsettling was that the situation was not a reflection or result of war, natural disaster or civil unrest; but of the rampant and unregulated manufacture, sale and use of small arms and light weapons by individuals who committed unspeakable human rights violations against each other in every corner of the globe every day.

The toll the global arms race was taking on human rights could no longer be ignored. A team of activists at Amnesty International knew that international action was required to curb the free flow of small arms around the world – a task force was created, and strategies were conceived, to insert the problem of conventional weapons trade into the global discourse, and initiate change at the international political level. From humble beginnings in the early 90s, the initial idea morphed into a highly strategic, integrated and complicated global effort involving research, lobbying, and public campaigning that, triumphantly, resulted in the unprecedented signing of the UN Arms Trade Treaty by 116 countries earlier this year.

It was nothing short of a Herculean effort, involving countless actors in the non-profit, activist, political, bureaucratic and public spheres. Goldsmiths was recently honoured to host one of the main architects of the campaign, Brian Wood, Head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, who shared his insights into the complex scale and scope of the two-decade long campaign that began in a small London meeting room so long ago.

What most stood out for me during his discussion was the highly complex and multi-faceted nature of the campaign, and the passionate and dedicated team of people required to make it happen on global scale. A massive coordinated effort took place at every level of discourse – among lobbyists, diplomats and delegates at the UN; among elected officials on a state by state basis; bureaucrats at every level of government; thousands of NGOs, their staff, volunteers and members; and finally, among the general public at large. Putting the slogan ‘Control Arms’ on the lips of so many millions, resulting in real change in the highly bureaucratic arena of the UN is no small feat. So how did they do it?

Nothing less than an integrated international effort was required to mobilize ambassadors at every level. The team needed a full understanding of just who they were targeting, and the most effective messages with which to target them. From the highly complicated legal and lobbying efforts aimed at technical experts, to well-researched and persuasive arguments directed at high-level influencers, to passionate calls to action targeting activists and supporters, and finally, simple and memorable slogans and stunts intended to engage the general public, this was much, much more than merely the execution of a strategic international PR campaign.

Here’s a snapshot of the many, many people required to launch and succeed at implementing a campaign on this scale:

Political Lobbyists

What I think is important to note, and what set this campaign apart from others before it, is that it leveraged existing legal and political frameworks for human rights and humanitarian law within democratic frameworks. The preliminary language in the treaty proposal built on existing promises already made by states to protect human rights, and governments agreed for the most part with both the content and intent. Most of the work at the beginning stages of the campaign was spent analyzing and examining the nuanced political and social stances of the countries they were targeting, and leveraging those positions into proposals and counter-proposals that government officials found hard to refute, given their public records. Wood admitted that the final treaty as it was signed came as a result of many years of bureaucratic contestation – with so many powerful actors having a stake in the outcome, I’m actually amazed that anything was pushed through at all. Its success speaks to the tireless efforts of the technical experts, legal actors and highly skilled lobbyists who nurtured long relationships with key officials, keeping a close eye on government positions over many years, and working at a macro operational level to ensure that the issue remained top of mind in countless meetings, symposia and on the delegate floor of the UN in New York.

High Level Influencers

As with other campaigns, Amnesty International recognized that it would need to get thought-leaders and highly influential people in all social, cultural and political spheres on side if the message were to resonate on a global scale. With the help of big names like Desmond Tutu, several Nobel Peace Laureates, popular politicians, celebrities, musicians, and even the World Cup winning French football team, the campaign leveraged the power of big names to both lend credibility as well as increase exposure for the campaign. Wood credits the use of these highly influential people in thrusting the campaign into global discourse, mobilizing activists and supporters, and applying pressure to democratically elected political actors who found themselves having to explain their stance on weapons trade to a more aware global audience.

Foot Soldiers

Wood estimates that there are anywhere between 3 and 4 million Amnesty International members worldwide. The organization uses a highly coordinated but decentralized model of grassroots activism within the bounds of a centralized umbrella campaign to mobilize actions at the state, regional and local level. Local chapters are free to be creative in the ways they build momentum for their message – the ‘Control Arms’ campaign featured boat races in Cambodia; lipstick shaped as bullets in Brazil; a mass grave erected in Trafalgar Square and a giant tank rolling past London’s House of Commons, and countless other ‘out of the box’ publicity stunts around the world. The medium may have varied but the message was consistent. This allowed millions of people to get involved, while keeping the focus on the original objectives of the campaign. And because it was both creative and strategic, it appealed to the mainstream media, who were then instrumental in informing broader swaths of the general public. 

The court of public opinion

As the campaign matured and pressure mounted on the UN to draft and sign the final treaty, mass communication efforts including an extensive social media campaign, the world’s first digital image petition, letter writing campaigns, global days of action and other highly visible publicity stunts helped keep the issue in the public sphere. Wood attests that the enormous impact this had in turning the tide at the UN General Assembly level cannot be under-stated. Most surprisingly, he indicated that although actions varied in every country, the most effective way of reaching government officials directly in Western countries was through Twitter – and that politicians actually responded directly to appeals made to them in that medium. I find this fascinating; and proves that anyone anywhere can actually make a difference at any level, regardless of what may be occurring behind political walls.

Now what?

Now that the Treaty has been signed, it still requires Ratification by at least 50 states in order to come into enforcement. Wood admitted that although the highly tactical, public phase of the campaign has passed, the work is far from over. Countless people are still required to keep the issue top of mind, to hold governments to account, and to shed light on abuses still occurring as a result of the widespread use of weaponry, both large and small.

Wood’s insightful talk was punctuated by a brief display by Goldsmiths Professor 
Eyel Weizman from the Visual Cultures Department, who demonstrated the types of forensic investigations he and others are performing at sites of conflict and war. These types of brutal graphic displays are used to illustrate the devastation that can occur to both people and places when weapon use is allowed to run rampant, and puts a simple visual face on what can sometimes be a complicated and ambiguous issue. For me, this highlights even further the vast number of ideas, tools and especially people required to shed light on the troubling issue of arms abuse and human rights. The Arms Treaty is not a panacea – it won’t magically make weapons disappear over night. But due to the important work of the people at Amnesty and other NGOs around the world, and even within our own walls here at Goldsmiths, we can at least continue the conversation.


Giannina Warren
1st Year PhD Student
Media and Communications
Goldsmiths University of London


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