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In the news

the ICJ found that Russia had violated the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism by failing to investigate people who had allegedly funded pro-Russian separatist groups in eastern Ukraine.

But there's a funny catch to that:

The court said that only cash transfers could be considered as support for alleged terrorist groups under the terms of the international convention on terrorism financing.

This “does not include the means used to commit acts of terrorism, including weapons or training camps,” the court ruled.

So, do any international treaties prohibit sending weapons (as opposed to money) to terrorists? (And does if they exist, is Russia not part of those treaties?)

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  • And who defines the term terrorism? What are terrorists for some are freedom fighters for others and vice versa.
    – user48825
    Feb 2 at 19:01
  • @IgorHohlomoiski: it's a good point, but besides the Q. Countries felt that it's definable [perhaps to their own advantage] given that they signed up in mass (188 countries presently) to prevent its funding. The treaty does include a definition of terrorism, by the way. (Like with all legal defs, whether it applies to specific circumstances, may be more debatable.) Feb 2 at 19:06

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I have no relevant expertise here so my opinions on the applicability of these should be very much taken with a grain of salt, but I thought it would be helpful to pull together a list of potentially relevant instruments.

Overall it does seem unlikely that Russia would face consequences for this arms transfer under international law, including any less formal sanction for violating specific political commitments around arms control. If there is any chance at all, I suspect it would be under UNTOC.

Interestingly though, this does not seem to be mentioned on the UN web page that surveys measures to control small arms and light weapons. There are various resolutions and other details there I did not dig into.

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  • Can you elaborate slightly which provisions of those treaties (ATT etc.) talk about terrorism or something similar enough? Feb 2 at 19:03
  • @Fizz I've added a note to the part about ATT referencing about Article 7 which is also explained in the link. As for UNTOC, terrorism is clearly the primary focus. The other three are specifically mentioned as illustrations confirming that the main arms control measures don't apply here.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 2 at 23:01
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United Nations Charter, article 2, paragraph 4:

  1. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Weapons being tools for using force, delivering weapons to separatist movements violates, if not the letter, at least the spirit of that treaty.

At least, the Russian government certainly thought so when they signed the 1994 Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons:

Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America,

Welcoming the Accession of Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon state,

Taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory within a specified period of time,

Noting the changes in the world-wide security situation, including the end of the Cold War, which have brought about conditions for deep reductions in nuclear forces,

Confirm the following:

  1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and The United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.

  2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and The United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

(emphasis mine)

Moreover, I am not sure that "sending weapons to terrorists" is the correct characterization for what happened there, given that the separatist movement was led by a former colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service and that the international Joint Investigation Team for the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 found that

the airliner had been downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. The JIT found that the Buk originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation and had been transported from Russia on the day of the crash, fired from a field in a rebel-controlled area and the launch system returned to Russia afterwards.

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