[Law clinic] Seeking transparency on arms exports

Published 11 March 2024

@Unsplash | Serhii Tyaglovsky (2023)

Recently, a new edition of the international law clinic on ‘Access to Justice for Gun Violence’ was launched by the Amsterdam International Law Clinic of the University of Amsterdam in cooperation with the Asser Institute and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). The pro bono clinic will address access to information for arms exports from the standpoint of European legislation and international human rights law.

Students working with the clinic will receive academic credit to develop a memorandum on the challenges of obtaining information relating to arms sales, exports and licensing. Students will outline the regulatory deficiencies of the arms trade in Europe, where some of the foremost exporters of weapons are located. In particular, ECCHR has requested the clinic to identify the legal and practical obstacles to accessing comprehensive information on arms exports in key European jurisdictions, including Germany, France, Belgium and Spain, to name but a few.

Accountability deficit

“European arms sales are notoriously opaque”, says Asser Institute researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, who serves as the Law Clinic supervisor for this project. “European arms exports lack binding transparency rules despite being transferred to at-risk states and conflict areas such as Israel and Ukraine. The law clinic will identify this accountability deficit to assist policymakers in improving the system.”

The Amsterdam Law Clinics enable students to work on matters of public interest and broad social relevance on behalf of clients, giving them hands-on experience. The clinic complements existing projects such as the Fair Trials Clinic and the Business and Human Rights Clinic. These are all part of the experiential education programme of the Amsterdam Law Practice.

Addressing negligent conduct

The clinic is partnering with ECCHR, which has engaged in strategic litigation relating to arms trade in several European jurisdictions. The students will be working closely with ECCHR’s Business and Human Rights programme to prepare their memorandum mapping out the practice of disclosure by governments and carrying out a comprehensive analysis of these obstacles benchmarked against the requirements of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“As a human rights and educational organisation, we are very excited to work with students”, said Cannelle Lavite, co-director of the Business and Human Rights programme, “because it enables inter-generational exchange and empowers younger generations to shape and frame future policy. The lack of reliable information for arms sales has hindered accountability for victims of armed violence, but does not always feature highly on the political agenda. Understanding the regulatory makeup of transparency mechanisms and their limitations is an important step towards changing this.”

Irresponsible business

European arms companies are notoriously negligent in their manufacturing, distribution and sales practices, thus increasing the likelihood of damage resulting from the use of their products and downstream business relationships, including trafficking. A recent report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, for example, identified European firms as supplying Myanmar’s military junta with materials to produce weapons while circumventing sanctions. At the same time, states conduct irresponsible arms trade that ravages communities the world over, including in conflict zones such as Ukraine and Yemen.

Despite these red flags, the arms industry enjoys special protections in many European jurisdictions, including secrecy for licensing and export agreements through state-approved national security or foreign policy exceptions. Consequently, judicial remedies for victims are deficient. The expansive interpretation of these exceptions has jeopardised the right to a remedy to which survivors of gun violence are entitled, including under international human rights law.

This project follows a successful first edition where students wrote a memorandum for the Office of the Legal Advisor of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As last year, the law clinic team was competitively selected among the student body of the LLM in Public International Law of the University of Amsterdam. This year’s participants are: Jennifer Bunnik, Ana Gobillon, Jiaxin Li, Jan Melck and Zia Wendt. Additional support is provided by Asser research interns Anna Puigderrajols and Ewa Romanowska, as well as by Asser Junior Researcher Antonio Guzmán Mutis and ECCHR Senior Legal Advisor Chloé Bailey.

Read more

Access to Justice for Gun Violence. Seeking Accountability for European Arms Exports’, University of Amsterdam International Law Clinic and Asser Institute for International and European Law (supervised by León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, authored by Jasmijn van Dijk, Felix Hartner, Viktoria Schmidt and Nada Ben Yahia), July 28, 2023.

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, ‘The Armor of the European Arms Industry’, El País, 31 July 2023.

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, ‘Mexico v. Smith & Wesson: Judge Dismisses Complaint Citing PLCAA and Standing Issues’, ASIL Insights (2022) (with Leila Nadya Sadat)

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, ‘Ensuring Access to Courts for Gun Victims: The Case for Repealing PLCAA’, Just Security (2022) (with Kaya van der Horst)

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, ‘Mexico v. Smith & Wesson: U.S. Court Duel Over Extraterritorial Legal Issues Looms with Motion to Dismiss’, Just Security (2021)

Video of the expert panel discussion on Transnational Civil Litigation and Corporate Liability: Mexico v Smith & Wesson, co-organised by the Asser Institute, the University of Amsterdam and the Embassy of Mexico to the Kingdom of the Netherlands (2022)

Dr León Castellanos-Jankiewicz