As a political instrument of power projection and status, nuclear weapons carry a peculiarly masculine symbolism. In the 1980s, Greenham women were at the forefront of challenging masculine ideologies of defence and security. We need to seize the initiative and again become the agents of security transformation.
October 31 was the tenth anniversary of the adoption of UN SCR 1325 on Women Peace and Security. This was the first ever resolution to treat women not only as the victims of men’s aggression, wars and mistakes, but as agents for change. The resolution, the result of hard work and lobbying by women from a range of humanitarian and disarmament organisations, notably the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Amnesty International and Oxfam, was treated as a groundbreaking feminist success when it was adopted. Underlining the importance of incorporating “a gender perspective” into work on peace and security, it urges UN Member States “to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict”.
Ten years later, the verdict on how this resolution has affected women in conflict zones is “Must do better”. A common criticism, heard most recently at the Feminism in London conference on October 23, was that in seeking to implement the letter but not the spirit of this resolution the UN system had spawned a layer of “femocrats” rather than empowering women living and working in the conflict zones.
Few think of 1325 as relevant to nuclear issues, but it should be. Nuclear weapons, with their capability to destroy life on a massive scale and threaten the very survival of our planet, are the “ultimate weapon” and thus the apex of coercive killing power. Whether fired or not, they absorb resources and divert attention away from real security challenges, from environmental destruction to global poverty and violent, criminal gangs that prey on the vulnerable, especially women. Even when treated as, in David Cameron’s words, the “ultimate insurance policy”, Trident is portrayed as enabling Britain to “punch above our weight”. As a political instrument of power projection and status nuclear weapons carry a peculiarly masculine symbolism. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ respectively. When explaining India’s nuclear tests in 1998, Hindu nationalist leader Balasaheb Thackeray said, “we had to prove that we are not eunuchs”. Even more crudely, in the 1980s a vigilante group opposed to the Greenham Women’s peace camp published grotesque cartoons in the local Newbury Weekly News that depicted a ‘peace camper’ atop (or skewered by) a sexually enhanced cruise missile in a cross between a rape and a ride.
If we applied a gender – or, without beating around the bush, a feminist – perspective to nuclear weapons, non-proliferation and disarmament issues, then the assessment would need to be “Must do differently”. With nuclear issues the problem is not that women are more likely to be victims than men (as is the case with small arms, for example), or that men dominate decision making, though they do. The exception proving this rule was the US delegation for the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which was headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with key roles fulfilled by Dr Rose Gottemoeller (chief American negotiator for the US-Russian New-START treaty), former Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, and Ambassador Susan Burk. But the system is stacked, so that all these strong, powerful women could only deliver a mealy-mouthed outcome that reinforced the role and value attached to nuclear weapons by the handful of nuclear possessor states. Women might have been in charge of US non-proliferation policy this year, but since the Pentagon men remained in charge of keeping nuclear forces at high levels, it cannot be said that this exemplified the gender awareness and policy transformations sought by the original backers of UNSCR 1325
As with most military projects, men dominate the nuclear establishments of all countries. Masculine assumptions about security and defence also dominate the governmental and non-governmental establishments that work on arms control and non-proliferation. In arms control, the weapons holders dictate the pace and terms. By focussing on the numbers and masking the reality of nuclear operations and threatened uses in the platitudes of deterrence, traditional arms control reinforces the utility that keeps the nuclear weapons proponents in business. The arms controllers mean well, but they are in awe of the nuclear mafia’s self-reinforcing paradigm of complex assumptions and rituals. And so they tie themselves in knots trying to deal with the circular logic constructed around notions of nuclear deterrence, strategic balance and stability. Stuck in the self-referential paradigm developed by the US and Russia in the Cold War, the arms controllers end up exaggerating the political, security and verification difficulties which plays into the interests of both the nuclear and the arms control establishments, and perpetuate the status, prestige and power projection of the nuclear weapons possessors.
Arms controllers insist that before there can be any consideration of multilateral negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear abolition treaty the major possessors would first have to reduce their arsenals down to zero or near zero. This is the familiar approach, but in all the years its results have been glacially slow and very limited. That’s because arms control puts the process the wrong way round and sets up unnecessary hostages and obstacles. The weapons don’t have to be eliminated before they are banned. Decades of experience with banning and controlling other kinds of inhumane weapons, from biological and chemical weapons to landmines and cluster munitions tell a different story.
If in addition to increasing the number of women in decision making roles we insist on prioritising human security, peace and disarmament above notions of national security and military interests, as required by UNSCR 1325, it will become possible to embark on a much quicker and clearer process towards nuclear disarmament. Humanitarian disarmament approaches reject traditional notions of national defence and security that are based on targeting the homes, environment, security and lives of the people. Until now, the weapons possessors have marginalised or dismissed the concerns and interests of countries that do not themselves pose a nuclear threat, and have issued risible ‘civil defence’ instructions telling people at home to protect themselves behind whitewashed windows and makeshift shelters.
Taking the humanitarian disarmament approach confers responsibilities and obligations on everyone, not just the weapon holders that dominate traditional arms control. This not only allows the states that do not have nuclear arms to initiate disarmament actions, but since the nuclear weapons states seem incapable of questioning the status quo, it requires others to take the lead. It’s time for women and the non-nuclear countries to set the pace and terms of disarmament action and start working for the comprehensive abolition of nuclear weapons, with no exceptions for nuclear deterrence hedges or insurance arsenals.
During the 1980s, Greenham women were at the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement in Britain. We started by opposing cruise missiles, but ended up challenging masculine ideologies of defence, security and, indeed, political action. The Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign) has been carrying on the work against nuclear weapons, while women all over the world have become prime movers against small arms and armed violence. If 1325 is meant to ensure that women are fully involved in building peace and security at all levels, then women should be working with the nuclear have-nots in leading efforts for nuclear abolition. While arms controllers rearrange and count the beans, we need to cut to the core issue – all threatened uses of nuclear weapons are crimes against humanity and all nuclear weapons need to be outlawed and scrapped. Nuclear weapons deployments are male violence extrapolated to the global level. Understanding this, the next decade of 1325 must see women in the driving seat, centralising human and environmental needs. When we build a new kind of nuclear abolition movement, women will once again become the major agents of global security transformation.