The Arms Trade Treaty: why women?

It would not be possible to rape women in front of their communities and families, on such a large scale in much of the world’s conflicts, if the availability of small arms and light weapons was controlled, says Sarah Masters

Sarah Masters
19 May 2011

Earlier this year the second Preparatory Committee for an Arms Trade Treaty  was held in New York. The idea of an ATT first came from Nobel Peace Laureates, supported by civil society organizations worldwide led by IANSA, Amnesty International and Oxfam. In 2003, the Control Arms Campaign was launched and has since gathered support for the Arms Trade Treaty from over a million people worldwide. In December 2006, 153 governments finally voted at the UN to start work on developing a global Arms Trade Treaty, and momentum for the treaty has been building ever since. In December 2009 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 64/48 which launched a time frame for the negotiation of “a legally binding instrument on the highest possible common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms”. The final negotiating conference is scheduled for July 2012.

Discussions on the ATT present a key opportunity to examine the tools used to facilitate and commit acts of gender-based violence, most often small arms and light weapons (SALW), in the context of decisions concerning international transfers of conventional arms. Although we have been active on this issue for some years, only now does it appear to be gaining the prominence it so urgently requires.

It is clear that the ways in which conventional arms and ammunition facilitate violence against women is a cross-cutting issue. The serious threat of sexual and gender-based violence during and after armed conflict is recognised by UNIFEM, “Women are often forced to endure rape and other sexual abuse and violence, as well as abductions and forced slavery, including prostitution at the point of a gun. From Sudan to Sierra Leone, women and girls as young as 10 have been abducted at gunpoint from their homes. Women in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons are routinely gang raped and abused and the threat of armed violence compounds the difficulties of their survival and sustenance.”

To put it simply, it would not be possible to rape women in front of their communities and families, on such a large scale in much of the world’s conflicts if there weren’t such a wide availability of small arms and light weapons. In non-conflict or post-conflict situations such as Haiti and the Balkans, small arms facilitate widespread sexual and domestic violence. To protect women’s rights, the relevant binding international instruments covering gender-based violence, including rape and sexual violence, must now be applied in arms transfer decisions.

The UN Security Council decided to take up women, peace and security as a separate thematic topic in 2000, after a bloody decade of peacekeeping failures, such as in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. As part of the examination of the broader atrocities committed, it became clear that, in Rwanda and Bosnia in particular, significant attacks had occurred specifically targeting women, including reports of systematic sexual violence. I believe that this approach must also be reflected in the ATT.

Despite the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolutions such as 1325 declaring the importance of women’s participation in peace processes and women’s activism in the field of arms control, women and gender are being largely ignored in the process towards an ATT. In addition, some UN Member States including Egypt have questioned women’s participation and the necessity to explicitly mention gender-based violence even though violence against women is a violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in times of armed conflict.

Women do have a role to play in disarmament and in the security debate, including the question of SALW reduction and domestic controls. As Jasmin Galace from the Philippines writes in her article on openDemocracy  1325 and the violent world of small arms, " recognising that controlling the tools of violence is imperative in the work of conflict prevention and in the building of peace and security, our women perform various roles to keep and build the peace and prevent armed conflict. They act as peacekeepers, advocates, negotiators, mediators, educators, healers and reconcilers, evacuation centre managers, relief operations coordinators and facilitators of dialogue.”

A gender-sensitive approach to voluntary weapons collection leads to better planning and organization in disarmament and SALW-control. Argentina’s gun buyback in 2008 was a great success. 70,000 weapons and 450,000 rounds of ammunition were collected, and over 50,000 destroyed. What did we learn about the role of women in this? We learnt that despite the lack of a gender perspective in policies to address the small arms problem, women led the way. Despite the fact that 95% of gun owners are male in Argentina, 50% of people who handed in weapons were women. This suggests that many guns owned by men were actually handed in by wives or partners.

In 2010, women from the Frontier Indigenous Network in Wajir, Kenya, celebrated a major victory as the local government agreed to share information about its small arms inventory and mark over 9000 weapons. Women were also invited to join a committee that will lead raising-awareness programmes on small arms control. The decision came after 100 pastoralist women submitted a petition and a regional plan on firearms control to the government on 8 April 2010. The plan also lists local arms markets, smuggling routes and arms traffickers.

The week before the recent ATT Prepcom in New York, the Chair of the Prepcom, Ambassador Moritan, issued a paper that lacked all mention of the relationship between women, security and arms control and the incidence of gender-based violence perpetrated or facilitated by conventional weapons, particularly small arms. Throughout the Prepcom the issue of gender was brought up by many states, including Mali, Nigeria and Norway, and Australia, arguing for an ATT to address the impact of armed conflict on women in accordance with existing international commitments such as UNSCR 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889 on women, peace and security. The IANSA Women’s Network proposed three possibilities to include gender-based violence in the “Criteria” section of the ATT:

“A State party shall not authorize a transfer of arms if there is, in the view of the potential transferring State, a substantial risk that those arms would:…”

  1. Be used to perpetuate or facilitate high levels of gender-based violence, in particular rape and other forms of sexual violence.
  2. OR Be used to perpetuate a pattern of or facilitate high levels of firearms-related homicide, serious injury or gender-based violence.
  3. OR to be included in existing Criterion (): Be used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, in particular/including gender-based violence, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

International law includes women’s rights, but these are not explicit within the UN Charter or the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law used by diplomats in the disarmament community. However, they have been recognised by UN Security Council resolutions and other binding instruments of international law and form part of international law that is relevant for the ATT. Under international law, all States have an obligation to prohibit the provision of conventional arms to any person or entity which would knowingly assist in the commission or the attempted commission of international crimes. This includes sexual violence. Under international law, conflict related sexual violence is a war crime, a crime against humanity or a constitutive element of genocide; it is an element of organised crime, as human trafficking and enforced prostitution. Sexual violence is a tactic of war that threatens international peace and security. In practical terms, it is the international human rights standard that states will be able to implement that will lead to the prevention and prohibition of transfers of arms if they are likely to be used to perpetrate acts of firearms-related sexual and gender-based violence.

I will be at the conference of the Nobel Women's InitiativeWomen Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict’ 23-25 May. I will be there to carry the voices of the many IANSA members who cannot attend, with the message that the effective control of small arms is a first step towards reducing and ultimately preventing violence against women. I often remind people that every case or statistic we hear about represents a woman or a girl who is suffering from the impact of small arms on their lives and communities. It makes me even more determined to continue to make the links that are so important, but so often overlooked.


To read openDemocracy's full coverage of the conference click here


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