Why Gender Matters in International Arms Control

Ms. Nounou Booto Meeti, Control Arms, speaking at the 5th Conference of States Parties. Credit: Mission of Latvia

By Anna Macdonald, Advisor to President of the 5th Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty

The last two months I’ve been proud to work as Advisor to the President of Fifth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš of Latvia. It’s been a great experience to see the ATT from a different perspective after many years leading from the NGO side, and to work with skilled diplomats who want to make a difference.

Armed violence and conflict affects men and boys, women and girls differently, and understanding this gendered impact is key to both effective responses and preventative measures.

For example, while men and boys tend to suffer the most direct fatalities of warfare, women and girls are affected by impacted in terms of displacement, health, sexual violence and coercion. Women are more frequently the victims of gender-based violence facilitated by small arms, including domestic violence and sexual violence.

For women, the risk of gender-based violence increases with armed conflict and violence as a result of displacement, the breakdown of social structures and a lack of law enforcement. Oxfam itself has highlighted that gendered differences are apparent in humanitarian crisis such as in Yemen right now.

Latvia chose the theme of gender and gender-based violence (GBV) as the focus of their year-long Presidency, and this has substantially raised the profile and focus of these important issues within the arms control arena. On Friday 30 August, the Fifth Conference of States Parties (CSP) concluded its week-long deliberations with a Final Report that includes agreement on the first inter-governmental plan to implement the ground-breaking GBV provisions in the Treaty.

Photo of Mr Jānis Kārkliņš, President of the Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Credit: Mission of Latvia
Photo of Mr Jānis Kārkliņš, President of the Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Credit: Mission of Latvia
Quote from Latvian Ambassador to highlight the theme of gender-based violence at the CSP.

The plan calls for gender balance in delegations and panels, the participation of gender advisors; encourages states to collect gendered disaggregated data, collate resources that exist on gender terms and analysis, develop a training guide on how to assess the risks of GBV in relation to arms transfers, and share their national practices on how they are conducting risks assessments.

“It is worth reminding ourselves that the ATT is about ending human suffering and contributing to peace and development. At a time when multi-lateral agreements are under pressure, and some conflicts seem intractable, we need the ATT more than ever. It can make a significant contribution to peace and stability, to reducing humanitarian crises, and to reducing armed violence and crime.”
— Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš opening the Conference of States Parties.

All states matter in treaty processes and implementation. I strongly believe it is often smaller states, with principled positions, and histories of occupation or oppression, (and also sometimes unencumbered by large bureaucracies) who lead progressive change.

High Level Panel on Gender at the 5th Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. Credit: Mission of Latvia
High Level Panel on Gender at the 5th Conference of States Parties, with Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš (center) and former Latvian President Varia Vīke-Freiberga. Credit: Mission of Latvia

A distinguished panel of High Level representatives supported the gender theme at the CSP including Latvia’s former President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a lifelong proponent of gender equality, Minister Christine Hoebes of Namibia, Minister Salazar Rojas of Costa Rica and the ICRC. UN High Representative Izumi Nakamitzu gave her strong support on the need for continued work and focus on gender:

…. I am very pleased to say that we are heading in the right direction. But we need to make sure that our understanding also continues to evolve regarding the way gender roles can shape arms control and disarmament policies and practices. Our grasp of the differentiated impacts of weapons on women and men or the gendered aspects of ownership, use and misuse of small arms must indeed get much better.

There was a powerful personal testimony from Nounou Booto Meeti of Control Arms:

In 1997, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I escaped death by a whisker while waiting for a taxi, in one of the busy centers of Kinshasa…he ordered me to take my trousers off. Looking around, everyone, from the women selling goods in the street to the people passing by on their way home from work, were visibly scared. As these rebels were not trained soldiers, we were not sure how they would react to my objection. So I did not think twice — I took them off and handed them to him. He took them and walked away from me, then shot one bullet towards the sky. That bullet was already in the chamber, a trigger-pull away. And it was meant for me. But I humiliated myself, walking naked on the street, to escape death…I am not sharing these experiences to gain your sympathy, but to inspire your action.
— Nounou Meeti Booto of Control Arms’ powerful testimony at the Opening Panel

Article 7.4 of the ATT says governments to “shall take into account the risk of the conventional arms covered under Article 2 (1) or of the items covered under Article 3 or Article 4 being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender- based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.”

This is the first time a treaty has made the link between arms control and gender-based violence, and as such is extremely important in drawing attention to an aspect of human rights abuse often overlooked when decisions are made about arms exports. Throughout the year-long focus there have been trainings, resources and discussions on what this needs to mean in practice, much provided by civil society, including Control Arms and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The focus on gender also enabled real discussions on the need to address gender balance in delegations — including across Heads of Delegations and other senior roles, not just numbers. Several delegations responded to the President’s call to include gender advisors within their teams at the CSP, as well as having 50–50 male female representatives.

After years of gender receiving cursory attention, it feels like a tipping point has been passed. 46 countries from all regions gave a joint statement in support of the President’s action plan, and they were followed by many national statements echoing the call for meaningful and continued work on gender.

Multiple side events every day provided more depth to the substantive discussions, and included several on gender, as well as monitoring, and the sharing of legal challenges and court cases around the world that are challenging treaty violations.

Another key aspect of effective treaty implementation is civil society, parliamentarians and the media scrutinising and challenging where governments are not adhering to treaty obligations. And there are signs that this is starting to work, with recent High Court decisions in the UK and elsewhere.

There’s a lot more to do of course before the risks of gender based violence in arms transfer decisions are fully embedded, and even more before the totality of what the ATT could achieve takes real root, but this has been a welcome boost this year for all those working to stop GBV and irresponsible arms transfers in general. As Ambassador Kārkliņš commented at the end of the conference:

“No person should be facing violence because of their gender and I am delighted that the Conference unanimously agreed this action plan. This is the first inter-government agreement on rolling out the provision in the Arms Trade Treaty that tackles gender based violence. The ATT gives governments another tool to try and stop GBV, by limiting weapons sales where they could be used for this abuse.”

I’m proud to have played a role in making this year’s Conference of States Parties focus on gender successful, and even more so with a Presidency who worked tirelessly and effectively to really push for effective treaty implementation.

Latvian delegation at the 5th Conference of States Parties, joined by Anna Macdonald (far left). Credit: Mission of Latvia
Latvian delegation at the 5th Conference of States Parties, joined by Anna Macdonald (far left). Credit: Mission of Latvia
The Latvian delegation at the Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty with Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš and former Latvian President Varia Vīke-Freiberga, joined by Anna Macdonald (far left). Credit: Mission of Latvia

The entry written by Anna Macdonald, Head of Arms Control at Oxfam from 2006 to 2014, and the Director of Control Arms from June 2014 to June 2019. Oxfam co-launched the Control Arms Coalition in 2003, and was a leader in the campaign to secure a global Arms Trade Treaty to stop arms that fuel poverty, conflict and human rights abuses.

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.