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ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 5

Making sure the rhetoric matches the reality
27 August 2019


Ray Acheson

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As the Fifth Conference of States Parties (CSP5) to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) kicked off on Monday morning, it was rather surreal to hear government officials and international organisations discussing in-depth the gender aspects of the treaty. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) Women’s Network, and other activist groups worked for years to ensure that the ATT included provisions on gender, including a legally binding requirement to include gender-based violence (GBV) in arms export risk assessment processes. While over 100 states came to support this call and ensured its place during the ATT’s negotiation, in the five years since the treaty’s adoption there has been little attention to this particular provision. We are told time and again that there is not enough information about the link between the arms trade and GBV, or that that export licensing officials don’t understand how to include it in their link. In the ensuing years, WILPF and others have produced many materials and organised workshops for diplomats and other relevant officials. But having gender and gender-based violence be the theme for this year’s CSP has brought attention to this critical aspect of the treaty to a whole new level.

Unfortunately, as survivors of armed GBV can attest, the problem of gender-based violence is global, rampant, unabating, and incredibly traumatising. Speaking during the opening panels of CSP5, Nounou Booto Meeti of the Center for Peace and Security and Armed Violence Prevention described her own personal experience of gender-based gun violence, while Annie Matundu Mbambi of WILPF DRC talked about how weapons are “constantly used as a symbol of power and authority,” undermining gender equality, human security, justice, and human rights. Most of the interventions by panelists, states, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations focused on the violence against women aspects of GBV, highlighting the horrific crimes of murder, abuse, rape, sexual slavery, sex trafficking, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and more, which are so frequently facilitated by the presence weapons. Others such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the former president of Latvia, the delegation of Austria, and WILPF also highlighted that GBV also includes targeting men and boys on the basis of their sex—such as mass killings of men to prevent them from joining hostilities—and against LGBT+ people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The ATT has not yet been used effectively to reduce or prevent GBV, even though it has potential to do so. “Like the Geneva Conventions, the Arms Trade Treaty aims to protect people, save lives and reduce suffering, based on the universal principle of humanity,” said ICRC Vice President Gilles Carbonnier. “These rules are not an abstract norm. They are a practical tool in the interests of all to protect lives and, ultimately, in the interests of international and regional peace, security and stability.” When 100 activist groups demanded the ATT including a legal provision to prevent GBV, and when 100 states supported that call in the lead up to its adoption in 2013, they did not do so in an exercise of futility. They truly believed, and still do, that this treaty can have a meaningful impact. But only if it is implemented.

Right now, the main problem across all of the provisions of the ATT—not just article 7(4) on GBV but those related to all of the prohibitions and risk assessment requirements—is that the treaty is not being effectively implemented. Arms transfers to countries where there are known violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), including a prevalence of GBV, have continued since the treaty entered into force—such as to Cameroon, India, Saudi Arabia, and many others. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, many of the ATT’s states parties and signatories are engaged actively in war profiteering, directly facilitating through the provision of weapons both the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen and oppression of women’s and other human rights in Saudi Arabia. “Humanitarian imperatives must never be trumped by economic, security and diplomatic interests,” warned the ICRC. Yet we see this every day in the context of the ATT.

In just a week, arms companies from around the world will be setting up shop in London for Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. Government officials will meet with arms dealers to make the sales that fuel conflict, violence, and repression around the world. The weapons on display there today will be used in conflicts tomorrow. This should sit in stark contrast to what goes on at the CSP, as a place for states to seriously discuss how to prevent human suffering from the proliferation and use of weapons. Listening to participants on Monday discuss the importance of preventing GBV and ensuring human rights and IHL, one could see how the ATT could be positioned to do just that. Yet it’s hard not to be concerned about the meaningfulness of the words said in Geneva versus the actions that will be taken soon in London, or in the cities and towns that have been turned into battlefields.

Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, warned delegates that the global value of the international arms trade has been increasing, not diminishing, since the ATT was adopted. Costa Rica pointed out that the ATT was never envisioned to legitimise the arms trade, but rather to facilitate disarmament and the reduction of military spending. Based on an assessment of current realities, it has certainly not met these objectives. Ambassador Jānis Kārkliņš of Latvia, president of CSP5, noted in his opening remarks that the success of the ATT will not be measured by its institutional arrangements or it’s bank balance, but in how far it has realised its objectives and purpose. In this context, we have much work to do.

Other UN bodies and mechanism are stepping up to provide assessments and recommendations for better implementation of the ATT and other arms trade-related obligations. In July, the Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution on the impact of arms transfers on human rights. The resolution acknowledges the role arms transfers can play in facilitating GBV and invites states to consider the recommendations produced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2017. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women called on states to address the gendered impacts of international arms transfers through ATT ratification and implementation. There needs to be better integration between the ATT and the UN’s human rights and disarmament mechanisms and processes, because right now, they are leading the way.

In a week, activists and artists will once again work to shut down the DSEI arms fair and will likely be arrested for trying to prevent future atrocities. Here in Geneva, delegates to this meeting of the only legally binding treaty regulating the international arms trade have an obligation to do whatever they can to show that they intend to put people over profits. As Ms. Matundu Mbambi said to close her remarks, “Less Arms, Less Sexual Violence, Less Gender-Based Violence.”

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