ATT Monitor, Vol. 12, No. 1

Editorial: From making it binding, to making it work
4 February 2019

Allison Pytlak

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The achievement of a provision on gender-based violence (GBV) in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was a turning point in bringing gender perspectives into security issues. It is the first ever legally-binding instrument to recognise the link between GBV and the international arms trade. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is proud of the role that we and our partners played through the “Make it Binding” campaign that advocated for a standalone GBV provision.

Yet, six years after the ATT’s adoption, what can we say about its impact in preventing GBV? This aspect of the Treaty has been largely marginalised vis-à-vis other perceived priorities. As well, because gender-based violence is severely underreported and under-documented, it is often overlooked in arms transfer risk assessments or officials making the risk assessment have found themselves unsure of what indicators to look at or credible sources to consider.

Research conducted by WILPF in 2016 found that while 63 countries stated that they were already conducting risk assessments on GBV, most of these were in the context of international humanitarian law or human rights, and not on its own merit.[1] Interviews revealed that with few exceptions, there was little to no consultation with gender experts in the course of making a licensing decision.

Just as including a specific criterion on gender-based violence in the ATT was important for reasons of recognition and prevention, so too is the focus on gender and arms-related GBV at the upcoming Fifth Conference of States Parties (CSP5). This is creating a space for states parties, observers, and civil society to discuss and dismantle the specific obstacles that prevent robust application of this part of the Treaty, including by mainstreaming the topic across the various ATT working groups.

Meetings over the last week have helped to illustrate what some of the obstacles are.

There are, for example, different views and some uncertainty about the relationship between gender-based violence and the international arms trade. Some delegations have asked how direct of a connection a weapon needs to have to an act of GBV in order for it to be prevented by the Arms Trade Treaty. Others have questioned if all forms of GBV are relevant to arms transfer decision-making, or just those that are more visible, such as sexual violence.

It needs to be underscored that all conventional weapons can—and have been—used to inflict violence on people based on discriminating norms and practices relating to their specific sex or gender role in society. Moreover, GBV can occur both in times of conflict and outside of conflict—the absence of generalised violence does not mean that there is no risk of GBV.

This is why export officials must conduct a risk assessment on GBV for every single arms export licence application. They must assess the risk of sexual violence, domestic violence, impact on girls’ education, impact on women’s reproductive health, impacts on LGBT rights, or the use of sex as a signifier in targeting attacks or conducting post-strike analyses.

They must also look to how weapons are used to exacerbate or prop-up discriminatory gender-based social norms and power inequalities in social, economic, and political spheres of life. For example, it has been shown that the proliferation of arms in any given context has a negative impact on women’s equality within the household, their mobility, and their political participation. Widespread possession and use of weapons tends to prevent women from fully participating in public and political life, and to hinder their economic empowerment—which also qualifies as GBV.

The ATT is clear in its wording that states parties must consider the risk of the arms in question being used to “commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.” These two words (commit and facilitate) must be given equal weighting, and it would be valuable to focus discussion in upcoming working group or preparatory meetings on reaching common understanding about what they mean in practice.

In addition, how explosive weapons facilitate GBV is often overlooked in the context of arms transfer discussions. The use of these weapons also has gendered dimensions just as the use of small arms does—such as exacerbating gender inequalities and oppressions and increasing the risk of sexual and gender-based violence during forced displacement.

States have also expressed that finding credible sources with which to evaluate the risk of GBV is challenging, and that when pressed with time there they may not conduct an extended search. Here it will be necessary for licensing officials to look beyond the usual and obvious information sources used for other kinds of risk assessment, and consider reports generated by the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) community, or under the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as just two examples. Building up an awareness of these resources and how to search them rapidly could go a long way in reducing the time pressure, as would information sharing between and within governments. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has published multiple resources that suggest information sources and outline key questions to ask.

Finding ways to incorporate the experience and perspectives of those who have experienced different forms of arms-related gender-based violence in the next round of meetings and on panels will be important as well. 

The focus on gender and GBV is an opportunity.  We encourage states parties to approach it with ambition and a view to action-oriented outcomes that will have a real impact on practice.

[1] See Rebecca Gerome, Preventing gender-based violence through arms control: Tools and guidelines to implement the Arms Trade Treaty and UN Programme of Action, 2016, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, pp. 14-24.

*Elements of this editorial and WILPF’s statement to the Preparatory Meeting are based on the above and other resources.  

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