Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vulnerable victims or survivors and agents for change?

by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
After a round of negotiations over the weekend, which resulted in several new draft texts on various sections of the treaty, delegations met in closed meetings all day Monday in order to continue negotiations. In the morning the Chair of Main Committee I introduced a new draft preamble and principles section, which delegates were to continue debating throughout the day. While the text is largely positive, some troubling concepts remain. In particular, the language around women, gender, and victims is especially disconcerting, as it fails to adequately address the realities of the impact of the arms trade on these groups and instead perpetuates the myth that women are vulnerable and victims are powerless.
In paragraph 10, the term “gender-based violence” is in brackets along with the alternative option “violence against women”. This mirrors the debate in last week’s meetings on the criteria section, during which the Holy See, Egypt, Iran, and South Sudan objected to use of the term “gender-based violence,” with the Holy See arguing that gender is a “vague” and “undefined” term. However, these terms are actually very well established within the United Nations. (Information on existing definitions of gender-based violence will be published in the next edition of the ATT Monitor.) The term “gender-based violence” recognizes the broader context and some of the fundamental root causes of armed violence, which is why the Irish delegation and others indicated on Friday that they would only accept the term gender-based violence in the criteria section.

The preamble also contains a separate paragraph describing “women and children” as “particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict and armed violence.” As Rebecca Gerome (IANSA Women’s Network) and Maria Butler (PeaceWomen/WILPF) argued in ATT Monitor Vol.5, No. 11 that “references to ‘women and children,’ put together as though a homogenous group, are unhelpful as they imply that women, like children, are powerless victims, rather than adults with agency and therefore a key resource in combating gun violence.” Gerome and Butler note, “It is vital to make the distinction between women and children to ensure both that each group gains the specific attention it requires and is enabled to make the contributions of which it is capable.”

A better alternative for the preamble would be drawn from UN General Assembly resolution 65/69 on “Women, disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control,” which recognizes “the valuable contribution of women to practical disarmament measures carried out at the local, national, regional and sub-regional levels in the prevention and reduction of armed violence and armed conflict, and in promoting disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control.”

Member states must not take steps backward from existing UN resolutions and treaty bodies, given the gravity and urgency of preventing all forms of gender-based violence in the context of the international arms trade.

The second issue is the treatment of “victims” of armed violence and conflict. First, those who are killed, wounded, displaced, raped, or otherwise impacted by armed violence—as well as their families and communities—should not be referred to as victims but as survivors, in order to recognize that they have agency. Survivors are not any less entitled to assistance than “victims,” but using the term survivor can often serve to empower and heal, whereas treating people as victims can allow the source of the violence to remain in control.

In terms of providing assistance to survivors of armed violence in the ATT, the Main Committee I Chair has provided two options in the draft preamble. The first indicates that state parties are “resolved to do their utmost to provide further assistance to the victims of armed conflict” while the second “recognizes the challenges faced by victims of armed violence and armed conflict, and their rights to adequate care, rehabilitation and social and economic inclusion.” Neither of these paragraphs is strong enough. The second paragraph’s reference to the rights of victims is important, but is insufficient on its own.

In a publication called States’ obligations to provide victim assistance, Amnesty International suggests that if governments agree that victims’ rights should be addressed in the ATT context, the best language would be a reaffirmation of existing rights. The treaty should have each state party undertake “to meet its existing obligations to ensure the provision of effective remedies and reparations to victims of violations of international law,” which include the survivors’ rights to “equal and effective access to justice; adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered; and access to relevant information concerning violations and reparation mechanisms.”

The preamble is not the most important element of the ATT. But it will provide the context for its application and sets the stage for the treaty’s provisions on criteria, scope, and implementation. It is therefore important that women and survivors are accurately represented and their rights and challenges adequately addressed in the preamble. Thus the preamble should refer to gender-based violence in paragraph 10, reflect the agency rather than vulnerability of women in paragraph 13, and emphasize existing international obligations to survivors in paragraph 12.