by Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
The provisions for preventing gender-based violence (GBV) in the President’s second draft arms trade treaty (ATT) text continue to undermine existing international law and obligations.
While the reference to GBV in the preamble is welcome, the language unfortunately opens up potentially incorrect interpretations of international law. The use of the word “may” could be misinterpreted as meaning some acts of GBV are not violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) even when those legal regimes are applicable.
It is also regrettable that the preamble continues to highlight women as particularly vulnerable. An attempt does seem to have been made to highlight that civilians, rather than women per se, are the majority adversely affected by armed conflict and armed violence. However, the “women and children as vulnerable” trope remains. This is despite years of effort on the part of academics and activists to offer statistical evidence that is in fact men, especially young men, who are the vast majority of victims of armed violence, including during conflict. These facts are an expression of the gendered dimensions of armed violence. So is the armed violence that women and others are exposed to, perpetrated by men with impunity, due to gendered roles, norms, and structures.
Women are not vulnerable. We are targeted. So are others that do not conform to “traditional” gender roles. Being targeted does not make one inherently vulnerable, it makes one subject to unique effects of a common threat—in this case, armed violence or armed conflict.
WILPF and others are advocating for a gender-sensitive ATT not because women are vulnerable. We do it because states have repeatedly and continually failed to assess the substantial risk of violations of IHL and IHRL related specifically to gender-based violence, such as conflict-related sexual violence against women. This is what the ATT must prevent.
The reference to GBV in the export assessment criteria is of course even worse. An historically large number of states support the strengthening of the GBV prevention criterion, in particular lifting it out of the “second tier” of export assessment criteria that would subject it only to voluntary, undefined, risk reduction measures.
As noted above, GBV is a violation of IHRL and of IHL where it applies. An explicit and binding reference to GBV prevention is necessary given GBV’s prevalence and impact and in order to capture perpetration of GBV by non-state actors (excluding those covered under customary international law, e.g., Common Article 3). States must ensure that export assessment specifically includes the prevention of GBV. Gender-sensitive assessments are a necessary measure for states to take in their efforts to prevent human suffering.
The question this week is unfortunately once again: are the rights of women and other victims of GBV important enough, or will we receive the weakest of protections? In this case the stakes are high and the question could be life-saving: is the prevention of armed GBV important enough to screen for in export assessments?
Over 90 states have said “yes” so far. Hundreds of civil society groups have also said “yes”. WILPF and many others thus believe that the current draft text is unacceptable in terms of GBV prevention and that both the preamble and export assessment must be revised to correct this.
The preamble should recognize that acts of gender-based violence constitute violations of IHL and human rights law when those legal regimes are applicable. It should also recognize the gendered dimensions and impacts of the arms trade, particularly the frequency with which arms are used to facilitate gender-based violence. It should not use the patronizing term “women and children” but instead promote the equal, full, and effective participation of both women and men in the prevention and reduction of armed violence and armed conflict.
The GBV criterion should be subject to mandatory risk assessments as well as to transfer prohibitions. An effective ATT must require states to assess whether there is a substantial risk that the conventional arms to be transferred could be used to commit or facilitate acts of gender-based violence. This should be done as part of assessing the risk of diversion, including to non-state actors, and without prejudice to the assessment in 7(4).
The reference to violence against children must be kept separate in both situations.
WILPF members Maria Butler (Director, WILPF PeaceWomen programme), Sofia Tuvestad (Political Officer, WILPF Sweden), and Vanessa Farr contributed to this article.