by Hannah Papachristidis,
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global arms control instrument to acknowledge, and create obligations around, the connection between international arms transfers and gender-based violence (GBV). The treaty’s adoption in 2013 followed over a decade of campaign work led by Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which galvanised international popular support for the instrument as well as political engagement. Within this international campaign was a focus on the inclusion of references to the link between GBV and the arms trade by a group of civil society organisations, including Reaching Critical Will (the disarmament programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), IANSA and Amnesty International.
The ATT is the first arms control agreement that centres around humanitarian concerns and is notable for introducing the notion of responsibility on the part of exporting states. It obliges states to assess whether there is an overriding risk that the export of arms to another country will be used for, or to commit, violations of international humanitarian law or of the Geneva Convention. With regards to GBV, the treaty obliges state parties to assess whether items exported would contribute to or facilitate acts of GBV. It is the only human rights infringement which is addressed through a standalone article.
Acts of GBV take place in both conflict and non-conflict contexts, in both domestic and public spaces. Conventional weapons can, and are regularly, used to inflict discriminatory violence based on a person’s gender. Moreover, the trade, possession and use of arms have specific gender and power dimensions. The link between the arms trade and gender-based violence, therefore, is one which interrogates power relations and social norms. Article 7 of the treaty addresses the obligations of party states with regards to permitted exports and within this article, part (4) states:
The exporting State Party, in making this assessment, 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.
States are therefore mandated to undertake a gender-sensitive risk assessment of all potential exports. In order to produce an effective risk assessment, states need a comprehensive understanding of gender relations in the importing country and the implications for the risk of GBV, as well as data on the occurrences of GBV by the end-user.
It is widely recognised that data on violence against women and gender-based violence is significantly underreported and likely to be unreliable. Levels of reporting are impacted by stigmas surrounding this type of violence and power imbalances in society that create barriers to reporting. According to UN Women, less than forty per cent of women who experience violence seek help of any sort and, of those seeking help, less than ten per cent appealed to the police. Where data relating to gender-based violence is collected, it is further complicated by the issue that there is no universally accepted definition of GBV, meaning that countries collect different data on aspects of the violence. The lack of standardisation in data collection, therefore, means comparisons and global trends are hard to infer. Finally, data relating to how different categories and types of arms and arms users facilitate GBV are even more rare.
The challenges surrounding assessing the risk of GBV for arms exports are widely recognised by the international community. A paper presented by Ireland to the 2017 Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (CSP), lambasted Article 7(4) for being ‘overly broad, unenforceable and unverifiable’. In 2019, the theme of the CSP5 was gender and arms-related gender-based violence. The CSP5 President’s working paper outlined issues around implementing GBV risk assessments including the vague language in Article 7(4) and the importance of sharing national practices with regards to undertaking this risk assessment. The ATT Monitor report reflecting on CSP5 emphasised again the “uneven understanding among States Parties of what constitutes or facilitates an act of GBV, the ways in which the ATT addresses GBV and how GBV can be incorporated into Articles 6 and 7 risk assessment obligations”. Whilst the ATT may have been groundbreaking for its references to GBV, it is clear now that this obligation should have been more specifically defined such to allow for uniform implementation.
The organisations which campaigned for the inclusion of GBV obligations in the ATT have moved to take on an active role monitoring the implementation of these obligations. In particular, many of these organisations have reflected on these challenges and have produced resources and guidelines on best practice for implementation. Reaching Critical Will, for example, has published a range of resources on the effective implementation of GBV obligations. Many of these have a strong focus on the need for more comprehensive data collection and sharing practices. Their 2016 report revealed that no country explicitly includes GBV in their end-user documentation and most countries rely on human rights reports rather than specific assessments of GBV. As such, there is often little evidence of the link between arms transfers and GBV because the data used does not interrogate the occurrence of systemic gender-based violence by the end-user. The report provides guidelines for export officials, including examples of how arms facilitate GBV and indicators of GBV that could be used for a risk assessment.
A similar ‘practical guidance’ report was published by Control Arms, which outlines a four-stage approach to incorporating GBV into export assessments. Their report also outlines an extensive library of information sources and datasets corresponding to indicators relating to the prevalence of GBV and state commitments. As with the RCW report, this report is written to provide export officials “with a framework within which to systematically consider GBV in export assessments”. These two reports provide foundational knowledge for states which do not have existing expertise on GBV risk assessments and go some way to cement understanding on the link between GBV and arms transfers.
A recent report by Greenpeace focused specifically on Germany’s arms exports and gender-based violence. The report emphasises the importance of gender-sensitive human rights assessments rather than a general human rights focus and the need for the German government to include a specific criterion relating to the risk of GBV in its risk assessment as well as to improve internal training on the relation of GBV to arms transfers. Greenpeace draws upon research by both RCW and Control Arms to present cases of ‘best practice’, which include Latvia’s questionnaire on the prevalence of GBV in the recipient country and the UK’s updated licensing criteria legislation which includes reference to the risk of GBV.
As Control Arms, Greenpeace and RCW highlight in their publications, gender-based violence is systematically under-reported. In terms of data collection, it is a hidden violence. Consequently, it is not enough to rely on a gender-neutral human rights assessment to assess the risk of GBV within the export of arms. That GBV is the only human rights concern to be addressed with a standalone article in the ATT, highlights the need for governments to specifically focus on overcoming tendencies to overlook GBV. Despite elevation within the treaty however, this need is hindered by the vague language of Article 7(4) and the lack of an agreed definition of GBV weakens systematic global monitoring.
For civil society and advocates of the treaty, the ATT has been disappointing. The UK’s continued exports of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen war, in the face of clear evidence that the Saudi-led coalition continues to target civilians and violates international humanitarian law, has been a significant failure for the ATT’s progress. With implementation of the most basic export assessments failing as in the case of the UK, it can be easy to disregard the importance of other components of the treaty. Perhaps, however, if there was a more comprehensive evidence base and a strong practice of collecting gender-disaggregated data, the clear evidence of the importance of GBV to arms transfers would be more difficult to ignore.
The international civil society has created a wealth of resources addressing the implementation of obligations around gender-based violence in arms transfers. Although the challenges are significant and will take time to surmount, it is critical that states step up, heed the guidance presented to them, invest in gender-specific expertise, and take their responsibilities seriously.
Hannah Papachristidis is a project officer at Transparency International Defence & Security, where she manages research outputs for the 2020 Government Defence Integrity Index. She holds an MA in International Affairs from Columbia University and is an Emerging Expert at Forum on the Arms Trade.