Gender-Based Violence Plays Role in Arms Treaty Conference

"A guy with a machete in a village can rape one woman. Two guys with a machine gun can rape the whole village." --Annie Matundu Mbambi, Democratic Republic of Congo

For the past three weeks, the United Nations has been the epicenter for all countries of the world to meet for the first-ever Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This week, negotiations to limit the presently unregulated international arms trade are entering their final phase.

According to the United Nations News Centre, "Currently, 80 percent of the global trade in conventional weapons is dominated by a handful of countries, but with globalization, new producers are entering the market." 

What does this mean? Arms proliferation is a changing and world-threatening issue with increasing magnitude, new players, and a greater thrust because of globalization. Yet, unregulated arms control has also changed modern warfare. In April, Elle Magazine quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying, "In World War I, 90 percent of the casualties were soldiers, but in Africa's recent conflicts, 90 percent of casualties are civilians. So peacemaking and peacekeeping must change too."

Whether child soldiers or sustained gender-based violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, women and children are specific targets of war. In fact, a former UN Peacekeeping Commander Major General Patrick Cammaret once said, "It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict." 

As such, the report Putting Women's Rights Into the Arms Treaty, cites one of the greatest reasons for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is "that war is affecting civilians, particularly women and children, at much higher percentages." 

Enter discussions of gender-based violence and sexual violence. Kate Hughes, a British representative of Oxfam, has spent the past few weeks in New York City raising even greater awareness as to why gender-based violence (GBV) must be included within the treaty terms. In the early days of the conference, Kate helped orchestrate a media stunt picked up by CNN to highlight the current "body bag" approach to arms control, which she says, is that "we wait till body bags pile up before there is an arms embargo."

Think back to the quote beginning this article from a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) comparing the damage done with a machete versus an AK47. In the DRC, rape statistics are beyond horrifying, with estimates of nearly two million women raped and a new rape every minute. 

Hughes says, "The opening quote really sums up why the ATT has so much relevance to the issue of gender-based violence. GBV is instantly exacerbated when you add a gun to the equation. Countries with the highest instan[ces] of gender based violence, are by and large conflict countries; countries that are awash with weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty presents an opportunity, but it is an opportunity that could be missed. Some states are resistant to the explicit reference of gender based armed violence; there are also states that are resistant to the treaty covering weapons like the AK47 for example. (It is the AK47 that is one the most prevalent weapons in DRC.)"

Yet, how vast are the effects of gender-based violence in conflict zones? The Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege has been working hard to document the new cases of GBV and sexual violence happening in Syria. If you look at their live crowd map, one gets the sense of sexual violence permeating war zones.

Hughes shares other conflict zones where that the case. "Gender-based violence has been reported to have been committed by armed groups including state security forces recently in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Mali. It's been committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with reports of women - from young girls to elderly women - being tortured and violently raped as a tactic of armed groups to assert power and domination. Communities also increasingly report sexual violence against men and boys. During Colombia's 50-year armed conflict, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war, routinely practiced by all of the armed groups: state military forces, paramilitaries and guerrillas. Last week, Norway pointed to the prevalence of systematic rape in the recent war in the Balkans."  

Just like every facet of war, profit often dictates rather than diplomatic intervention. A recent article cites how tense conversations have become in the ATT conference's final days. 

The talks, which carried on throughout the weekend in New York, are now being dominated by sceptical governments including Iran, Syria and Cuba, intent on having a weak treaty - or no treaty at all. China and Russia are opposed to effective human rights and humanitarian rules in any deal whilst the US wants exclusions that could undermine the effectiveness of any treaty. 
London and Paris, which until now have been key champions of a strong treaty, are now coming under intense pressure from Washington. There are concerns that they may trade-off strong international humanitarian and human rights protections to get China, Russia and the US to sign up to any final deal.  
What are the desired outcomes of getting gender-based violence into the Arms Trade Treaty? The report Putting Women's Rights Into the Arms Treaty shares, "To have real impact, a prospective Arms Trade Treaty must include legally binding criteria that prevent arms transfers to abusers of human rights or into situation where there is a substantial risk that they will undermine development or exacerbate armed violence. The Arms Trade Treaty also needs to refer to gender-based armed violence in both the treaty text and criteria." 

Kate Hughes agrees, then adds:
The treaty must recognize that there is a gendered impact to armed violence and makes it a specific goal / objective of the treaty to address this. We are pushing to have a specific criteria that says that states "shall not" transfer weapons where there is a substantial risk of that these weapons will be used to commit GBV. It is not the case that the arms trade treaty will suddenly eliminate GBV, but it is a really important opportunity make sure that the international community upholds its commitments to women, peace, and security issues. 
This world map shows which countries are in support of including GBV in the treaty. The United Nations Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty ends July 27. 

Photo credit: Control Arms