Conflict, crime, and political repression often place weapons and – by extension – the arms trade at the centre of sexual- and gender-based violence around the globe.
In early June, a violent crackdown on protests in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, allegedly involved dozens of rapes by armed security forces. Videos on social media showed militia intimidating women and supposedly displaying the clothes of rape victims. In recent years, Sudan has circumvented EU and US sanctions with arms purchases from China, Russia, and Belarus.
A July report by the UN’s human rights office published detailed abuses committed by government-allied agents or paramilitaries in Venezuela, which has assembled one of the biggest arms stockpiles in the Americas – including billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from Russia. Among those abuses: rape during the arrest and confinement of female political opponents; sex exchanged for protection at a detention centre; and the sex trafficking of indigenous women and children into mining.
From Honduras and El Salvador, where the rates of femicide are among the highest in the world, many women flee to the United States – often the source of the handguns used to threaten them at home. Arms smuggling is facilitated by US federal and state regulations that make it difficult to track weapons.
Around the world, weapons are worsening human rights abuses, including domestic violence, sexual assualt, and rape. But precise statistics on violence linked to traded arms are difficult to pinpoint as countries often don’t publish the instruments used in violence. What is clear is that GBV increases when there is a greater availability of weapons.
“Gender-based violence is one of the humanitarian consequences when weapons are poorly regulated, widely available, and misused,” explained Netta Goussac, a legal advisor in the arms unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s legal division.
In April 2013, the first global legally binding instrument was signed regulating international transfers of most conventional weapons, as well as some ammunition and components.
Now signed by 104 countries, the Arms Trade Treaty also requires arms exporters to assess sales that would likely lead to violations of human rights or humanitarian law, and could be used in “serious acts of gender-based violence”.
Last week, delegates from the countries who ratified the treaty met in Geneva to discuss improving its implementation, as well as to welcome new members, including Canada and Botswana.
Strengthening the wording
Any party to the Arms Trade Treaty should take events like those above into account before issuing export licences, but activists and officials say many illegal transactions are still happening with impunity, more than six years after the treaty was signed.
In Geneva, officials and activists sought to strengthen Article 7.4, which requires states to consider “the risk of the conventional arms… being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children”.
Jānis Kārkliņš, Latvia’s ambassador to the UN and also the conference president who presented the proposal, said he hoped it would “put gender issues as an equal part, in terms of risk assessment, as a reason to serve as a denial of an export license”.
Annie Matundo-Mbambi, president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), welcomed the move, referring to sexual- and gender-based violence as “a universal phenomenon”.
The Kārkliņš proposal aimed to ensure that gender issues and GBV stay on the agenda at future treaty discussions, and also stated that delegations to future meetings should themselves strive for gender balance.
Reacting to the final statement adopted in Geneva on Friday, the WILPF said it had laid a "foundation" regarding the treaty and gender and GBV issues. However, the NGO also noted that the "use of qualifiers like ‘encourage’ and ‘should’ and ‘voluntary’ does leave open some space for those with reservations on this subject to prevent progress".
In terms of practical success, the WILPF recently highlighted the case of a 2006 German weapons sale to police in Mexico – both countries are now parties to the treaty. Some weapons shipped to the Mexican police were used in a massacre in a part of the country that, according to the export licence, ought to have been excluded from the sale. Executives of the German arms manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, were this year given suspended jail sentences, and the company was fined €3.7 million.
Many key conventional arms exporters, such as Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are still outside of the treaty, and President Donald Trump of the United States, the world’s top arms exporter, announced in April that the US would “never” ratify it.
Vaira Vīke-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia and the country’s first female head of state, told The New Humanitarian in Geneva that the absence of these countries from the treaty makes it “very difficult” to enforce.
Without wider participation, “there will be gaps [in] the knowledge and interchange of information as to where arms come from and where they are going and why,” she said.
Vīke-Freiberga pointed also to the problem posed by organised crime, where gangs and criminals – often involved in trafficking women – continue to have easy access to weapons.
“The life cycle of arms shipments needs to be followed much more clearly across the world, because the harm done by them to women and children and to the very structure of civilised society is simply unbelievable,” she said. “It is the sort of harm that will take generations from which to recover.”
Allison Pytlak, from the WILPF’s disarmament programme, complained that treaty meetings often focus on efforts by smaller or developing states to become compliant, instead of discussing arms deals by major exporters that are “questionable at best, illegal at worst.
“This sends a message of double standards, in which the bad behaviour of larger – and generally Western – states, parties, and signatories goes unchecked and unscrutinised, as they divert attention instead to ‘helping’ their smaller counterparts overcome their ‘shortcomings’.”
Licensed to kill?
Verity Coyle, policy and research coordinator at the NGO Control Arms, said that export licensing officials, who may be aware of the risks regarding such trades and GBV, are often under political pressure “to give a ‘yes’ where they potentially should give a ‘no’”.
Coyle has worked on training courses for government export agencies in which GBV is explained and support offered on which experts to consult when considering licences.
“Officials are often in a very difficult situation when it comes to relationships their governments have with states requesting the imports,” she said.
Simon Plüss, in charge of export control for Switzerland, a party to the arms trade treaty, explained his country’s approach: “Our starting point is never just gender-based violence. It is an approach from a higher level to assess if we have violation of human rights, and then we go into the detail.”
Matundo-Mbambi stressed that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has not signed the treaty, porous borders with nine countries have enabled the proliferation of small arms, while tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of rapes and sexual assaults, “systematically perpetrated at gunpoint”.
One of those women, Nounou Booto Meeti, told the Geneva conference what she had endured in Kinshasa in 1997, when a member of a rebel group approached her as she waited for a taxi: “(He) asked me, ‘You know since we took over power, women do not wear trousers anymore’. He charged his weapon and pressed it to my belly. I could feel the cold metal against my abdomen.”
Meeti, now director of the Centre of Peace & Development, Security and Armed Violence Prevention, an international NGO, said the man ordered her to remove her trousers. “As these rebels were not trained soldiers, we were not sure how they would react to my objection. I did not think twice. I took them off and handed them to him.
“He walked away from me and shot one bullet towards the sky. The bullet was already in the chamber, a trigger-pull away. And it was meant for me.”