This is the third blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2019 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
In March, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva collaborated with WILPF, Small Arms Survey, and the Gender Mine Action Programme on a one-day training for disarmament diplomats about including gender perspectives in their work. In April, WILPF coordinated with the Canadian mission in New York on a meeting that brought together the women, peace and security (WPS) and disarmament diplomatic communities to exchange on the same subject.
In May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched his new disarmament agenda, Securing our Common Future. It includes a section on “Ensuring the equal, full, and effective participation of women,” and there are several references throughout the document to the gendered impacts of weapons, gender-sensitive arms control, or women’s participation in disarmament, including urging states to incorporate gender perspectives in their national legislation and policies on disarmament and arms control.
In June, the Third Review Conference to the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons (UNPoA) adopted a report with groundbreaking references to armed gender-based violence, the gendered impacts of small arms, and women’s participation in disarmament. The document builds on gains made in 2012 and 2016 to alleviate the overall gender blindness of the UNPoA. The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) Women’s Network coordinated input and advocacy amongst civil society groups and diplomats for the inclusion of these elements in the outcome document, including through the civil society Call to Action on gender and small arms control.
In August, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) considered gender issues for the first time, in a side event hosted by the government of Canada, International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), Mines Action Canada, Project Ploughshares, and WILPF on the relationship between gender and fully autonomous weapons. Participants addressed gender diversity and equality in disarmament negotiations and discussions; gender norms in relation to the development and use of weapons, gendered impacts of existing weapon systems; and the importance of feminist foreign policy approaches in relation to disarmament and arms control.
In October, the Canadian mission to the UN organized a push to increase gender references in resolutions at the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Working with other governments and civil society groups, they managed to achieve language in 17 resolutions that advocates for women’s equal participation, recognizes gendered impacts of weapons, or urges consideration of gender perspectives more broadly. This accounts for 25 percent of all First Committee resolutions in 2018. Six of these resolutions included gendered language for the first time, while three improved the gendered language. For comparison, in 2017, 15 per cent of resolutions made gender references. This figure was 13 per cent in 2016 and 12 per cent in 2015. The number of First Committee delegations speaking about gender and disarmament in their statements also continued to increase this year. Namibia on behalf of 56 states dedicated a whole statement to this topic, urging examination of how “underlying assumptions about how gender shapes [delegations’] own work and the dynamics of joint disarmament efforts.”
Also in October, the Latvian ambassador, who will preside over the Fifth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, announced that the conference and its preparatory meetings will focus on the gender-based violence provision of the Treaty as a special theme. This will provide an opportunity in 2019 to advance consideration of how to implement this aspect of the ATT, including using guidance and case studies published by groups like WILPF previously.
In addition to these forum-based efforts, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research joined the governments of Ireland, Namibia, and Canada to form the Disarmament Impact Group as an output of the International Gender Champions. The Group aims to “support the disarmament community in translating gender awareness into practical action across the range of multilateral disarmament processes and activities.” Meanwhile, academic sources like Critical Studies on Security and the Oxford Handbook on Women, Peace and Security, news sources like The Nation, and public speaking forums from TEDx to the London School of Economics featured articles and talks about feminism, gender, and weapons. This has signaled an opening of academic and activist spaces for increased consideration of these issues.
So, why has all this happened so quickly? In reality, it hasn’t. It is built on a firm foundation of activism and analysis. Feminist disarmament activists and academics, particularly those with groups like WILPF and the IANSA Women’s Network, have been writing and campaigning on gender and disarmament for decades. UN agencies and some governments have been working to mainstream gender in their programming for a long time, certainly since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000. This has led to concrete outcomes at international disarmament diplomacy forums in recent years: the first UN General Assembly resolution on women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control in 2010; the inclusion of gender-based violence in the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013; the recognition of the gendered impacts of nuclear weapons and encouragement of women’s effective participation in disarmament in the Non-Proliferation Treaty Chair’s summary and the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017.
External factors are also at play. The #MeToo movement has arguably awoken new acceptability and credibility of previously hidden or shamed perspectives and experiences. Women, trans, queer, non-binary, and non-conforming folks, as well as men who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence have collectively created new spaces to amplify these realities and demand change.
At the same time, several governments have begun pursuing what they term “Feminist Foreign Policy”. While it is debatable whether or not the foreign policies outlined by these governments can yet be truly described as feminist, it is a welcome development for government offices to be considering feminism not just a valid but an imperative approach to their international engagement.
In disarmament forums, momentum certainly seems to be on our side. There is a growing acceptance among a diverse range of governments, international organizations, and civil society groups about the reality that weapons have gendered impacts, and that women’s participation in disarmament is important. This is good progress, and imperative to making change in this field. But it’s not enough.
The work ahead
For one thing, the demand for women’s equal, effective, or meaningful participation—while necessary and welcome—is insufficient for truly making change in weapons policy. Our current situation is dire. Trillions of dollars are being spent on militaries and technologies of violence while poverty, inequality, and climate change threaten our collective security and safety. Disarmament, as a policy and practice that leads us away from militarism and towards peace, requires new understandings, perspectives, and approaches to weapons and war. It requires the effective and meaningful participation of survivors of gun violence, of nuclear weapons use and testing, of drone strikes, of bombardment of towns and cities. It requires the effective and meaningful participation of marginalized communities—LGBT+ folks, people of color, those at a socioeconomic disadvantage, people with disabilities.
Diversity is not about political correctness. It is the only way we are ever going to see change in the way that we confront issues of peace and security. Where we have achieved the most disarmament progress in recent years—banning landmines and cluster bombs and nuclear weapons, for example—we have engaged with diverse communities and put humanitarian perspectives over the profits of arms industries or the interests of powerful governments. This is not just about including women, especially women who come from the same or similar backgrounds as the men who already rule the table. It’s about completely resetting the table; or even throwing out the table and setting up an entirely new way of working.
Disarmament requires that we change the way we think about and confront war and violence as social and economic institutions, and we can’t do that just by giving some privileges to those who do not challenge the thinking or the behavior of those who have the most privilege. Diversity is not for its own sake, but for how it impacts what is considered normal, acceptable, and credible. Confronting norms, especially gendered norms, around weapons and war is imperative to making progress on disarmament.
As a feminist disarmament activist, I have come to believe that more than anything else, the association of weapons with power is one of the foremost obstacles to disarmament. This association comes from a particular—and unfortunately, very dominant—understanding of masculinity. This is a masculinity in which ideas like strength, courage, and protection are equated with violence. It is a masculinity in which the capacity and willingness to use weapons, engage in combat, and kill other human beings is seen as essential to being “a real man”.
This type of violent, militarized masculinity harms everyone. It harms everyone who does not comply with that gender norm—women, queer-identified people, non-normative men. It requires oppression of those deemed “weaker” on the basis of gender norms. It results in domestic violence. It results in violence against women. It results in violence against gay and trans people. It also results in violence against men. Men mostly kill each other, inside and outside of conflict. A big part of this is about preserving or protecting their masculinity—a masculinity that makes male bodies more expendable. Women and children, obnoxiously lumped together in countless resolutions and reports, are more likely be deemed “innocent civilians,” while men are more likely be to be considered militants or combatants. In conflict, civilian men are often targeted—or counted in casualty recordings—as militants only because they are men of a certain age.
We are all suffering from the equation of violence and power with masculinity. It prevents those who identified as men from being something else—from performing gender differently. It prevents all of us as human beings to promote or explore strength, courage, and protection from a nonviolent perspective. It makes disarmament seem weak. It makes peace seem utopian. It makes protection without weapons seem absurd.
It also makes it impossible to achieve gender justice. It keeps men and women in binary boxes based on their biological sex. It maintains a strict hierarchy between these boxes, in which men are tough, rational, and violent, while women are weak, irrational, and passive. In this narrative, men are agents; women are victims. (And reinforces the idea that there is nothing outside of this binary.)
The norm of violent masculinity will continue to cause suffering and reinforce inequalities until we get serious about doing something differently. This is a project of dismantling the patriarchy, which is a big project, but it starts with the language we use, the people we include in discussions, and the norms we are willing to challenge.
For 2019, let’s stop using the term “women and children”. They are not the same legally or politically. They have different needs and abilities. Let’s talk about the different impacts of weapons based on gender and age, instead of womenandchildren on one side and men on the other. Let’s talk about gender diversity in disarmament, instead of just the equal participation of women and men. Let’s get away from binary language to something more inclusive. Let’s also include survivors and those impacted by weapons, war, and violence. Let’s think about what we consider credible or powerful, and why we think that way.
As more and more governments and organizations become interested in taking up gender, and as feminists around the world from all walks of life smash down barriers outside the disarmament field, let’s not waste the opportunities ahead of us. An intersectional feminist approach to disarmament is imperative, and we have all the tools we need to achieve it.
Ray Acheson is the Director of Reaching Critical Will, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)