UN Arms Treaty Waters Down Role of Weapons in Sexual- and Gender-Based Violence

The connection between small arms/light weapons and aggravated violence against women and girls was powerfully acknowledged in last week’s agreed conclusions of the UN Commission of the Status of Women (CSW); this week, however, that connection is about to be weakened in the proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which begins negotiations on the text this week. The draft text of the ATT has provided a loophole for some member states to consider acts of sexual and gender-violence as not legitimate grounds for prohibiting a weapons transfer. Given Australia’s role as chair of upcoming ATT conference, there are ways the Australian government could help reverse this.

Key Conclusions

  • Article 4 in the draft text of the proposed Arms Trade Treaty has significantly watered down language around sexual- and gender-based violence as a condition for preventing arms trades.
  • Though only 75 member states have declared support for the inclusion of gender in the ATT, there is strong political and legal precedent for its inclusion.
  • As chair of the ATT, the Australian government is well-positioned to advocate in favor of SGBV’s inclusion in Article 4.


From March 18-28, 2013, member states will convene at the UN Conference of an Arms Trade Treaty in an attempt to pass what they failed to do in July 2012: establish common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms.

Analysts following the ATT process have noted a number of the problems with the draft text.  One of these concerns relates to Article 4, where states are to establish a “national risk assessment criteria’” that will reduce arms sales and transfers if they could pose a threat to international peace and security. Presently within Article 4, the only time gender-based violence appears is in Article 4 (6) which calls for exporting states to take “feasible measures” to ensure that weapons transfers and sales are not used for, among other things, gender-based violence.  These measures are not mandatory and in contrast to earlier Article 4(2) and 4(5), both of which refer to any violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law as grounds for the transfer to not occur.

As Reaching Critical Will has outlined, this is unacceptable for two reasons. First, gender-based violence —particularly acts of widespread and systematic sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)—can violate international law under the 1998 Rome Statute. As such, demarcating gender-based violence from 4(2) to be listed in 4(6) either gives way to a view held by some states that acts of sexual and gender-violence do not always violate international law or that these acts are not legitimate grounds for prohibiting a weapons transfer.

There is strong political and legal precedent for this to be reversed and for the term SGBV to be included in any national risk assessment criteria that would lead to denial of a weapons transfer on the grounds that these acts are both a violation of international law and a threat on international peace and security. For example, in 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 that stated in its preamble, “Recognizing that an understanding of the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, effective institutional arrangements to guarantee their protection and full participation in the peace process can significantly contribute to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security.”

As we discuss below, numerous Security Council resolutions have since passed linking international peace and security with the prevention of SGBV and the prevention of illicit trade in conventional arms (as presently stated in the draft ATT preamble).

In February 2013, Australia issued a statement to the Security Council outlining its support for the Presidential Statement on the Protection of Civilians.  In this statement, Ambassador Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Permanent Ambassador to the UN, referred to the need for the ATT to pass into international law. Indeed, the Australian statement described the ATT as being essential for upholding the Protection of Civilians and maintenance of international peace and security: “Some 2,000 people–mostly civilians, many women and children–are killed every day from the illicit and irresponsible trade in weapons. We can fix this.”

Given Australia’s role as chair of upcoming ATT conference, there are three areas where the Australian government could advocate in favor of SGBV inclusion in Article 4(2).

First, it is surprising that so few states (75) have declared support for the inclusion of gender in the ATT; the numbers are very small in the Asia-Pacific, with only Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. Australia’s co-members from the Group of Friends on Protection of Civilians include crucial members from regional blocs (i.e., Brazil and Japan) but are yet to commit. There is a risk that Australia and other states may walk away from the gender references to secure the treaty’s passage.  This would have damaging consequences for the ATT itself and the broader Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda.   The alternative option to walking away would be that Australia proactively appeals for support from other Groups of Friends bodies (including the Responsibility to Protect) to strengthen these references in the ATT.

Second, as noted above, the UN Security Council has repeatedly affirmed a relationship between SGBV and armed conflict, including small-arms supply. Furthermore, the Security Council approved in Resolution 1960, compiling information concerning countries and armed groups at risk of SGBV in situations of conflict and civil unrest, which led to report S/2010/498 and S/2011/598. Both reports specifically links control of small arms and weapons trade to curbing gender violence (S/2010/498, Annex 1 Goal 17; S/2011/598, Annex 1, Output 3.2.1). In S/2012/33, numerous situations such as Somalia and Sudan, were identified by the Secretary-General as being situations of extreme SGBV risk because of the uncontrolled flow of arms. These reports document situations of armed conflict and civil unrest where risk of SGBV is high.

Such reports on situations of risk, like S/2012/33—presented to both the General Assembly and the Security Council—would complement the national risk assessments and could be useful inclusions for strengthening oversight of the implementation of the ATT. Again, given that Australia has been an advocate of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, this is the opportunity to use evidence of prior UNSC consensus on relationship between SGBV and small arms to push for ATT and WPS language to advocate for support, rather than walk away from inclusion of SGBV into the mandatory criteria for national risk assessment under draft ATT Article 4.

Third, there is concern at present that within the Security Council itself there is a degree of pushback on the pursuit of the WPS agenda.  Some permanent and non-permanent UNSC members have questioned whether acts of widespread SGBV in situations of civil unrest, for example, are a matter for the Council’s deliberations. As such, the relegation of gender-based violence to the less prescriptive and mandatory Article 4(6) would set a dangerous precedent and must be challenged.

Australia should support the United Kingdom and seek alliances with regional allies–from within the Security Council and without–to ensure that the ATT does not allow states to undertake the sale or transfer of arms to parties who have or are likely to commit SGBV crimes.

Dr. Sara Davies is a Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University and would like to acknowledge the support of the Women’s Peace and Security Academic Community (WPSAC). Melina Lito is Program Director, Women Peace & Security Program, and would like to acknowledge the support of Global Action to Prevent War and Conflict (GAPW).

About the photo: The sculpture “Non-Violence” in front of the United Nations, New York.