Gender-Based Violence and the Arms Trade Treaty

December 9, 2014


By: Alice Dahle, Co-chair, Women’s Human Rights Thematic Specialist

On December 24, the first ever international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) regulating the sale of conventional arms and ammunition will go into effect. The treaty will require that before authorizing a sale of arms and ammunition across international borders, governments must assess the risk that the weapons will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, undermine peace and security, or engage in transnational organized crime.  If an exporting country knows there is an “overriding” risk that the arms will be used for these purposes, the sale is prohibited.

In another break-through, the ATT is also the first legally binding international agreement that makes the connection between the international arms trade and gender-based violence (GBV). Only recently has the gendered aspect of armed violence been recognized.  During the drafting of the treaty, Amnesty International joined with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Women’s Network of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), and Oxfam to enlist the support of both governments and civil society for inclusion of a gender dimension in the treaty.  As a result of these efforts, Article 7(4) of the ATT makes it mandatory for arms exporting countries to assess the risk that their weapons will be used in the commission of GBV and deny authorization of any sales that present an “overriding” risk.  

Gender-based violence affects everyone – men, women, boys and girls – but in different ways.  Both men and women can, and do, misuse guns to commit violence, but most GBV is perpetrated by men against women and girls. Men and boys suffer high rates of death and injury as a result of gun violence, but the statistics do not reflect the disproportionate effects of gun violence on womenGuns can be used not only to maim and kill, but also to threaten and intimidate.  Possession of firearms changes the balance of power in a relationship and emboldens both individuals and members of armed groups to use weapons to instill fear and exert control.  Guns can be used to impose rape as a weapon of war, to coerce women into sexual slavery, or to perpetrate other forms of sexual violence.  Even after the end of hostilities in armed conflict, the weapons left behind can be used to commit gun-related femicide and domestic violence.

The low status of women in all societies and discrimination against them condones and perpetuates such violence.  When governments and societies prioritize investment in weapons and military might at the expense of investment in education, health care and economic security, the human rights of women are in jeopardy.  Even during times of peace, if economic resources and policy priorities are directed into spending for arms, defense programs and the military instead of reducing social and economic inequalities, women and girls, who are already disadvantaged, face a different kind of violence through loss of their opportunities to access education, decent housing and food for their families, high quality health care, and political participation to improve their lives.

Enactment of an ATT that includes the degree to which women are at risk of violence among the criteria for denial of an international arms transfer is an important step toward protection of their human rights.  However, much more needs to be done. Terms such as “overriding” are open to interpretation.  Inadequate coverage of ammunition, parts and components, as well as more up-to-date weapons, needs to be addressed.  The treaty is legally binding only on those 53 governments that have so far ratified it.  If those countries do, indeed, honor the provisions of the treaty in their arms transfers, the risk that arms and ammunition will be used to commit serious violations of human rights or fall into irresponsible hands will be significantly reduced.  The consistent application of the treaty’s provisions will also set a new global standard for international arms trade.

As members of civil society, we must hold those countries that have already ratified the ATT to their commitments and encourage more governments to ratify as well.  Militarism and armed violence are threats to all of us.  Supporting a strong interpretation of the ATT in solidarity with women and men around the world will make this treaty an effective tool to challenge militarism and armed violence.