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Category: Great Women

The World Agrees: No Right to Bear Unregulated Arms

| September 25, 2014

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Joan Wicken was the only woman among this group of nuclear disarmament negotiators in the 1980s

She stands behind him like a protective angel, not looking at the camera, a little lost in the group of nuclear disarmament negotiators, unnamed in all publications until today. Her name is Joan Wicken, a peace activist who gave up a run for the UK parliament to stay on as President Julius Nyerere’s personal assistant and help him build Tanzania—a new nation. She stayed 30 years.

Rummaging through Parliamentarians for Global Action’s photo collections for a commemorative publication shortly after my appointment as the first woman secretary-general in 1996, I was struck by the paucity of women leaders in over a decade of disarmament treaty work—Senator Silvia Hernandez (Mexico); Ambassador Maj Britt Theorin, MP, the first woman disarmament ambassador; and the lady with no name.

On September 25, 2014, the fiftieth ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will have been formally deposited at the United Nations. This will automatically make the ATT, a legally binding treaty to regulate the trade and transfers of conventional weapons and ammunition, international law 90 days later. The global disarmament movement has finally ushered in the first treaty with specific provisions against gender-based violence (GBV), which has on all sides been negotiated with women as equal partners.

“The legal trade in arms transfers is about $70 billion annually,” according to arms control expert Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center. Adding arms transfers to militias, terrorists, and criminals that are fueling armed violence across the world, the total value of arms deals is estimated at over $85 billion annually. According to the Control Arms campaign, a global alliance of civil society groups dedicated to a global arms trade treaty, more than 747,000 people are killed every year in armed violence, two thirds in countries that are at peace. The treaty will make the illegal trade harder and reduce its volume.

As the world gears up to create a new coalition to defeat the ISIS terrorist group in Syria, and international investigators examine the use of missiles by militias in Ukraine to shoot down the Malaysian airliner, both cases involving arms that are under-the-table transfers, it is clear that this treaty is a crucial pillar of global security.

How We Got Here

The momentum for the ATT has been galvanized by human rights groups outraged by violent, often genocidal crimes committed by armed groups. The treaty text has built on the work of regional bodies on the Small Arms and Light Weapons Conventions and also incorporated text from UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions against gender-based violence advocated by women’s groups.

The idea originated in the post-Cold War environment promoting peace and disarmament. President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, a Nobel laureate, proposed a set of standards to regulate international arms trades in the1990s. Other Nobel laureates, including land mine activist Jody Williams, suggested a treaty to reduce the international flow of weapons in the late 1990s.

By 2003, NGOs such as Amnesty International and Oxfam took up the cause, and Control Arms was launched. “Costa Rica, Mali, and Cambodia joined CA to support the idea,” recalls Anna Macdonald, director of CA. “We were able to persuade the United Kingdom to officially back the idea of an arms trade treaty by 2005-6.” This was important as the UK is a major arms exporter and a permanent member of the UN Security Council (the others being China, France, Russia, and the United States).

Provisions Against Gender-based Violence: The Result of Women Negotiators

UN Under-Secretary General Angela Kane lauds the ATT as “the first treaty with specific gender-based violence provisions.” She attributes this achievement, in part, to the fact that several UN resolutions in 2012 and 2013 “reiterated women’s participation in decision-making, including all disarmament levels.”

Some delegations felt that the treaty covers armed violence against men, women, and children; that there was no need for additional gender protection language. “I remember in 2010 being laughed out from a [UK] Foreign Office meeting [when I brought up GBV],” recalls Macdonald. “They thought it was a ludicrous idea.”

But this time women were at the table as negotiators. About 14 percent of heads of delegations were women; in nongovernmental organizations, of 330 delegates registered, 153 were women. NGOs pushed hard for GBV language, as did Iceland’s woman ambassador, who would not budge. Article 7, paragraph 4, with strong language for gender protection, finally had support of 119 countries.

Women as Architects of a Complicated Countdown

Women were no longer the placard-waving protestors outside, but key players on drafting staff of the treaty conference, senior staff in the UN secretariat, leading disarmament NGOs, heading parliamentary ratification—and they were determined.Arms Control Leader Anna Macdonald

Carrying the future generation while working to preserve the future, Rachel Stohl was a drafting consultant, constantly at the side of the two presidents of the Diplomatic Conference from 2009 to 2013, at one point working 14- to 15-hour days well into her ninth month of pregnancy.

The NGO campaign was planned on a war footing, except the general wore stilettos. “At the start we ensured we had one government in every global region—Mali, Costa Rica, Cambodia, UK,” said Macdonald, who commanded this campaign while at Oxfam. “From there, we built up numbers: by 2005 we were up to 50 governments.”

After the UN General Assembly approved a Diplomatic Conference to be held in 2012 to negotiate the ATT, NGOs and parliamentarians decided to combine forces in one coalition. Heading the negotiations were three women: myself, representing Parliamentarians for Global Action; a representative of Swefor, a Swedish relief group that held the Nordic funding for the campaign; and Macdonald heading the NGO campaign, then at Oxfam, UK. At stake were the usual issues of turf, role, financing, physical space. As women, we finalized negotiations with practicality, compromise, and speed, sparing the blustery speeches on the issues.

In November 2012, member states at the UNGA voted to organize a final UN Conference on the ATT, with 157 votes in favor, 18 abstentions, and 0 votes against. NGOs saw it as a dry run for a majority GA vote and pushed for a treaty vote in the GA. “We wanted a robust treaty, not diluted for consensus,” says Macdonald.

On April 2, 2013, the Arms Trade Treaty was finally adopted by a vote of 154 in favor, 3 against, and 23 abstentions. It opened for signatures on June 3, 2013.

The first African country to ratify was Nigeria, that continent's most populous and largest economy, a major troop contributor for UN peacekeeping, a country dealing with armed violence. Mimidoo Achakpa is a founding member of Nigerian Small Arms Network. From North Central Benue State, she said, “I saw local violence growing up, so was eager to join when Rebecca Peters, director of International Action Network on Small Arms, recruited me to be part of the 2006 Million Faces Petition to the UNSG.” Nigeria, host of the Economic Community of West African States parliament with strong support for the Small Arms Light Weapons Convention, is also represented at the UN by a woman ambassador.

What Lies Ahead

As the ATT becomes international law, campaigners are already gearing up for enforcement and vigilance mechanisms. Mexico, a country ridden with what under its laws are illegal weapons from across the U.S. border, has offered to host the first conference of state parties and a temporary secretariat. “The rules of procedure, reporting, and verification will be set then,” says Kane. “Very few states have mechanisms against gender-based violence,” so these mechanisms will have to be put in place in most countries.

But today is a day to pause for celebration. The world has agreed that there is no right to bear unregulated arms; the adoption and entry into force of the ATT is a fitting tribute to Wicken and her many sisters who through three decades have pushed for a more peaceful, less armed world.

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