WILPF, in collaboration with the Human Rights Information & Training Centre (HRITC), held a side-event to the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council on “Addressing the Impact of Arms Trade on Women’s Rights”.

This side event used the conflict context of Yemen to demonstrate the impact that arms transfers have on human rights, in particular women’s human rights. A rounded gender perspective – from gender-differentiated data analyses through to increased women’s participation in peace processes – must be integrated into all discussions of the impact of arms transfers on human rights. The panellists used various instances of links between arms transfers and human rights, including evidence from the ground and formal reports and resolutions from the international community, to emphasise the need to halt arms transfers to the region.

Jane Connors, International Advocacy Director (Law and Policy) for Amnesty International, chaired the event, and opened by calling attention to the August 2016 report from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report responds to Human Rights Council Resolution 30/18 on technical assistance and capacity building for Yemen in the field of human rights. Paragraphs 61 to 63 of the report highlight sexual and gender-based violence linked to the ongoing conflict in Yemen. This evidence is in itself indicative of the unacceptable civilian cost of this conflict, and recalls CEDAW General Recommendation 19 on violence against women, General Recommendation 30 on women in conflict and Article 7(4) of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT, full text available here), where an exporting state must take into account the risk that any arms transferred will be used to “commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children.”

Rasha Jarhum, a member of the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security and a women’s rights advocate, gave a summary of the history of arms transfers and conflict in Yemen, particularly with regard to small arms and light weapons (SALW). Ms. Jarhum provided alarming instances of alleged arms sales being conducted as publicly and easily as through Facebook. The existing humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the escalating conflict, and is facilitated by the unregulated flow of these arms.

Ms. Jarhum repeatedly referred to the difficulties in gathering data on violations against women because of social stigma. As a result, a full picture of gender-differentiated analysis is hard to document. Other reported violence made reference to the use of arms by parties to the conflict, including cluster munitions, mines (anti-personnel mines and anti-vehicle mines) and indiscriminate shelling in populated areas. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has long-term secondary and tertiary impacts, where damage to social infrastructure prevents access to medical and education services and threatens social protection and livelihoods. Ms. Jarhum also commented on the increased militarisation of women in Yemen. They are recruited into armed groups and militia to be used in military operations where women are targets.

Ms. Jarhum’s recommendations called for a fully funded Humanitarian Response Plan, especially in the gender-based violence cluster. Women’s participation in peace processes, data collection around gender-based violence, programmes of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration for combatants, and an arms embargo were all further recommendations that would support the protection of human rights and women’s human rights in the context of the Yemeni conflict and arms transfers.

Mia Gandenberger, from WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will, used the history leading to the ATT as evidence of an increasing awareness of the overlap of the spheres of disarmament and human rights. In 2013, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted resolution 24/35 on the impact of arms transfers on human rights. Since then, a series of following resolutions have built on this work, including most recently resolution 32/12. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas in conflicts such as that in Yemen is testament to the fact that the ATT must work harder to hold its states parties accountable to their extraterritorial obligations. In this case, those states transferring arms to the Saudi-led coalition must reconsider in light of the unacceptable human rights violations and civilian casualties. A July 2016 report by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the UK, for example, made the recommendation that the state party should “conduct thorough risk assessments prior to granting licences for arms exports and refuse or suspend such licences when there is a risk that arms could be used to violate human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights.” Ms. Gandenberger concluded that since there is proof of a human rights obligation to look at links between violence and arms transfers, a future HRC resolution should call to stop arms transfers to the region. Taking away the tools of conflict would logically lead to a reduction in armed violence.

Sarah Boukhary from WILPF’s Crisis Response programme spoke on how Crisis Response translates WILPF’s integrated approach to key crisis regions, particularly the MENA region, with the overall objective of strengthening women’s capacity and access to engage effectively in transition and peace processes. It does this by supporting, strengthening and bringing women’s experience and a specific gender conflict analysis to influence discussions and decisions, including the relevant international fora such as the human rights mechanisms and the UN Security Council. The Crisis Response programme supports activists’ engagement in treaty bodies, organizes convenings between women activists from different conflict and post-conflict contexts to share lessons and experiences, and provides technical support to national partners. Ms. Boukhary asked that states responded to the call of the OHCHR to stop arming parties to the conflict, including a termination to any existing licence agreements and the condemnation by the international community of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The provision of humanitarian aid must be gender sensitive, as must any participation of Yemeni women. Women’s human rights should not appear as a tokenistic gesture but must be placed squarely on the agenda for a truly inclusive path to peace.

The deterioration in the context of Yemen is an unfortunate reminder that human rights and disarmament run in tandem with each other, and this Human Rights Council session should act accordingly. Arms transfers facilitate human rights abuses, and in any context of armed conflict, better arms control or simply an embargo on arms transfers would help to prevent violations of human rights. Furthermore, the gendered dimensions need to be made clear in order that women’s participation is properly supported throughout conflict resolution.