A new report on the impact of arms transfers on human rights from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) considers the gendered impact of diverted and illicitly trafficked arms on the human rights of women and girls and calls for states to tackle these harms by addressing the “root causes of gender-based discrimination and violence.”

The report (A/HRC/44/29) was released in early July as part of the Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 44th Session, following on a mandate issued by the Council through its biennial resolution on arms transfers, last adopted in 2019. While there have been various HRC resolutions on the human rights impacts of weapons, and three focusing on arms transfers in particular, this is the first to explore the specific impacts of the international arms trade on women and girls.

In many ways, this focus correlates with the growth of interest and political support to both acknowledge and address the gender dimensions of armed violence, arms transfers, and the use of weapons that is occurring in many disarmament and arms control forums. For example, gender and gender-based violence was a topic of focus for Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties throughout their 2019 meeting cycle, culminating in a series of recommendations adopted at the Fifth Conference of States Parties to the ATT. The OHCHR report provides an important reinforcement from the human rights community to those and other commitments made by states in the context of disarmament and arms control forums.

In our submission to the OHCHR towards the development of its report, WILPF highlighted that despite the focus on women and girls in OHCHR’s call for submission, it is essential to look at the specific gendered impacts on men and boys, and persons of diverse and marginalised sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and sex characteristics, and also the role of violent masculinities in facilitating violence and militarism. The report picks up on these points in several paragraphs, as well as in the context of one of its recommendations, which is significant and a first in OHCHR reports on this topic.

Also significant is the recommendation that, while creating national control systems, states should account for “principles of due diligence and the responsibility for aiding or assisting in the commission of an internationally wrongful act, while also taking into account international standards of corporate responsibility, in particular the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.” This is significant as the nexus between the arms industry and business and human rights frameworks remains a significant gap, which deserves further attention by the Human Rights Council.

WILPF also welcomes that the report illustrates the multiple forms of gender-based violence; that the report takes note of research on the gendered impacts of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). We also positively note that the report recalls relevant decisions and recommendations of key human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and Special Procedures (e.g. Special Rapporteurs) as well as outlines clearly how specific human rights are impacted by illicit and diverted arms, including inadvertently and through “ripple effects.” However, the report should have given greater prominence to the analysis carried out by investigative mechanisms of the HRC (e.g. Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar).

Where the report could have gone further, in WILPF’s view, would have been to stress that a focus on illicit or diverted weapons should not be used to distract from the irresponsible legal arms transfers and to emphasise the importance of ammunition control. Moreover, the attention given in the report to the need for better disaggregated data in order to understand, and address, the gendered impacts of arms transfers, is important but could have been made clearer by specifying sex or gender-disaggregated data. These are areas for further research or action.

WILPF is one of six non-governmental organisations that made written submissions to the OHCHR to inform the report, alongside the governments of Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Qatar, Sweden and Switzerland, and the UN Offices for Disarmament Affairs and on Drugs and Crime, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNDIR), and the Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat. Other non-governmental organisations include Airwars, Control Arms, Project Ploughshares, and the Somali Human Rights Association.