Last month, the International Gender Champions Disarmament Impact Group published the ‘Gender & Disarmament Resource Pack for Multilateral Practitioners’. This short document, in its own words, ‘includes basic information on gender equality and its relevance to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as practical ideas that can support diplomats in applying a gender lens to their work’. Through its publication, the authors wish to ‘contribute to the goal of achieving gender equality in multilateral disarmament fora’ – a welcome tool to advance on an important cause.

The Disarmament Impact Group identifies two main avenues through which gender perspectives can be addressed in the policy space(s) of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament: ‘improving women’s meaningful participation and agency’ in relevant fora and ‘applying a gender analysis (or ‘gender lens’)’. This post focuses on the latter.

Part 2 of the Resource Pack starts out with an overview of ‘[p]rogress to date in integrating gender perspectives in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament efforts’ as reflected in ‘Treaties, Conventions and Action Plans’. It notes that ‘[e]fforts to incorporate gender perspectives in multilateral arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament frameworks are increasing’ and cites as documentary evidence Art. 5 of the 2008 CCM, the 2014 Maputo Action plan adopted within the framework of the APMBT, Art. 7 of the 2017 ATT, the 2001 UN PoA on SALW and the Outcome Document of the 2018 Third Review Conference of the UN POA, and the Chair’s factual summary from the 2018 Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

A rather startling absence from this list: the 2017 TPNW. Whilst the Resource Pack acknowledges discussions on ‘the gendered impact of nuclear weapons’ during the NPT review process of the past five years and points out that the Chair’s factual summary (formally, a working paper) from the 2018 PrepCom ‘observed that States Parties noted the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women, and that this issue should be factored into the discussions in the current review cycle’, it inexplicably fails to mention that the ‘disproportionate impact on women and girls’ of nuclear weapons, including as a result of ionizing radiation – but not limited to it – is enshrined in the TPWN’s preamble, and that its Art. 6 contains an obligation to provide ‘gender-sensitive assistance’ to persons affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.

Why is the Resource Pack silent on the TPNW’s contribution to gender equality in relation to disarmament? We understand a suggestion was made during consultations on a draft of the Resource Pack to include mention of the treaty. Evidently, it was not taken up. This makes it look like an act of self-censorship on the part of the Disarmament Impact Group. The authors may have felt that ‘multilateral practitioners’ are more likely to take onboard their ideas to apply a gender lens to their work if they thought these ideas were firmly anchored in a ‘factual’ summary produced within the framework of an instrument they celebrate as the corner-stone of the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, and that any mention of the same ideas being embedded in the TPNW – a treaty that a small, but structurally empowered group of states is openly hostile towards – could lessen the chance that these ideas are taken up, at least by diplomats representing these states.

The omission of the TPNW from this Resource Pack is deeply gendered. As is the theory and practice of nuclear weapons. Gender stereotypes inform and legitimize the ways in which nuclear weapons are culturally associated with strength and dominance in international hierarchy (C. Cohn, 1987). Nuclear weapons are a signifier of hegemonic masculinity (M. Conway, 2016). The TPNW, a treaty that seeks to delegitimize, devalue, and abolish these weapons, challenges this genderstereotypical way of thinking about nuclear weapons (R. Acheson, 2018). The absence of the TPNW from the Resource Pack avoids contesting that dominant discourse, provoking displeasure or sowing discord; it protects harmony and demonstrates a willingness to compromise – behaviours generally associated with the feminine.

Gender discourse informs and shapes security discourse, and in so doing creates silences and absences. Gender coding can serve as a ‘“preemptive deterrent” to certain kinds of thought about the effects and consequences’ of nuclear weapons (C. Cohn, F. Hill and S. Ruddick, 2006). Silencing the TPNW in a document on gender and disarmament reinforces gendered attitudes towards nuclear weapons and the dominance and superiority of the nuclear-armed, which serves as a justification for their exercise of control over others, and their role in nuclear (disarmament) policy-making. It props up structures that privilege a narrow idea of security and silences alternative security narratives embodied in the TPNW. Ultimately, therefore, it risks undermining the Disarmament Impact Group’s own stated goal of achieving gender equality.

For the Impact Group, ‘applying a gender lens’ means ‘consider[ing] how the attributes, opportunities and relationships associated with being a women or man affect issues such as: exposure to risk; the likelihood of becoming a victim/survivor of violence; the ability to access medical attention in the aftermath of conflict; and the long-lasting biological and physiological impacts of weapons on individuals.’ Even if this list is not meant to be exhaustive, this representation of applying a gender lens is limiting in several regards. For one, it embraces a binary male and female notion of gender that excludes other gender identities and fails to recognize the fluidity of genders. And of course, a gender perspective must look beyond the gendered impacts of weapons.

The Impact Group understands gender norms to be socially constructed. It pays attention to language and it provides some concrete suggestions to ‘address the gender dimensions of international security affairs’ in Part 3 of the Resource Pack. But if such steps are to promote beneficial systemic change, more must be done to uncover and address the processes involved in sustaining gendered norms, institutions and structures around weapons, how they impact disarmament policies and how they give rise to differential risks, abilities and impacts.

Without ongoing, reflexive analysis to gain insights into how gender operates in (nuclear) disarmament discourses with a view to ‘challenging the established pattern of power relations’ (UNIDIR, 2016), disarmament practitioners risk replicating, rather than transforming, existing structures and dynamics under the guise of a progressive gender agenda.

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