Today is the first day of the UN Programme of Action (PoA), the Open Ended Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE), the first meeting of its kind, bringing together experts on marking, record-keeping and cooperation on tracing of small arms. Taking place in New York from 9-13 May 2011, all UN Member States are invited to attend. There will be no general debate. Only thematic discussions are expected, guided by discussion papers.

This article by the IANSA Women’s Network was published in the MGE Monitor and calls upon states to integrate a gender perspective in their tracing efforts, and actively include women at all stages of the process including capacity building and cooperation initiatives.

“They put their guns to our throats”: How and why to include women in international efforts to trace and uncover the illicit trade in SALW

As States gather in New York for the very first UN Programme of Action Open Ended Meeting of Governmental Experts (MGE), we see that women are yet again underrepresented in these discussions, in both civil society and country delegations. This particular MGE’s focus is on the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons, in accordance with the International Tracing Instrument that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. It is an important opportunity for experts on these subjects to focus on addressing practical implementation challenges, rather than policy debates, and to deepen dialogue and share experiences on efforts to implement the Programme of Action at national and regional levels. The Chair of the MGE, Ambassador Jim McLay of New Zealand, has drafted six discussion papers on each of the key themes for the meeting: 1. Marking; 2. Record-keeping; 3. Cooperation in tracing; 4. National frameworks; 5. Regional cooperation; and 6. International assistance and capacity building.

Although these discussion papers are a good start and pose relevant questions, they fail to integrate a gender perspective. Why is it important, not only from an equality perspective but also from an efficiency perspective to take gender into account, when discussing the marking and tracing of small arms and light weapons? How can gender be taken into consideration in such technical discussions? The Guidelines for “Mainstreaming gender for the effective implementation of the UN PoA” provides essential answers to these questions, some of which are outlined in this article.

Themes 1, 2 and 3: Marking, record-keeping and cooperation in tracing

What is the importance of tracing SALW? According to the 2009 Small Arms Survey, marking, record-keeping and cooperation in tracing help identify the ownership history of SALW and thus, the point at which they were diverted into the illicit sphere. Tracing can uncover illicit supply channels, provide a starting point for disrupting such trade and basis for prosecuting those involved in it, and therefore is essential to efforts to detect and limit the illicit proliferation and misuse of small arms. Tracing is mainly used as a law enforcement tool in crime contexts, but it can also be important in conflict situations to identify which security forces leak weapons, as illicit arms transfers fuel conflict and open the way for men to return to war or to be drawn towards crime, including domestic violence, in post-conflict situations. (Small Arms Survey, 2009, Chapter 3)

Both in crime and conflict situations, women can play a vital role in tracing efforts. They are not passive victims of armed conflict and crime, but also active participants in the fight against the illicit trade in SALW. Thus they should be trained in these very technical questions, so they too can identify weapons and actively participate in investigations and tracing efforts. The PoA calls upon States to “enhance cooperation, the exchange of experience and training among competent officials.” (PoA III:7) Without integrating the knowledge and experiences of diverse actors such as customs, police, intelligence organisations, civil society groups and women’s rights organisations, however, such cooperation is not possible.

Law enforcement officials often trace small arms when conducting criminal investigations. Women and girls are generally not seen as threats by border guards, and thus are often used as couriers to smuggle SALW across borders. In Bangladesh, it was reported that trafficking of women had increased with the increase in arms smuggling. In the Balkans, with the cessation of the violent conflict, some groups, which had been involved in arms trafficking, began to focus on trafficking in women. Women freed from trafficking rackets in Liberia were also able to verify that those involved in human trafficking were also dealing in SALW. States should therefore create appropriate training materials and resources for all government officials, containing gender-specific best practices on how to conduct and integrate the needs and experiences of women when conducting firearms investigations.

In conflict or post-conflict situations, tracing relies upon observing the types of arms used, both legal and illegal. “This provides a baseline of weapons in a given region, one that can become the basis for detecting influxes of new or more numerous weapons—which might provide the ‘seed’ evidence for a subsequent, more detailed investigation.” (Small Arms Survey, 2009, Chapter 3)

In Liberia, the large number of distinctive M70 assault rifles served as evidence in uncovering illicit supply channels. In 2003, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia noticed a significant number of Serbian manufactured Zastava M70 assault rifles in the hands of warring factions throughout Liberia. The Panel was able to identify the M70 assault rifles by their marks, and to trace their origins back to the manufacturer, the Serbian arms producer Zastava. Their date of manufacture suggested that they had been manufactured, and thus transferred, either after or immediately prior to the March 2001 UN arms embargo on Liberia. The Serbian authorities reported that the serial numbers matched those of a shipment to Nigeria that had been brokered by the Belgrade-based company Temex, yet earlier investigations had shown that the shipment to Nigeria had been done under a forged end-user certificate and that the arms had not been delivered to Nigeria, but instead to forces under the control of Charles Taylor, in violation of the UN arms embargo. In April 2003, Serbia revoked all licences granted to Temex for the trade in arms and military equipment and ordered all military manufacturers to cease cooperation with the company. The tracing of weapons enabled the disruption of illicit trade and the prosecution of those responsible.

Women should also be involved in these processes, as they too are observers in conflict situations. In Sierra Leone’s civil war between 1991 and 2002, 64,000 women and girls suffered war-related sexual violence. Testimonies of women explain how the assaults were endured at gunpoint. ´They put their guns to our throats and stomachs to make sure that we followed their orders,’ one woman reported. The M70 assault rifles observed by the UN panel stood out against the many older Kalashnikov-pattern weapons in the region and called for further investigation. Women can become active observers and participants in this process, if they are adequately trained, and should be consulted with at all stages.

Currently, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), violence against women and girls, including widespread rape and sexual violence, is aided by the use and traffic of small arms. Despite the 2003 UN Security Council embargo on weapons entering the eastern DRC, guns have come across the borders with surrounding countries - Angola, Burundi, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda - but also from America, Europe, South Africa and the former Soviet Union. The lack of effective tracing mechanisms, including marking, record-keeping and regional cooperation, are in part to blame. In setting up and improving these mechanisms, women should be included in training programmes on how to identify weapons, as well as tracing efforts, as they have vital information, experiences and insight to share, which can be used in the tracing of arms.

States should therefore incorporate gender-inclusive consultations in information sharing mechanisms, to source information from active civil society groups working toward eliminating the illicit trade in SALW.

Theme 4: National Frameworks

The PoA calls upon States to “Establish or designate, as appropriate, a national point of contact to act as a liaison between States on matters relating to the implementation of the Programme of Action” (PoA, II:5). National commissions require effective inter-agency and civil society communication on the implementation of the PoA. These national focal points provide a great opportunity for incorporating gender perspectives in all aspects of SALW control. In some states in Latin America, national commissions not only involve ministries of foreign affairs, defence and police agencies, but also include government agencies dealing with intelligence, the judiciary, public health, human rights, youth, children and women. In Paraguay, the working group, which serves as the focal point for the implementation of the PoA and national legislation, includes local women’s empowerment organisations focusing on domestic violence. Ministries of women’s affairs and non-governmental women’s groups working on violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, and human trafficking can have useful experiences to share and should be included in training programmes on the tracing of SALW and in data collection mechanisms.

Theme 5: Regional Cooperation

On a regional level, States can also integrate gender in their efforts to limit illicit transfers of SALW. In November 2009, under Gabon’s presidency, the eleven member States of the UN Standing Advisory Committee on Security Questions in Central Africa (Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe) decided to include in the agendas of their semi-annual ministerial meetings a point on women, peace and security. In particular, they agreed to take the following four concrete measures:

  1. Designate 1325 focal points in relevant Ministries (Foreign Affairs, Interior or Security, Defence, etc.);
  2. Include women in national delegations attending international and regional disarmament conferences;
  3. Include women in National Commissions on Small Arms;
  4. Reaffirm their commitment to comply with and implement UNSC resolutions 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) and 1889 (2009) and to comply with reporting requirements. (Report of the United Nations Standing Advisory Committee on Security Questions in Central Africa, A/64/638–S/2010/54).

Theme 6: International assistance and capacity building

In providing international assistance and capacity building, States should:

  • Initiate a more systematic approach to the gathering of sex-disaggregated data, thus facilitating more effective actions for combating the illicit trade in SALW;
  • Incorporate the knowledge and experience of different civil society groups, including women’s organizations in exchanges and training processes;
  • Incorporate civil society groups, including women’s organisations into training programmes and as a resource tool for training and awareness purposes to ensure that women’s perspectives as users and victims of illicit SALW are reflected in all training programmes;
  • Allocate financial and technical assistance to civil society groups, in particular women’s networks, for peace and disarmament and community reintegration and sensitisation.

Women can be active participants in the fight against the illicit trade in SALW. The IANSA Women’s Network has started to build the capacity of its members including women’s groups and individuals, but much more needs to be done so that women can effectively identify weapons and participate in the dismantling of illicit supply channels. Therefore, we call upon states to integrate a gender perspective in their tracing efforts and actively include women at all stages of the process including capacity building and cooperation initiatives.

For more information on the MGE itself please go to: