UN conference process excludes women, says York researcher

It’s no wonder that the United Nations organized a conference on small arms and light weapons (SALW) in 2001 and a follow-up conference in 2006, when one reads the staggering figures on the havoc wreaked by them.

"They are responsible for over half a million deaths per year, including 300,000 armed conflicts and 200,000 more from homicides and suicides, according to figures mentioned by the 2001 conference Chair," says Professor David Mutimer, deputy director of the York Centre for International & Security Studies.

Right: David Mutimer

Yet, says Mutimer, the UN’s Small Arms and Light Weapons 2001 conference, the ensuing Programme of Action (PoA) and last year’s follow-up conference all underplay the place of legal arms in violence, particularly that directed at women.

"The initial conference explored the illicit arms trade, and the UN PoA was designed to address the problems of this trade," says Mutimer. "The focus on ‘illicit’ trade, and more generally on illegal arms, has shaped the nature of global response to small arms issues.

"For instance, virtually all weapons start out as legal arms produced by firms with licences. What the conference was concerned with was the moment at which they become illicit, and what happens to them afterward. Everywhere, the international community is trying to police the boundary between the legal and the illegal arms trade.

"But imagine for a moment that the 2001 conference had produced a PoA on gun violence, rather than one on the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. Within such a program, the problem would be constituted around the use of arms, rather than around their production and transfer. The problem would be that arms are used to intimidate, assault, maim and kill.

"The irony is that gun violence is an overwhelmingly male activity, and yet the international process has managed to find a way of framing the problem that obscures the one area in which women are significantly disadvantaged by virtue of being women."

Women are far more likely to be at risk from the misuse of small arms than from illicit weapons, he points out. "In a study published in 1998, the UN found that when guns are held in a home, women are much more likely to be killed in instances of domestic violence.

"Perhaps the most startling statistic of all is that, while having a gun in the home raises the chances of someone being murdered by 41 per cent, it raises the chances of a woman in the house being murdered by 279 per cent."

Yet, continues Mutimer, because the UN conference and its ensuing PoA concentrated solely on the illicit trade of small arms, "it systematically excluded from its field of action the particular experiences women have of small arms by virtue of their being women."

In his most recent article titled, "’A Serious Threat to Peace, Reconciliation, Safety, Security’: An Effective Reading of the United Nations Programme of Action (PoA)", Mutimer concludes that, while the conference was effective in its own way regarding the illicit trade of arms, it completely masked what happens to legal weapons, and therefore produced an international agenda that was profoundly gendered.

Mutimer feels a deep responsibility about his work as a researcher. He says the scholarly community is often asked by the international community to provide research data and policy recommendations, "and these ideas get translated in various ways into documents, such as those produced by the 2001 UN conference.

"If you think, as I do, that policing the boundary between the licit and the illicit arms trade is problematic, then producing scholarship which is feeding the international community is similarly problematic," says Mutimer somewhat ruefully.

More about David Mutimer

The deputy director of YCISS and a professor of political science at York University, Mutimer has recently returned to York following a two-year leave of absence at the Small Arms Survey in Geneva and the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. His research considers issues of contemporary international security through lenses provided by critical social theory, as well as inquiring into the reproduction of security in and through popular culture. Much of that work has focused on weapons proliferation as a reconfigured security concern in the post-cold war era. Mutimer has tried to open possibilities for alternative means of thinking about the security problems related to arms more generally. More recently he has turned his attention to the politics of the global war on terror, and of the regional wars around the world presently being fought by Canada and its allies.