Whilst the German government proclaims to “campaign assiduously for human rights around the world”, it is also the third largest arms export supplier worldwide. As reiterated by various international human rights bodies such as the Committee of the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Human Rights Council, arms transfers can have serious consequences for women’s rights and safety in recipient countries. The CEDAW Committee has recently recommended stronger regulation of Germany’s exports.
Germany – tireless advocate for human rights?
My home country Germany can pride itself with one of the best human rights records in the world. Elections are free and fair, we have an independent, free press, effective judiciary and a functioning democratic system. Germany ranks 4th on the Human Development Index, with only Norway, Australia and Switzerland placed higher.
Germany´s constitution opens with the sentence “Human dignity shall be inviolable”, which effectively encompasses the sum of human rights.
According to our foreign ministry, we do not only protect human rights at home. Additionally, it proclaims that “Germany´s foreign policy is a policy for peace” and that it “continues to campaign assiduously for human rights around the world”.
Many do not know, however, know that Germany is also the third largest arms export supplier worldwide. Germany’s arms exports almost doubled in 2015 to their highest level since the beginning of this century, and increased even more in 2016.
Why arms proliferation has a distinct impact on women
While arms proliferation in importing countries has a serious impact on the whole population, arms proliferation, especially small arms and light weapons have a distinct impact on the rights and safety of women. In its most recently adopted resolution, the Human Rights Council “notes with alarm that […] arms transfers […] may increase the risk of sexual and gender-based violence”. In a similar vein, the CEDAW Committee has reiterated that arms proliferation can have “a direct or indirect effect on women as victims of conflict-related gender-based violence, [or] as victims of domestic violence”. The disproportionate impact on women is more likely in contexts of political tensions, high levels of impunity or systemic gendered discrimination. According to the NGO Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), arms’ accessibility and availability can not only exacerbate violence against women, but has also a negative impact on women’s mobility, their political participation, and their access to resources, business and employment opportunities.
What arms proliferation means for women’s safety – some concrete examples
In 2015, Germany approved €153.6 million worth of export licences for military equipment to India. This covered, amongst others, revolvers, submachine guns and pistols. While India has become the world’s largest arms importer, firearms such as those from Germany are of particular concern due to their use in domestic crime. India is second only to the US in terms of numbers of civilians owning firearms. As a report by WILPF suggests, the increase of private gun ownership is likely to result in more frequent and more lethal violence against women. Such violence, rooted in gendered social structures, often takes the form of direct, physical violence, including sexual assault and femicide.
Saudi Arabia is the third biggest customer of Germany’s arms sales. It may be superfluous to mention that Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive countries in the world, with far-reaching discrimination against women in law and practice.
Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has been licenced to produce German weapon manufacturer Heckler & Koch’s G36 and G3 rifles. The Saudi Arabian army has been using these weapons since 2015 in its offensive in Yemen. In this conflict, since March 2015, more than 35,000 people have been killed and injured in fighting, and 2.5 million people internally displaced. Parties to the conflict often use heavy explosive weapons, carrying out attacks in residential areas. In the conflict, women suffer disproportionately from forced displacement, trafficking, sexual violence and lack of access to health care. Within a year, reported incidents of violence against women rose up to 70% in 2016.
In 2016, Germany approved licences to sell, among others, 1,500 rifles, one million rounds of ammunition and 100 Milan guided missiles to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in its fight against ISIS in Iraq. However, Iraq is a context of concern due to its deep instability and the potential for arms to be misused. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, paramilitary militias operating as part of the Iraqi armed forces are using arms from the military “to commit war crimes [and] revenge attacks”. The report also highlighted the dangers of arms proliferation, caused by irresponsible arms transfers flooding the country with small arms and light weapons. As a result, the growth of well-armed paramilitary militias has had a direct impact on the safety of women. For instance, women fleeing violence are unable to access shelters, as these are often subject to violent threats themselves. In such context of instability, discrimination and violence against women is exacerbated.
Germany’s obligations under international (human rights) law
In February this year, the CEDAW Committee reviewed Germany’s progress and challenges in implementing the most important international tool to promote and protect women’s rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In its so-called Concluding Observations, the Committee expressed concerns that Germany’s legislation does not “mention gender based violence as a ground for denying an export licence” and that “before export licences are granted, comprehensive and transparent assessments should be conducted on the impact that the misuse of small arms and light weapons have on women, including in conflict zones”.
Germany is also party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT, which entered into force in 2014, regulates international trade in conventional arms. Article 7(4) requires States to take into account the risk of conventional arms being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women, prior to authorization of the export of arms under its jurisdiction. Crucially, there merely has to be the risk that arms will be used in a manner prohibited by the treaty, without having to establish a direct link between transferred arms and the impact on women’s rights and safety.
The German government has reiterated that the “preservation of human rights is of particular importance for every export decision, also considering the risk of gender-based violence”. Germany indeed has put in place a system to assess and approve arms transfer. The arms export control is said to take into account, among other factors: the situation of human rights in the country of destination, the risk of diversion and the recipients’ past record of using arms in accordance with stated purposes.
However, Germany has not established a specific mechanism to prevent arms sales from having an impact on gender-based violence in the recipient countries. Clearly, there is a lack of transparency in the decision-making processes when granting export licences. In February this year, the CEDAW Committee recommended that Germany “conduct comprehensive and transparent assessments on the impact that the misuse of small arms and light weapons have on women”. Indeed, such improved transparency would at least allow us to understand why the German government, supposedly advocating “assiduously for human rights around the world”, enables transfers to States with poor human rights records, thereby putting women’s lives at risk.