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ATT Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 5

Gaslighting and mansplaining at CSP3
15 September 2017


Ray Acheson

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On Tuesday, Amnesty International criticised “irresponsible arms transfers” authorised to the Philippines, which, as it said in its statement delivered on behalf of the Control Arms Coalition, “has seen deliberate and widespread killings of

alleged drug offenders that appear to be systematic, planned and organised by the authorities.” On Thursday, the Philippines’ representative to the conference issued a right of reply to the Amnesty statement, saying that such information is false and deriding the civil society group for “politicising” the conference.

Amnesty’s comment is based on its credible, independent research. Such research—by Amnesty, Human Right Watch, the United Nations, and investigative journalists—as well as first-hand accounts from international organisations operating in countries around the world as well as local, grassroots groups, are indispensible sources of information for the global community to understand the reality in any given country or situation. We rely on this information—gathered and disseminated by human beings who in many cases are risking their lives to get information out to the world—to understand what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Ukraine, Burma, and countless other places currently experiencing conflict or violence.

But while Amnesty’s comment is based on the objective of bringing reality to light, in order to foster discussion, the Philippines’ comment seems oriented towards obscuring or denying this reality, and to shutting down discussion. While the Philippines later in the day welcomed Amnesty’s offer of dialogue, it did so while reiterating its warning that such discussion is not appropriate for the ATT process, that it “politicises” this process.

In the meantime, the original right of reply to Amnesty has similarities to “gaslighting”—in which someone in a dominant position attempts to undermine someone else’s sense or understanding of a situation. In this case, a government representative of a country denies a charge not based on the provision of counter-evidence or an exchange of views, but on the grounds that the civil society organisation is a) simply wrong, and b) making these claims outside of agreed parameters of discussion and discourse.

In this way, the Philippines’ reply also reflected some elements of “mansplaining,” by informing a well-respected, internationally renowned expert on human rights (Amnesty International) that they are essentially lying, and proceeding to explain to them what they are and are not allowed to say in a conference space in which Amnesty has operated many times before. Typically, this type of behaviour is exhibited from men towards women, but it is a phenomenon that appears in other situations where those power dynamics are similar. A state “explaining” something to an NGO about its own area of expertise certainly fits the bill. (For more on “mansplaining,” see https://www.facebook.com/GvaDisarm/videos/1917606608506354/ for a video of the side event on this subject held Thursday on the margins of CSP3.)

But it is not only the Philippines that has engaged “gaslighting”-like behaviour at CSP3. The silence of the representatives of most governments attending this conference in regards to Treaty violations is also reminiscent of this insidious technique. Civil society and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have presented evidence—based on research, journalism, UN panel investigations, and also first hand accounts from a Yemeni citizen and the ICRC president—about the decimation of Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, which is largely stocked with weapons from ATT states parties and signatories. But this evidence and appeals for action are met with deafening silence. It is enough to make one feel crazy, like we are screaming into the wind and losing our sense of direction.

It is surprising behaviour from diplomats—from people who are supposed to be trained to engage in dialogue, listen to each other, and seek common solutions. International forums, including conferences of states parties, are supposed to be opportunities to review the implementation of agreements. Talking about failures of implementation may be “political”—but so are the instruments under consideration. They are instruments agreed to by governments—which are by their very nature political entities. These types of discussions take place all the time in other treaty bodies—indeed, that is what these bodies are typically designed for.

During ATT negotiations, many governments seemed quite willing to point out the egregious human rights abuses or war crimes committed with weapons, giving specific details from specific cases and cajoling each other to commit to do better through this instrument. Syria is a prime example. Yet since the Treaty was adopted, throughout all the working group meetings and three CSPs, suddenly governments will speak about the consequences of the arms trade in only the vaguest terms. They talk about what this Treaty was designed to change without acknowledging that their own behaviour hasn’t changed, or that fellow states parties or signatories are committing or facilitating the same crimes and abuses they once criticized in others. So far during CSP3, only Costa Rica has acknowledged there is a conflict in Yemen; only Chile has said it shares the concerns of civil society regarding possible failures to implement articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty and transfers of weapons to zones of conflict; and only 12 states have called for cessation of arms transfers to one country, Venezuela, due to current levels of state repression and human rights abuse.

There are many other governments at this meeting that take their commitments to reducing human suffering seriously. Governments that have put energy and resources into preventing gender-based violence, resolving conflicts, reducing armed violence, or prosecuting war crimes. Yet even these governments remain silent on possible Treaty violations. They speak not a word about states parties’ and signatories’ contributions to Yemen’s destruction. They speak not a word when the Philippines says civil society must not bring up certain issues.

What is it about the arms trade that holds their tongues? Is it because, in some ways, so many states parties are making profits from arms production and transfers, and speaking out against the “bad apples” means risking the spotlight eventually turning to their own sale or use of weapons? Is it because some of the worst offenders supply them with weapons, or that they have other trade relationships at stake? Is it because they too feel that talking about the reality of the arms trade is too “political” for a meeting about the arms trade?

Maybe we need a different approach to the arms trade than an international treaty. Maybe we need a different approach to holding states to account for failing the treaties they adopt. Or maybe governments just need to have more courage to do what is necessary to protect international law and to protect civilians. Whatever needs to change, it should be at least clear that telling civil society or international organisations they cannot bring issues forward for discussion or present evidence for consideration is not an acceptable response to hearing information that you do not necessarily want to hear.

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