Ray Acheson

Director | Reaching Critical Will

Countless women and other survivors of sexual violence watched in fury as the misogynist, patriarchal rage of a powerful straight white man whose entitlement was questioned live on television the final week of September. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and subsequent allegations of sexual assault from several women unleashed a renewed dialogue about assault, survivors, and privilege not just in the United States but also around the world. This fight, which has been elevated throughout the #MeToo era, reached a fever pitch as the nominee and his powerful white male allies railed against survivors of violence to ensure that their privileged position of power and dominance would remain in tact.

Some may wonder what any of this has to do with First Committee, with disarmament and international security. Two things come to mind. First of all, weapons are tools of the patriarchy. Secondly, whether the debate is about sexual violence or armed violence, the fight is the same: it’s about changing norms, about what is considered by society as acceptable behaviour.

The patriarchy is a social order dominated by men—in particular, men performing a certain brand of militarised masculinity that associates weapons and war with power. This form of masculinity influences the possession, proliferation, and use of everything from nuclear weapons to small arms. This is a masculinity in which ideas like strength, courage, and protection are equated with violence. It is a masculinity in which the capacity and willingness to use weapons, engage in combat, and kill other human beings is seen as essential to being “a real man”.

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This type of violent, militarised masculinity harms everyone. It harms everyone who does not perform that gender norm—women, LGBTQIA-identified people, non-normative men. It requires oppression of those deemed “weaker” on the basis of gender norms. It results in domestic violence. It results in violence against women. It results in violence against gay and trans people. But this kind of masculinity also means violence against other men performing violent masculinities. Men mostly kill each other, inside and outside of conflict. Violent masculinities make male bodies more expendable. Women and children, obnoxiously lumped together in countless UN resolutions and media reports, are more likely be deemed “innocent civilians,” while men are more likely be to be considered militants or combatants. Often, in conflict, civilian men are targeted—or counted in casualty recordings—as militants only because they are men of a certain age.

But militarised masculinity is not just about death. It is also a major impediment to disarmament, peace, and gender equality. It makes disarmament seem weak. It makes peace seem utopian. It makes protection without weapons seem absurd.

It also makes it impossible to achieve gender equality. It keeps men and women in binary boxes based on their biological sex. It maintains a strict hierarchy between these binary boxes, in which men are tough, rational, and violent, while women are weak, irrational, and passive. In this narrative, men are agents; women are victims.

The norm of violent masculinity will continue to cause suffering and reinforce inequalities until we get serious about doing something differently. This is a project of dismantling the patriarchy, which is a big project, but it starts with the language we use here in the UN or in civil society, in our resolutions as well as our policies and practices. It starts with taking on these norms, deconstructing them, and building something better for all of us.

So much of our work for disarmament is about effecting normative change. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for example, is about codifying the unacceptability, immorality, and illegality of nuclear weapons in international law. It challenges dominant narratives that nuclear weapons provide security and destroys the normative values that for years have enabled a handful of governments to risk total annihilation of the entire planet just so they can maintain their privileged position of power.

Sound familiar? To those who have survived abuse, assault, and harassment it sure does. And just as survivors are working to burn down the norms that privilege abusers over their victims, so too are disarmament advocates working to prioritise norms of peace over weaponised power.

Disarmament, as Trinidad and Tobago said at the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons event on 26 September, is about preventing and ending violence, supporting sustainable development, and upholding the principles of humanity. This is what First Committee delegates should be working towards.

Original Publisher

Reaching Critical Will

Ray Acheson is the director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She represents the WILPF on the international steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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