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At the Nuclear Talks in Vienna, Gender Should Matter

It’s about time that the RevCon embraces and empowers new voices and approaches.

Words: Sophia Poteet
Pictures: Sheldon

Diplomats from around the world are currently gathering in Vienna to prepare for the next review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). During a time of rising nuclear risks and a deteriorating security environment, participants have their work cut out for them. Yet, amidst these difficult conditions, one issue has the potential to cut across divisions and offer an alternative approach to key issues within the NPT: gender.

The term “gender” can be used to refer to multiple different but interconnected concepts, such as gender identity and gender norms, or the roles and characteristics that are considered feminine and masculine and thus appropriate or inappropriate for different people. Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City and observe part of the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) proceedings myself as part of an initiative on the role of youth and the NPT review process. During that experience, I was particularly focused on the conversation happening at the RevCon on gender. 

That experience made clear to me that, in the field of nuclear nonproliferation, the topic is contentious, and its integration into the operations of peace and security institutions is still in its nascent stages. Last year’s RevCon was the first time in the history of the NPT that participating delegates discussed gender as an issue area within the nuclear field. Over the past several years, multilateral practitioners have just begun to examine the role these norms may play in shaping work on nonproliferation and disarmament.

Recent studies have illustrated the continued lack of gender diversity within the field and shone a light on the barriers and structures that maintain that status quo. New research has demonstrated the gendered impacts of nuclear weapons, and nongovernmental organizations and states have collaborated to put out working papers and host events on integrating gender perspectives into policymaking on issues of weapons of mass destruction. 

Now, the NPT, which is the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, has also taken up the topic. 

Consensus and Contention 

Support for one gender issue in particular, women’s participation, served as an area of agreement for many states and was the main focus of public discussions on gender during last year’s RevCon. Throughout the plenary sessions and main committee discussions, many delegates made remarks in support of broader inclusion in the NPT process, including statements on gender equality and women’s participation as a “high priority” and a goal “crucial to the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Support for these issues crossed many of the usual coalitions within the NPT, with some nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states in agreement. For example, a geographically diverse group of 67 countries ranging from the United States to the United Arab Emirates to the Marshall Islands and Mexico joined together to give a joint statement on gender, diversity, and inclusion.

Approaching gender as a system of power has implications far beyond just the question of who is in the room or at the negotiating table.

However, when the conversation moved beyond participation to gender analysis or even to discussion of “gender diversity,” as opposed to “women’s participation,” consensus proved more difficult to achieve. Some states referred to the discussion of gender as a “useful distraction,” while others objected to any reference to the word “gender” in the document or argued that the NPT review conference was “not a suitable forum for discussion of gender, diversity and similar concepts.” 

At the Review Conference in 2022, the need for consensus meant that multiple suggestions to expand the inclusivity of initiatives on gender diversity by adding language supporting the participation of “all genders” were not taken up. Instead, the final publicly available version of the draft outcome document focused on women’s participation as the gender issue of note. Although Russia ultimately blocked the substantive outcome document over language relating to the attacks on the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, the inclusion of language on gender in that final draft document, while limited, still marked a step forward.

Connecting Language to Action

Another key challenge facing states, nongovernmental organizations, and all those working on gender issues in the nuclear field is how to take concrete action in order to make progress on these issues. Thus far, many initiatives have focused on increasing women’s participation, such as through programs like the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme, which provides opportunities for young women pursuing a career in the nuclear field. 

In the draft final document at the NPT Review Conference in 2022, the conference requested that the secretariat collect and publish data on women’s participation in order to be able to track progress in this area. However, much of the work in this area will be down to states to take unilateral action in implementing gender diversity in their own delegations. This is a critical step in the right direction, but these measures alone are not enough.

While participation has remained the focus of many efforts on gender in the nuclear field, shifting numbers alone may not be sufficient to truly foster an inclusive environment where diverse perspectives are welcomed, nor is participation the only avenue where gender and nuclear weapons intersect. In addition to being an aspect of individual identity, gender can also be understood as a system of power that shapes language and concepts such as power, strength, and security. Approaching gender as a system of power has implications far beyond just the question of who is in the room or at the negotiating table. It also opens questions about the concepts that underpin ideas on nuclear weapons, including the utility of weapons in ensuring security, motives, and incentives for proliferation and nonproliferation, and barriers to progress on disarmament.

Some states have begun to broach this alternate understanding of gender and urge their colleagues to consider the substantive implications of gender analysis in the nuclear field. Costa Rica stressed the importance of changing the systems and power structures that have jeopardized security for decades, while Namibia called for a continued focus on the “significant nexus between gender, disarmament, and development.” Ireland has also previously referenced this intersection of gender and nuclear weapons by encouraging delegates to move away from traditional security approaches and to avoid using “gendered discourse that perpetuates harmful stereotypes about power and security.”

New approaches in this field are vitally needed. The Conference on Disarmament is deadlocked, with participants unable even to agree on an agenda. The last two RevCons in a row failed to adopt a consensus final document, with some experts questioning the future of the NPT regime even before the tenth NPT review cycle kicked off. The Permanent 5 is divided amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising US-China tensions, and even the joint statement from the five nuclear weapon states 18 months ago on preventing nuclear war seems like the product of a simpler time.

Looking Forward

Now as diplomats enter another NPT review cycle amidst this difficult environment, there are a few reasons for optimism. Across multiple nonproliferation and disarmament bodies, the work of states and civil society organizations has opened the door to conversations on gender.

That work must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. While there are many complex dynamics to work through in regard to gender, and it may be tempting to try to set this issue to the side to avoid controversy, gender is not a side issue, and it will continue to exist as an operative factor within the Vienna International Center whether it is acknowledged or not. 

As a young person in this field, I view the conversation on gender as a bellwether for the broader question of the capacity of these multilateral institutions and negotiating bodies to adapt to changing environments and embrace new approaches when necessary. In nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, traditional approaches and homogeneous groups have clearly not succeeded in fulfilling the aims established in the preamble of the NPT more than half a century ago, namely the “easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.”

It is high time that new voices and new approaches are not just given lip service but are actively embraced and empowered. If diplomats are able and willing to engage on this topic, work on gender has the potential both to serve as an area of engagement between states normally at odds within the NPT and to offer a new approach to challenges that have plagued the nonproliferation regime since its inception.

Sophia Poteet

Sophia Poteet is a Program Coordinator and Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She previously worked at the Global Decolonization Initiative’s Nuclear Sites Project and the Small Arms Survey.

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