IGC Podcast: Gender and Disarmament - Why It Matters with Izumi Nakamitsu, USG for Disarmament Affairs

For the June 2023 episode of the IGC podcast, we are joined by Izumi Nakamitsu, Under Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

She discusses why gender matters in disarmament policy and practice, the historical role women leaders have played in promoting peace and security, and how leaders and organisation can promote gender-transformative approaches to disarmament.


Hannah Reinl

Welcome to the June episode of our IGC Podcast. I'm Hannah Reinl from the International Gender Champions secretariat in Geneva. Today, I'm joined from across the Atlantic by long-time Gender Champion Izumi Nakamitsu. Ms Nakamitsu is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament affairs since 2017. Based in New York, she oversees UN processes for setting and implementing norms related to weapons. Ms Nakamitsu has a background within and outside the UN. She has worked in UN Headquarters and country offices, including UN peacekeeping operations, UNHCR, and UNDP. She has also served as professor of international relations and held positions in the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Systems in Sweden. As a strong advocate for gender equality, which she makes a priority in all her work and personal commitments, Ms. Nakamitsu joined the IGC network in 2018. Izumi, welcome to the IGC podcast.

Izumi Nakamitsu

Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.

Hannah Reinl

It's great to have you with us. So today's topic is, of course, gender and disarmament- why it matters. From your point of view, why is it important that we apply a gender lens to disarmament efforts?

Izumi Nakamitsu

Right, so really, for two reasons, it is extremely important. A gender lens on disarmament and arms control is part of promoting a more holistic take on peace and security. And in doing so, we really have to place people at the center of our work. So applying a gender lens would help us contribute to human rights and gender equality. And secondly, of course, creating more effective disarmament processes, so it is really two-fold.  

Now, first and foremost, through applying a gender lens, we recognize the equal and meaningful participation of women and men in decision-making for disarmament. And that's absolutely key in everything that we do in the disarmament community. You of course know that today, still, women remain underrepresented in disarmament fora, and that is a problem. About 1/3 of delegates in large multilateral fora in Geneva, Vienna, and also in New York, it's only about 30%. And when considering who actually speaks in these meetings, we have even you know, greater gender gaps, often as low as 25% of speakers are women. This really undermines women's equal right to participate and global norms for equal rights, and this is just simply not a good practice at all.  

So we cannot make decisions about a common future and common security, unless we represent the diversity of the people who are impacted by decisions on disarmament, arms control, which are, of course, security issues. So this is a very important reason why it matters. Now secondly, we know that people are impacted also very differently by different weapons, and also conflict. And we need to make sure that we consider very centrally gender and other factors in making policies. So in order to be effective, disarmament policies really have to consider the effect of weapons insecurity on women and girls.       

Just to give you a few examples, we know that the availability of small arms, of course, is a huge reason for sexual violence in conflict and regulation and Non-Proliferation of illicit firearms, and therefore must really be part of any strategy for preventing conflict-related sexual violence. And I mentioned different weapon types. Here also, you know, we have an emerging good practice and you know, stronger interest in tackling those gender impacts much more substantively. Just an example again: the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which was adopted in 2013. This legally binds States Parties of this treaty to consider gender, especially gender-based violence as an essential criterion in their export assessment of conventional weapons and ammunition. Let's also look at lethal autonomous weapon systems. You know, we often talk about gender bias in, you know, modern day-to-day lives, but the kinds of data that are, you know put into AI-enabled systems, there is a huge gender bias, gender dimensions that we need to consider. And of course in cybersecurity as well. So there are many different areas of disarmament that we really need to integrate at the center of gender consideration. So this is the second reason.         

But I would like to actually go one step further, which is a gender lens on disarmament is also about considering how, if you will, social gender roles influence perceptions of security, and how the global sort of state of peace and security is impacted. We often analyze gender concepts such as masculinity and power dynamics to understand the drivers of conflict, and also the proliferation of weapons as well. So if we start to look at those issues, which still, unfortunately, are not really discussed in policy fields, but if we can start tackling those real issues of power dynamics, and how that impacts conflict, I think we will begin to make some really important substantive impact in our policies and strategies that we make. So I think it's very clear, we cannot solve global challenges without inclusive approaches that analyze the impact of conflict and weapons on people and tackle security from more human-centered approaches. And that's why we really want to make sure that gender lens is a critical part of our work. And I would even say that all these perspectives are particularly important as geopolitical tensions are really rising, and violent conflicts are really increasing. Some people say that it's not a time to consider those soft issues. But I would argue it's the other way around. It's precisely because at a time like this, we need to make sure that human-centered approaches to disarmament is prioritized.

Hannah Reinl

I have to say you're making a very convincing case. And it makes sense that of course, gender equality should be at the very heart of the considerations as we go about disarmament policy and practice. So I'm wondering what the existing approaches are- you touched on a few already- towards promoting gender and also this human-centered perspective on peace and security that you talked about. And because you have vast personal and professional experience, I'm curious to hear also, in your opinion, which approaches you think work and which ones have proven not to work.


Izumi Nakamitsu

For me, it is really important to remember that women have always been involved in disarmament work, and in fact, they have been making enormous impact. Women were really in the leading role in this famous convention of the international campaign to ban landmines, you know, the famous automatic weapons convention, or, more recently, of course, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons that really yielded results and is resulting in the adoption of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. There is something called a Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. So all these landmark achievements that we have in the history of the disarmament community, very often, were hugely impacted and led by women and women's organizations.          

Now, I think we also need to acknowledge some key milestone events or decisions and declarations in history. I remember I was a young officer in 1995 during the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Declaration and the platform for action. And in there, there was a commitment to reducing excessive military expenditures. Of course, it still is not realized, but it was nevertheless a very important landmark event that really impacted, that really moved women's equality agenda. And of course, in 2000, in the Security Council, the famous resolution on women peace and security, WPS, which really placed women's issues at the center of peace and security issues. So I think it's really important that the global community is coming together to acknowledge and place women at the center of our efforts. And then in the disarmament community, more specifically, in 2010, there was a General Assembly Resolution on women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, which was put forward by Trinidad and Tobago, and it was adopted. For us, it's a very important, General Assembly Resolution.    

While it is also true that no country in the world unfortunately very sadly, is fully delivering on the women, peace and security agenda, or gender equality more broadly, I think we need to make sure that we build on those landmark declarations and decisions that the international community has made. In disarmament discussions, building on those in recent years, we are seeing an increase in interest and also visibility on gender issues. Now, all of the recent important inter-governmental processes, whether that is NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, program of action on small arms, ammunition, cybersecurity, in all of those multilateral processes the states have discussed on gender. Increasing the number of side events, working papers, joint statements, etc. So there is definitely more member states that are really taking these issues seriously. And then, of course, giving priority, you know, to those issues. The reason is, as I mentioned, it's the right thing to do. But it's also a smart thing to do in disarmament.

One footnote, however, I have to put here is that there is also pushback in recent years. So we need to really watch out for those pushbacks. And I keep saying that we have to push back against the pushbacks. Now. So what works, there are several things that we think are working well.

  • The first thing is really building partnerships across very diverse groups, and encouraging those with different views to engage in conversations on women, peace and security and disarmament. And especially to mitigate pushback, we need to make sure that we build a coalition and foster even more inclusive progress as well.

  • The second is that we need to be context specific. When it comes to gender equality issues there is no one size fits all. So we have to understand the context and then we have to tailor our approaches very specific to context.

  • The third is about building synergy and exchanging views and perspectives and lessons between action plans, and national focal points on disarmament and gender, and women, peace and security issues within national structures, and also international partners as well. And that will yield results in terms of operationalizing those commitments.  We need to translate commitments into practical actions and exchanging views and building synergy will be key in that.

  • The fourth is we need to invest definitely more research on this topic. Because you know, we have to build evidence and evidence -based policymaking is key in this area. Of course, it's key for everything else, but especially this one as well. And in order for us to be able to do that data disaggregated by gender is really important.

  • And a fifth is, of course, resources, and dedicated expertise and gender-specific programming. And we need to make sure that we continue to invest in these areas as well.

  • Six, a key for success is women's political leadership. It goes without saying, of course, where there is women's political leadership, things tend to happen. Of course, it's a goal in itself. But it is also an enabler for gender equality, or I would say further gender equality. As you know, it requires a combination of various efforts to make sure that there is women's political leadership, of course, you know, both special measures, but together with transformative change. And disarmament is still relatively male-dominated communities. So I think the cultural change, making sure that women feel it is possible to take leadership is really very, very important. We do have some positive experiences on this issue. For example, in recent years, open-ended Working Group on cybersecurity, we are almost reaching parity in terms of women taking the floor and making statements, 47%. So it is possible when there is an investment in these efforts. We have been investing in cybersecurity fellowships, for example, where we encourage and bring especially younger female diplomats into these conversations.

  • The seventh and last one is, if we really mean, leave no one behind, we should make sure that we take broader efforts for an intersectional approach, for diversity, equality, inclusion, how all these things actually intersect with various forms of discrimination on the basis of not just gender, but also disability, nationality, ethnicity, etc.

So these are some of the things that we think will be important in terms of achieving success.

Hannah Reinl

So I'm hearing quite a few positive trends on the matter. I am mindful, of course, also of the backdrop of the global pushback that you mentioned, and that I think we feel across the board on various matters related to gender equality that we're trying to promote. So maybe just to recap for the listeners, because you did provide a really comprehensive list here. For your gender and disarmament toolkit, maybe our 101 course, what you need is partnerships, and coalitions for action, context-specific and tailored approaches, to build synergies and de-silo work between different stakeholders, to invest in more research and particular also to disaggregate data that you collect. You need dedicated resources and expertise, fostering the political participation of women through special measures, but also through sustainable cultural transformation. And we need across the board to ensure intersectionality. Did I get that right?

Izumi Nakamitsu

Yes, absolutely. You did much better than I did.

Hannah Reinl

No, it was great to hear it with the explanations. And now I'm curious to see how much of this you have managed to implement as part of your gender champion commitments. So I took a look at your current commitments, where you said that you wanted to raise awareness of gender perspectives on disarmament and international security. And you've also pledged to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. So really strengthening the intersectional approach in disarmament fora and to increase transparency on women and men's participation and multilateral settings. So how have you gone about implementing these commitments?

Izumi Nakamitsu

Right, so one of the first commitments I made when I joined the International Gender Champions network, was to ensure the full participation of female staff from my office, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, in workshops, events and various activities. And in doing so, I made efforts to ensure career-building opportunities for women in ODA, and we have set gender parity targets at all staff levels. And I think this year, we will probably achieve this parity target in all of the grades within our office.               

And on the cultural side, you know, within Office, also implemented, you know, we do have a good standard practice for flexible working arrangements that will make it easier for women and men, I would say, to balance various needs in one's life, including career. And so you know, I regularly discuss these issues with my management team. We monitor these things very carefully on a regular basis. This was one of the first things I started with and then later on, we expanded our commitment to contributing to equal representation and meaningful participation of women and men in ODA activities and also multilateral disarmament mechanisms. And what that means is that where we are entrusted with the Secretary General, the UN Secretariat, is entrusted to establish different mechanisms. One example is disarmament groups of governmental experts, these are ad hoc groups that member states create through GA resolution, and trust the Secretariat to put together these groups. When we do these things, we have committed ourselves, the Secretary-General has committed himself, to have a gender parity, as one of the criteria, of course, this is the UN. So it’s geographical balance, etc, you know, other criteria, but we have introduced the gender parity target as well. Now, it's sad to say, traditionally, these groups have been really far from gender balance. And it's actually really shocking to say that, as late as 2013, all male group have been established. And in 2018, only, you know, this is the year after I took my position, only 25% of experts were women. And today, we have all of those groups of government experts, GGE, for shorthand, all of those GGEs have near parity. At a minimum, they have to have 40% women in the composition. I actually have one on my desk, I'm looking at it, we are about to establish GGE on the prevention of arms race in outer space, and we will make sure that at a very minimum, they will be 40% Women. In some subject areas, we definitely do have 50% gender parity, or target met.      

Another thing that we are doing, I mentioned that it is important to have, you know, gender and sex-disaggregated data. And we are starting, we are actually now collecting very systematically, those data from all events, activities and projects that we work on through an internal activity tracking tool that we have established. And, you know, all of the participants in multilateral disarmament meetings, we're tracking data, we also promote women's participation in disarmament, education and training. And all of those training activities that we organize, we definitely do have gender parity here, there is 50:50, that is absolutely guaranteed in all regions, and also at the global level.      

Now, most recently, since last year, I'm proud to say that we are now starting to partner up with member states, for example, I partner with the US Under-Secretary for disarmament and arms control, to raise these issues in various disarmament multilateral forums, and organize together a high-level event, nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York , Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, and most recently, just two weeks ago, the Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well. So this is sort of higher level of awareness raising commitments that I'm starting to really invest in. Now my second key commitment is, as I mentioned, to raise global awareness about the gender impact of weapons, and that there are different impacts between boys and men and girls and women. So we have to make sure that this is really highlighted, as well.  

So through our gender policy, we now have a UN ODA gender policy adopted in 2021, we systematically make sure that each and every staff member working in UN ODA uses this gender marker system and make sure that we look into how the work that they're doing, will contribute to gender equality and the women, peace and security agenda, and how taking those gender equality approaches will enhance the effectiveness of the work, the substantive work of disarmament. So, this has become much more systematic in our office and I hope that this will start to also yield some real impact on the substance of disarmament work that we are doing as well. And then of course, we work with others, you know, ICG disarmament Impact Group, which is in Geneva, I am staying in touch with them, we do work with them very closely. So again, the partnership approach is also integrated into my commitment as well.

Hannah Reinl

 Well, congratulations on these fantastic achievements already. So we do have to close. But just before I let you go, is there any piece of final advice or a recommendation that you'd like to share with our IGC community?

Izumi Nakamitsu

I think it's important for us to really understand, and this is one of the things that Secretary-General Guterres often says, which is that gender equality is really about power. So we need to really approach this with what we can do to induce a power shift. If we can recognize and acknowledge that, we will naturally start to take more strategic approaches, more comprehensive approaches, you know, not one single measure will do it. But it will be really a combination of various measures. Because what we need to do is to transform and redistribute power if we are really serious about what we are talking about, and it cuts really, very, very to the core of, you know, how we might be able to safeguard our future, and our security, and our planet. So let's try to be, you know, always keep that in mind and, and take a strategic approach, more comprehensive approach, we have to make sure that in order to do that, we build alliances with men as well. It's not just about women, it is also about men as well, we need more men to champion women's equal participation because it will benefit all of us. It's not a zero-sum game. It's about benefiting all of us. And my final point is, let's make sure that voices of young people are really at the center of our efforts as well. One good thing about bringing women into those discussions, whether that is, you know, disarmament, arms control, or more sort of issues related to new technologies, climate, artificial intelligence, and all new trends impacting us, the good news is that they are a lot of younger women out there who really know much better than actually I do, I feel. So we need to make sure that those voices are also at the center. And I am definitely committed to help those voices become the center of our efforts as well.

Hannah Reinl

Izumi, thank you so much for joining us today and for helping us connect the dots.

Izumi Nakamitsu

Thank you. Thank you very much.