In the context of contemporary armed conflict, the general discourse often assumes that women, one of the most vulnerable and impacted groups, are disempowered. Discussion on the role of women in conflict and post-conflict settings frequently reflects this by emphasizing the narrative of women as victims, overlooking the crucial role of women as actors.
In commemoration of International Women’s Day, which was celebrated on 8 March, we want to reiterate that women have a critical role – as well as an inalienable right – in the implementation of the full spectrum of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP).
In the norm’s framework, women must be included as equal players in the international community who can contribute to preventing mass atrocities, assisting in protection, resolving conflict, and securing lasting peace and justice.
To date, however, gaps remain as steps have not been taken to truly engender RtoP. This post will expand on the missed opportunities, as well as the challenges ahead for engendering the norm, to ensure the full participation of women in the RtoP’s framework.
Leadership in the Prevention and Resolution of Conflict and Mass Atrocities
The United Nations has increasingly recognized the leadership position of women preventing and resolving conflict. At the 1995 World Conference on Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPA) called for the establishment of an “active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective” when addressing armed and other conflict, noting the important role of women “during times of armed conflict and the collapse of communities.”
Furthermore, the UN Security Council has taken up a robust case of work with its Women, Peace, and Security agenda, and with the adoption of notable resolutions, such as Security Council Resolutions (SCR) 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008), has reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to the empowerment and protection of women.
SCR 1325 specifically calls for greater participation of women at all levels of decision-making, and stressed the “importance of their (women’s) equal participation and full involvement in all efforts of the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.”
And SCR 1820 was the first Resolution that recognized violence against women, particularly conflict-related sexual violence, as a threat to international peace and security. The SCR also called for the UN and its various peace operations to develop mechanisms to prevent and respond to sexual violence, including through the training of personnel and the deployment of more women in peace operations.
Despite this, the role of women in the prevention of mass atrocities has yet to be formally recognized in the context of RtoP, and is reflective of a broader gap in the number of women participating in prevention, protection, and rebuilding in a conflict setting.
UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, created in July 2010 by the UN General Assembly, cites the percentage of women participating in peace processes remains very low compared to their male counterparts.
In 11 peace processes for which statistics are available, UN Women indicates that less than 8% of participants in and fewer than 3% of signatories to peace treaties are women. Furthermore, no women have been appointed Chief or Lead mediators in UN-sponsored peace talks, and women remain substantially underrepresented in UN peace operations.
Thus, despite the institutional realization of the important leadership role for women, women’s voices are noticeably silent in the context of post-conflict peace processes and reconstruction in any given country-specific situation around the world.
This situation must be remedied. And it must be remedied not only because women have a right to participate, but also because we have seen important examples, like Liberia, where women were crucial actors in peace processes. Civil society organizations like the West-Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), one of our member organizations, mobilized during the Liberian civil wars and played a crucial role in including women in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction. The world’s first all-female peacekeeping unit was also deployed serve as armed police and assist in stabilizing the country after years of internal strife.
Women and Mass Atrocities
Alongside the recognition of the important role of women in prevention, protection, and reconstruction has been the steady establishment of a broader international narrative that contemporary conflict and post-conflict situations affect women very differently from men.
The protection of women’s rights has been codified in international law through the BPDA, UN SCR’s 1325 and 1820, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). These documents outline the rights and responsibilities of the international community, governments, and civil society regarding women and conflict.
Regarding the ICC, Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice stated in a press release to commemorate International Women’s Day that, “The Rome Statute contains the most advanced articulation in the history of international criminal and humanitarian law of acts of violence, gendered in nature, predominantly sexual and most commonly perpetrated against women.” It also remains, the press release states, “the most significant global institution for addressing gender-based crimes because for many women the Court represents their only hope of accountability for crimes their state is unable or unwilling to prosecute.”
In his 2009 report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon drew on these documents and reiterated, for the first time in the context of the norm, that rape and other forms of sexual violence could constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, or constitutive acts with respect to genocide.
It was also mentioned in the report that gender-based violence was an early warning indicator of mass atrocities. This was reaffirmed in the Secretary-General’s 2010 report on Early Warning, Assessment and the RtoP and his 2011 report on the Role of Regional and Sub-Regional Arrangements in Implementing RtoP.
The systematic nature of sexual violence in conflicted-related scenarios has also led to the appointment of Margot Wallström as the Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG) on the matter, with the mandate of intensifying efforts to end sexual violence against women.
Despite the obligations placed on parties to conflict to protect women’s rights, and the renewed effort at the UN to stem conflict-related sexual violence, atrocities against women in armed and other conflict remain rampant in the context of particular country-specific cases.
A particularly enlightening example of this is the Secretary-General’s recent 13 January 2012 report on Conflict-related Sexual Violence. The report highlights a number of situations, including but not limited to Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Guinea, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Timor-Leste, where violence against women has been widespread and remains a risk on a daily basis.
The report also names and shames some of the world’s worst offenders, including the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan, armed militias in Côte d’Ivoire, and the armed forces of the DRC, where tens, if not hundreds of thousands of women have been systematically raped by combatants since 2003.
The dire nature of continued violence against women was made abundantly clear at the 23 February meeting of the UN Security Council on Women, Peace, and Security by SRSG Wallström, who called conflict-related sexual violence a “global risk”. Wallström also stated that, “impunity fuels the cycle of violence”, highlighting the continued problem posed by a lack of justice for victims of violence both during and post-conflict.
Actual and threatened conflict-related sexual violence, as well as impunity for its perpetrators, thus poses a critical implication: While dialogue, public statements, and institutional advancements are important, they must be met with operational progress on the ground in countries like Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, and Sri Lanka.
Moving Forward: Overcoming Challenges and Seizing Opportunities
While the threat against women in armed and other conflict remains as present as ever, the focus on women as victims cannot undermine their importance in the full spectrum of the Responsibility to Protect.
In order to realize the full potential of the role of women for the RtoP, important operational measures and concrete actions must be taken.
Realizing Women as Leaders in the RtoP Framework
Women must be more equally represented in prevention, as well as the resolution of conflict and reconstruction in a post-conflict setting. In this sense, there must be more women in leadership positions at all levels of decision-making. Increasing the involvement of women in conflict mediation and peace processes, including in the negotiations and drafting of peace accords and constitutions, is also integral to preventing the recurrence of violence.
In seeking justice during or in the aftermath of conflict, women must be included in accountability processes such as criminal proceedings and/or truth and reconciliation commissions, and be guaranteed legal support. The effort to ending impunity for violence committed against women is also an important challenge that must be overcome, and should be met with vigorous resolve at all levels of governance.
Furthermore, United Nations peace operations should strive to include women in military and civilian protection capacities, including in security sector reform (SSR) efforts and training initiatives in conflict settings. An all too important task for peace operations, whether at the UN or regional organization (RIGO) level, is providing training for relevant personnel to be aware of gender-based violence indicators and knowledgeable of how conflict affects men and women differently.
Ensuring Prevention and Protection: A 3-Pillar Approach
Gender-based violence continues largely unabated, but information and resources necessary to understand why are unavailable. Furthermore, gender-based indicators have not been employed to provide early warning for the threat of mass atrocities. These gaps must be filled to foster a better understanding of the “global risk” of violence against women, and to ensure more effective prevention when RtoP crimes are threatened.
Consistent with the primary protection responsibilities of the state, national actors must uphold their obligations under international law and prevent and protect women from befalling violence, particularly conflict-related sexual violence. Adopting national legislation to ensure equality of human rights and the effective protection of vulnerable populations is a necessary step, as well as ratifying relevant human rights treaties and abstaining from reservations that would adversely affect women. RIGOs should also continue to address the role of women in conflict in order to foster multi-level adherence to the respect for women’s rights.
Regional organizations, the UN, its Member States, and civil society must be ready and willing to provide assistance and capacity building to individual states as they work to include women and prevent violence from befalling them.
If a state is found manifestly failing to protect women from one or more of the RtoP crimes, early diplomatic and other non-violent measures must be taken. The establishment of a working group on women and RtoP by the Secretary-General would serve well in establishing and better integrating a gendered approach to the norm.
As the international community marks International Women’s Day, a renewed and vigorous effort to engender RtoP to reflect the important role of women within the norm’s framework would be welcome. If these steps are taken, the crucial task securing their full participation in the spectrum of the RtoP may soon be realized. Too often, however, words are not translated into deeds. This time, the promises made in New York and national capitals must be kept and translated to action around the world.