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Leveraging the Women, Peace and Security Plan

This post originally appeared at Incline – a blog that publishes commentary and analysis on New Zealand and world affairs.

This year New Zealand will become the 49th country to adopt a National Action Plan (NAP) on women, peace and security. This is fifteen years after the adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 and eleven years after Kofi Annan’s call for member states to develop NAPs. New Zealand has a rich history of advancing women’s rights as the first country to give women the vote and is ranked thirteenth out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Index. But the development of a women, peace and security NAP has waited until the achievement of a non-permanent seat on the UNSC. This timing could be fortuitous. During its two-year term in New York, New Zealand has a crucial opportunity to advance UNSCR 1325 issues at the international level.

New Zealand’s draft NAP was released in May 2015. It focuses on five areas: (1) ensuring women’s involvement in decision-making within conflict and post-conflict situations; (2) promoting New Zealand women as mediators and negotiators in international forums; (3) increasing the number of New Zealand women deployed in police and military roles in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions; (4) ensuring that gender analysis informs NZ’s peace support responses, and development assistance to conflict-affected countries; and (5) promoting efforts to combat sexual violence, intimate partner violence and violence against women in conflict affected countries where New Zealand has a development programme or post.

So how does New Zealand’s proposed NAP measure up?

First, with respect to focus areas 2 and 3 it is important to examine the extent to which New Zealand can strengthen its capacity and capabilities to meet its commitments to UNSCR 1325. New Zealand’s overall contribution to UN peacekeeping is minimal and currently stands at 11 personnel out of more than 100,000 personnel from member states. Increasing the number of deployed female police officers and soldiers to reach the target of 18% on peacekeeping missions requires recruiting and retaining women within the police and defence force and ensuring their progression through to senior rank. Although there has been an increase in the number of female officers deploying with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in senior roles –  including a Lieutenant Colonel to the Chief UN Observer role in Lebanon, a Wing Commander as Senior National Officer in Dubai and a Colonel to Afghanistan – women in the NZDF continue to face the “armoured glass ceiling”, making up only 6% of officers in combat operations. In a 2012 Review, the NZ Police acknowledged the need for more women in senior police management and agreed to targets of 30% women in constabulary recruitment and 10% women total commissioned officers by 2017.

Second, in ensuring gender analysis informs NZ’s peace support activities in conflict-affected countries, New Zealand must examine the efficacy of the gender mainstreaming approach. Rather than deploying specialist gender experts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has focused on training NZ Police and MFAT programme staff to integrate gender dynamics analysis into intervention design and implementation. According to a 2013 evaluation of NZ policing in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, gender equality has not been built into country-level interventions, nor linked to partner country national gender and human rights processes. New Zealand has very limited capacity to pursue a gender mainstreaming agenda with just one gender equality advisor with no delegated authority or budget and no staff with specific responsibility for gender equality in any of the country missions.

Third, on the issue of how New Zealand can advance women, peace and security issues much more could be done to promote women’s inclusion in peace processes, including putting forward New Zealand women as potential UN mediators. Former NZ Permanent Representative, H.E. Jim McLay, actively contributed to the UNSC Open Debate in January stating: “it’s widely acknowledged that women have an important role to play as leaders and decision-makers in the prevention and resolution of conflict. But, while that’s recognised, it’s not something that’s consistently applied in practice.” Women have comprised only 4% of signatories, 2.4% of chief mediators, 3.7% of witnesses and 9% of negotiators between 1992-2011. With over half of all peace agreements failing within a decade, there is clear evidence that involving women expands the scope of agreements and improves the prospects for durable peace.

As the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective’s submission on New Zealand’s draft NAP recommends, New Zealand should organise an Arria Formula dialogue for Pacific women peacebuilders to have their work in the region highlighted and to generate best practices and lessons learned for other conflict-affected regions. At the UNSC, New Zealand could leverage its historical experience in supporting women peacebuilders and ensuring gender-sensitive policing/peacekeeping in the Pacific Islands. For example, in New Zealand’s peacekeeping experience in Bougainville the inclusion and influence of women at the earliest stages of the peace processes was recognised as essential to sustainable peace. By contrast, where peace negotiations were less inclusive of women in south and central Bougainville, the transition to peace was notably slower. Highlighting these examples of gender-sensitive peace talks would reinforce New Zealand’s commitment to the core principles of the Pacific Regional Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018.

New Zealand’s draft NAP contains some noteworthy strengths. It addresses the importance of recognising and resourcing women peacebuilders within early warning and conflict prevention. It also acknowledges a range of forms of Violence Against Women (VAW) that is exacerbated following conflict and natural disasters – especially those in fragile countries.

The NAP deserves a national conversation as well as buy-in and ownership across government agencies and in partnership with civil society. The formal adoption of New Zealand’s plan should be marked by a parliamentary debate on UNSCR 1325 and women, peace and security and what it means for New Zealand in the Pacific region.

Anna Powles is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University and Director of Women in International Security New Zealand (WIIS). She can be emailed at

Jacqui True is a Professor of International Relations and Politics at Monash Unversity and Co-Founder of the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective (WPSAC) and can be emailed at

What Can New Zealand Do on the United Nations Security Council to Advance the Women, Peace and Security Agenda?

The Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective and Women in International Security New Zealand (see note 1) are delighted that New Zealand has won election as non-permanent member on the UN Security Council beginning in January 2015 until December 2016, representing the Western European and other countries group. We see New Zealand as a global advocate for conflict and atrocities prevention, including the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, and also as an advocate for peacebuilding promoting gender-equal participation in peace and security processes.

Photo by Loey Felipe/UN Photo, used under a Creative Commons licence

Delegation of New Zealand following election to the Security Council. Photo by Loey Felipe/UN Photo, used under a Creative Commons licence

It has been 21 years since New Zealand served on the Security Council in 1993-4. At the time New Zealand played a leading role in the Security Council resolution condemning the atrocities in Rwandan “as genocide”. As President of the Council in April 1994 New Zealand ambassador Colin Keating sought to persuade the Council to deploy further UN peacekeeping troops to Rwanda (see Conley-Tyler and Pahlow 2014). Outside the of Council, New Zealand has consistently promoted peacebuilding in the Pacific region, including facilitating local women’s unique roles in ending violence and brokering peace, such as, in the process that culminated in the 2002 Papua New Guinea – Bougainville Peace Agreement. During that process on several occasions official delegations of leaders of women’s organisations were brought to talks in New Zealand to forge a united voice and to enable their greater inclusion in peace processes at home. These initiatives funded by the New Zealand government successfully supported women’s peacebuilding initiatives in Bougainville over a number of years. More recent interventions in the Pacific, including the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and participation in multiple UN missions in Timor Leste underline the importance of a coherent, context-appropriate and sustained strategy for the inclusion of women in nationbuilding at all levels of governance.

New Zealand’s ten-year campaign for non-permanent membership emphasized the country’s representation of small states in international politics that make up over half of the United Nations membership (109 states). Once on the Council New Zealand has vowed to work for reform to increase the non-permanent membership of the Security Council and lessen the veto power of the P5 to make a positive difference to UN multilateralism, particularly to address concerning situations of conflict and insecurity in the world. In its Security Council campaign, New Zealand did not mention the country’s efforts to advance the Women, Peace and Security agenda at the United Nations and through its foreign development and security policies even though, as the Bourgainville case illustrates, the country has a significant record on WPS. Moreover, New Zealand’s own anti-nuclear security history and identity was founded on widespread women’s peace activism in local communities and at the national level.

In a letter to WPSAC on 9 September 2014, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Murray McCully, wrote “[New Zealand] has a record of “targeting and mainstreaming assistance and promoting the wellbeing of women and girls through our development program and security operations overseas”. Given these commitments, we encourage the New Zealand government to stand up for less powerful, non-state actors, such as, women’s civil society and non-governmental organisations, that are increasingly playing crucial roles in conflict-prevention and peacebuilding as well as for small member states.

In order to make good on its unique WPS record, New Zealand needs to urgently adopt and implement a Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan based on consultations with civil society organisations and actors as well as with government agencies such as the Women’s Development Steering Group in the New Zealand Defence Force. A NAP is crucial for New Zealand to progress its plans to support the “empowerment of women at all levels of the security agenda including promoting the ability of women to act as mediators and men and women to act as gender advisors in situations of conflict” (Minister letter to WPSAC, 9 September, 2014). The recent appointment of a High Level Panel to review UN Peace Operations that included only 3 women but 11 men highlights the persistent gender gaps that continue to undermine women’s voices in international peace and security. We need UN SC members like New Zealand to ensure that women have an equal stake in UN processes and decisions because we need to harness all the groups who can bring about the resolution of conflicts and the creation of lasting peace.

Jacqui True and Anna Powles

Note 1: Women In International Security NZ (WIIS NZ) is the affiliate chapter of the global Women In International Security network which seeks to advance and advocate the role of women in international affairs, defence, and security. WIIS NZ was established on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, to address the absence of significant numbers of women in leadership positions within New Zealand’s international affairs, defence and security sectors as well as supporting the inclusion of women in leadership roles, adherence of the security sectors to UNSCR 1325, and peacebuilding throughout the region. A core focus of WIIS globally is advocacy for and monitoring of UNSCR 1325 including the NAPs and WIIS NZ is actively engaging the New Zealand Government to hold them accountable for the development and promotion of the NAP.

Australia’s International Response to Islamic State: The Forgotten Half

Something is being forgotten in the global response to Islamic State. It’s something big. In fact, it affects half of the population. Australia has a whole of government policy that requires our peace and security institutions to actively consider these women. The policy of which I speak is the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018 (NAP). As Australia re-engages in conflict in the Middle East, the Australian Government needs to prioritise the commitments they made in this policy.

'Yazidi Genocide: Iraq 2014', Source: Debris2008 (Domenico) via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license

‘Yazidi Genocide: Iraq 2014’, Source: Debris2008 (Domenico) via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 was the first of several resolutions to outline the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. It acknowledged the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and girls and obliged member states to increase women’s participation and protection. There are obligations to ensure women’s participation in conflict prevention, peace processes, peacebuilding and peacekeeping. There are also obligations to protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict, and provide gendered relief and recovery. In articulating these obligations, the Security Council formalised women’s participation and protection as a priority of international peace and security.

Strategy four of the NAP states that Australia will “promote women, peace and security implementation internationally.” Australia has made military commitments to the conflict with Islamic State (IS): first by delivering conventional arms, now by the deployment of special forces and fighter jets. The conflict is now clearly a strategic priority for Australia. Having made a strategic commitment, WPS needs to be comprehensively applied to strategic and operational planning and implementation. The current operational response is an example of why Australia needs the Commander Joint Operations to have a dedicated Gender Advisor who is a specialist in gender and conflict.

Strategy one of Australia’s National Action Plan says the government will “integrate a gender perspective into Australia’s policies on peace and security.” Women and girls in Syria and northern Iraq have been subjected to gross sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee recently completed a large survey of Syrian women and girls. The research report, entitled Are We Listening?, found that many Syrian women and girls “have been subject to sexual and gender-based violence, coerced into early marriages, overwhelmed by economic strife, and psychologically scarred by loss in a war that seemingly has no end.” When asked “what are the biggest challenges you are facing?” The most common theme of the responses was the daily reality of sexual exploitation and harassment: “constantly fearful, women and girls told us about extreme levels of harassment”. Indeed, a article in Foreign Policy highlighted the fact that sexual violence is being used by IS as a weapon of war. United Nations in Iraq has said that “some 1,500 Yazidi and Christian persons may have been forced into sexual slavery.”

Action 4.4 of the NAP says Australia will “consider the use of specific strategies to promote the participation and protection of women and girls in fragile, conflict and/or post-conflict settings”. Announcements by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, on funding for women and girls affected by the ongoing violence are welcome. More needs to be done to protect women and girls but both pillars of the WPS agenda are relevant in the IS conflict. Women are not just victims of violence during armed conflict, they are also agents for change. Women’s participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding will be vital to achieve any sustainable solutions to the conflict.

When you consider peace and security as a conflict cycle, women’s participation in conflict prevention in northern Iraq and Syria is currently about preventing an escalation in the conflict and conflict resolution. Strategy five of the NAP states that the government will “take a coordinated and holistic approach” to WPS. Yet Australia has made no commitments to supporting women’s participation in the prevention of escalation of the conflict or in peacebuilding.

Civil society worked on WPS long before there were even Security Council Resolutions on the subject. Strategy three of Australia’s NAP is about supporting civil society organisations to “increase women’s participation in conflict prevention, peace-building, conflict resolution and relief and recovery.” On Tuesday 23 September 2014, civil society organisations will host the Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security, bringing senior leaders from government and civil society together with the community to discuss the implementation of Australia’s NAP on WPS. While progress has been made on the implementation of WPS in Australia since the release of the NAP, there is still much work to be done. There is no doubt that Australia should be doing a great deal to support women’s organisations who work on protection and participation in Syria and northern Iraq.

Registrations are still open for the Annual Civil Society Dialogue on Women, Peace and Security. It will be held at University House, The Australian National University.

Susan Hutchinson is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University. She is a civil-military specialist. Her PhD research focuses on Women, Peace and Security and the Australian Defence Force.

Close to the Finish Line: Making the most of Australia’s remaining months on the UN SC for advancing the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda

The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2122 (2013) at the October WPS Open Debate in 2013 (UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe). Retrieved from, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2122 (2013) at the October WPS Open Debate in 2013 (UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe). Retrieved from, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In November 2014, Australia will again hold the Presidency of the UN Security Council, as we near the end of our term of office as an elected, non-permanent, member. Australia has held a non-permanent seat on the Council since January 2013, the term of which expires in December 2014. Recently, the Australian government hosted a consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and representatives from civil society to discuss priorities for the remaining months. The group was far larger than that which attended previous consultations, which suggests an increase in the level of general engagement among civil society actors, and the profile of government delegates was commensurately higher: the session opened with an address from Minister for Foreign Affairs the Hon. Julie Bishop, and closed with a discussion about Australia’s legacy from the time on the SC led by Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Australia has engaged substantially and substantively with the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS) agenda during its term of office. There were two new resolutions adopted by the Council in 2013 (UNSCR 2106 and UNSCR 2122), but there were also a number of ‘Women, Peace and Security’ events throughout the year that Australia played a key part in. In May 2013, for example, Australia and Guatemala organised an Arria formula meeting to discuss gender and peacekeeping operations. The emphasis in the meeting was on the practical experiences of gender experts in UN peacekeeping missions and the management of gender training at HQ level, with input from the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous. And in September, the mission co-ordinated a side event in collaboration with Conciliation Resources, a London-based NGO, which focused on women’s leadership in peacebuilding. These are just two of a dozen such events that Australia has been involved in, either centrally or in a partnership role. The Australian government now has the opportunity to consolidate and extend its support for the WPS agenda, during the November Presidency and beyond.

First, the government could dovetail a focus on policing with strong work on WPS to date through showcasing the importance of female police officers and/or ‘best practice’ gender training as part of security sector reform (SSR), both of which have notionally informed Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan. Such a focus creates the possibility of events on 1) gender training of police forces drawing on the work of parts of the Australian Federal Police in this space and 2) on the relationship between women’s participation in peace and security governance and effective policing. Sierra Leone has faced challenges in this regard, while Afghanistan also has a really positive story to tell.

Second, in the realm of peacebuilding, Australia can leverage its commitment to the UN Peacebuilding Commission (UN PBC), evident in its continued and regular financial support of the Peacebuilding Fund, to develop more meaningful relationship between UN PBC and UN SC. There is also a need to create more (and more meaningful) opportunities for civil society engagement with peace and security governance at UN HQ and in country. One way to do this is to make funds available through UN Women to bring together research centres, civil society organisations and universities to enhance information-sharing and inform the 2015 High-Level Review of the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Third, and finally, in relation to peace and security governance more broadly, Australia could show support for the creation of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Women’s Participation in Peace and Security Governance (SRSG-WPPSG). One of the key issues raised by civil society groups in 2013 related to the perceived narrowing of the WPS agenda to focus almost solely on conflict-related sexualised violence and the protection of women and girls. Australia has the opportunity in 2014 to champion an holistic approach to the WPS agenda, a vision of ‘Women, Peace and Security’ that shows the ability to make the connection between women’s meaningful participation in governance and their ability to live free from violence and discrimination.

The Australian government has built up a stock of political capital as a supporter of the WPS agenda. These last few months represent an opportunity to consolidate the good efforts thus far, and to create something significant as a legacy for the term of office on the UN SC: an opportunity to show that Australia really did ‘make a difference’ not only for the small and medium-sized countries of the world, as its campaign slogan said, but for everyone.

Beyond sexualised violence: Making the links across the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda

Homepage of UN Action

The UK government is hosting a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London this coming week. The event brings together civil society organisations, world leaders, national policymakers and academics ‘with a view to creating irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground’. This is the most recent in a series of moves under the auspices of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), launched in 2012 by Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The expenditure of significant political capital by the UK on the issue of conflict-related sexualised violence (CRSV) has had material effects on the policy frameworks that govern this issue at the international level. In June 2013, we saw the adoption of a further UN Security Council Resolution on the topic of CRSV (UNSCR 2106), which was received by many  (myself included) as a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the prevalence of conflict-related sexualised violence is of course a crucial area of concern in the governance of peace and security. On the other hand, the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda at the United Nations, the framework through which peace and security governance attends to the differential effects of conflict on men and women, is much broader in scope than the narrow focus on CRSV implies.

To deal with the positive first: the move to raise the international profile of conflict-related sexualised violence began in 2009/10 with the creation of position of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the unification of a range of UN entities under the umbrella organisation UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. The increased visibility of this issue has had a number of positive effects, including the cross-cutting inclusion of language related to CRSV in UN SC ‘core business’ resolutions (that is, resolutions that relate to matters other than the thematic priority of ‘Women, Peace and Security’, which is evidence of the issue’s broader traction at the Council).

There are complexities that are erased, however, through many of the common representational practices related to this issue. There is a tendency to lapse into women-as-victim frames to represent conflict-related sexualised violence, which is a problem, and it is by no means clear that, even though there is an organised effort to include men and boys in conversations about CRSV, serious thought has been given as to how that works. With regard to the latter, there has been concern expressed among practitioners and service providers about the political economy of this debate: a long-overdue need to recognise the sexualised victimisation of men and boys in conflict and post-conflict situations has been translated in uneven and often thoughtless distribution of funds for service provision in post-conflict environments. The response has often been to try to stake the claim that while, yes, men and boys suffer CRSV in unrecognised numbers, women and girls suffer disproportionately.

This formulation seems problematic as a platform for action, though clearly it may be empirically verifiable in particular contexts. It is problematic is because it invites support through competitive logics (who is suffering more?) rather than focusing on the prevention, punishment, and sensitive social care in the aftermath of, conflict-related sexualised violence. Further, the argument founders wherever it is suggested, as in Johnson et al.’s 2010 study of North and South Kivu provinces and Ituri district in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that actually rates of sexualised violence against men/boys and women/girls were roughly even (74% of female respondents reported experiencing conflict-related sexualised violence versus 65% of male respondents). This case can then be held up to counter the claim about the disproportionate victimisation of women, and, while we know we cannot extrapolate in any meaningful way from a single case, by then the debate has moved on and the damage is done.

When the focus is on service provision, then we need to recognise not who suffers more but how men/boys suffer differently from women/girls and ensure that both sets of needs are met in the specific local context. Both men and women might be marginalised and even forced to leave their communities as a result of the stigma attached to conflict-related sexualised violence, but that might be different depending on the context. Men/boys don’t need pregnancy tests or prenatal care; women/girls don’t need to know about how to care for wounds to penis or testes. The care needs of both groups are different and should be assessed on the ground, in context, to ensure that the needs of the specific community are addressed, and in a sensitive fashion.

If the focus is truly on prevention then the impetus has to be to change cultures of gendered behaviour. While this might seem like a lofty goal, in the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda it has a very practical operational manifestation in the increased meaningful participation of women in all forms of peace and security governance, from peacekeeping to peacemaking to peacebuilding and security sector reform. Creating the office of a Special Representative of the Secretary General on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding is an important and necessary action.

The visibility of conflict-related sexualised violence is linked in no small part to the existence of the SRSG-SVC and the political purchase that gives the CRSV agenda at the UN; if women’s participation in peacebuilding had similar institutional backing, this would bring about a significant cultural change. From Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Somalia and elsewhere, there is growing evidence that having women engaged in peacebuilding in meaningful, long-term and inclusive ways makes a material difference to the type of peace being built, and the kind of society that emerges from the post-conflict period. The ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda has always been holistic: the civil society organisations that fostered the foundational resolution (UNSCR 1325) and have remained engaged with critiquing, challenging and extending the agenda recognise the agency and potential of women, rather than seeing them solely as victims of violence. I believe that the diplomats, ministers, politicians, practitioners, public figures, and associated experts gathered in London this week can do the same.

Laura J. Shepherd, UNSW Australia

When WPS Met CEDAW (and Broke Up with R2P?)

This piece was first published by E-IR and is available here. It has been shared with the author’s permission under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

You may not have noticed, but 18 October 2013 was a red letter day for global women’s rights. On this day, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), expert guardians of the UN Convention, released General Recommendation 30 in Geneva. On this day, the United Nations Security Council released Resolution 2122 in New York as part of their Women Peace and Security thematic focus under the Presidency of Azerbaijan, the culmination of a year’s worth of attention to the agenda.

Both documents seek to revolutionise the situation of women in conflict prevention, conflict & post-conflict situations, and both have legal import, even if not binding.  How should we read these events? Do IR theories of gradual institutional change and discursive institutionalism explain what occurred, and what is the significance of these international documents?

My argument is that the Committee was striking back at the Security Council in an attempt to swing the Women Peace and Security (WPS) agenda back towards a human rights foundation, away from the increasing focus on protection from sexual violence in conflict at the expense of other aspects of the agenda.  Partly this protection focus is due to the impact of norm entrepreneurs promoting the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, seeking convergence between R2P norms and the WPS agenda to increase the legitimacy of the norm after Libya.

About CEDAW: Slowly Building the Legal Framework for Rights

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and now has 186 state parties (but with many states making serious reservations to certain provisions). The 23-member elected expert Committee overseeing the Convention puts out opinions (‘general comments’) about how the treaty should be interpreted, responds to periodic state reports about compliance with the Convention, and deals with state complaints and individual complaints under the Optional Protocol.  There are also special protections for women and girls under international humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court).[i]

Aside from the hard law of conventions, there is also increasing ‘soft law’ in the area of women’s rights at the United Nations. The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1993. The Beijing Conference for Women in 1995 adopted a Platform for Action which is reviewed by the Commission for the Status of Women every five years.

In this context, General Comment 30: Women in conflict prevention, conflict & post-conflict situations adds to the soft law on the human rights of women, and shows a willingness to expand into an area of activity where there is no clear provision in the text of the treaty, and where the Security Council has been active for the last 13 years.  Paragraph 26 states:

The Committee reiterates the need for a concerted and integrated approach that places the implementation of the Security Council agenda on women, peace and security into the broader framework of the implementation of the Convention and its Optional Protocol.

The Committee seeks to use its power to oversee state periodic reporting to achieve this aim.  Under paragraph 27, it has asked that all state parties to CEDAW to develop national action plans with adequate budgets:

…Using the reporting procedure to include information on the implementation of Security Council commitments can consolidate the Convention and the Council’s agenda and therefore broaden, strengthen and operationalize gender equality.

(a) Ensure that national action plans and strategies to implement Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) and subsequent resolutions are compliant with the Convention, and that adequate budgets are allocated for their implementation…

(c) Cooperate with all United Nations networks, departments, agencies, funds and programmes in relation to the full spectrum of conflict processes, including conflict prevention, conflict, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction to give effect to the provisions of the Convention

Most importantly, the Committee takes the liberty of telling the Security Council how to interpret gender equality in the text of its resolutions, and to take a broader focus than ‘rape as a weapon of war’:

(b) Ensure that the implementation of Security Council commitments reflects a model of substantive equality and takes into account the impact of conflict and post-conflict contexts on all rights enshrined in the Convention, in addition to those violations concerning conflict-related gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

There is little precedent for norms being generated by the human rights treaty bodies, and adopted by the UNSC, and vice versa, it is even rarer.  More often, the office of the Secretary-General is the bridge.  For example the Secretary-General of the UN launched the ‘era of application’ campaign for the enforcement of international norms and standards for the protection of the rights of children involved in armed conflict in his 2005 report to the Security Council and the General Assembly on children and armed conflict (A/59/695-S/2005/72). The campaign resulted in a UNSC resolution establishing, among other things, a monitoring and reporting mechanism on grave violations against children in situations of conflict, as well as a commitment to implement targeted measures against those parties to conflict that commit such grave violations (Security Council resolution 1612 of 26 July 2005).  What the Committee is doing in General Comment 30 is different, trying to draw the UNSC back to the rights basis of the norm.

About the Women Peace and Security Agenda: Agency and Participation

What brought about this frankness from the Committee? A cluster of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) comprise the WPS agenda. Those resolutions are UNSCR 1325 (2000), UNSCR 1820 (2008), UNSCR 1888 (2009), UNSCR 1889 (2009) and UNSCR 1960 (2010), then the two resolutions in 2013 UNSC 2106 (2013) and UNSC 2122 (2013). [ii]  In July 2013, a new Resolution 2106 was passed during the UK’s Presidency, the fourth to focus on conflict-related sexual violence. This resolution adds greater operational detail and a focus on Women Protection Advisers, strengthens the role of the Special Rapporteur to intervene in the field, and reiterates that all actors, including not only the Security Council and parties to armed conflict, but all Member States and United Nations entities, must do more to implement previous mandates and combat impunity for these crimes.[iii]  In October 2013, after an open debate on ‘Women, rule of law and transitional justice in conflict affected situations’, Resolution 2122 was adopted to request more regular briefings from relevant UN agencies, more attention to WPS issues when issuing or renewing mandates of UN missions, and committing to a High Level Review of implementation of WPS in 2015.

UNSC Resolution 2122 (2013) has some similar preoccupations as General Comment 30, but is more narrowly focused on building accountability into UN processes.  It is more focused on UN reporting than state party responsibility, but does talk for the first time about addressing the ‘root causes of armed conflict’. One exception is the ongoing charge for states to develop National Action Plans. The pillars on Prevention and Relief & Recovery have potential for redistribution of resources – in the case of OECD countries this is in the form of development assistance, as can be seen in the Australian National Action Plan (2012-2018).

In essence, the 1325 agenda states that women and girls experience conflict differently from men and boys.  Women have an essential role in conflict prevention, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction, and States are required to ensure women are represented in all decision-making.[iv] The later resolutions focus on ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, and increasing the participation of more women in the UN’s own ‘good offices’ roles in mediating conflict and negotiating peace.

Resolution 1325 was ground-breaking. The agenda has led to new architecture and process at the UN, with the appointment of a new Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström in 2010, now Zainab Hawa Bangura; as well as annual reporting by the Secretary-General.[v] One of the key actions under the WPS agenda is for states to design and implement National Action Plans.  Thus far, only around 40 countries have implemented National Action Plans, few are funded, and there is little or no baseline data for many of the actions.[vi] This has led to claims that the institutional commitment is more rhetorical than real. Katrina Lee-Koo argues cogently that the participation of local women in peace processes is particularly weak in implementation[vii], and many country situations and regions have not received sustained attention from the UNSC, such as the Pacific.

Even the rhetoric has proven controversial. In the last two years, debates on the thematic agendas have been criticised by Russia and China as extending beyond the Security Council’s mandate (such as the focus on sexual violence during election violence).[viii] But there is some evidence that WPS issues are being considered more routinely in debates, affecting mandate design and adding weight to the ‘zero tolerance’ policy for UN peacekeeping forces.[ix]  Australia claims during its term as an elected member to have made progress on language in crafting the Mali mission mandate in 2013.

Other commentators feel that the resolutions and resulting actions have focused too much on protection of civilians agenda, focused on sexual violence and not enough on participation and conflict prevention, in other words, ‘women’s agency’[x]  There are critiques that WPS has struggled with gender mainstreaming, the gendered nature of peace and security institutions,[xi]  and the lack of sex-disaggregated data required to underpin policy.[xii]

Civil Society Reactions to 18 October 2013

Reactions were surprisingly muted from the wide global constituency for CEDAW and the WPS agenda in October 2013.  As a piece of polylateral diplomacy,[xiii] linked to both regional and global social movements, the Women Peace and Security agenda is strong, despite wide acknowledgement of its flaws.[xiv]  Advocates, including myself, argue that the core premise of the WPS agenda remains being attentive to the security needs of half the world’s population, and thereby builds the legitimacy of the Security Council as a normative actor.  CEDAW was hard-won and is slowly building its influence with states as a regulatory framework enforceable in domestic jurisdictions.

DAWN stated that General Comment 30 was a ‘landmark resolution’ and focused on the Committee’s expansive definition of armed conflict and ‘other forms of occupation and conflict’, as well as extraterritorial jurisdiction and the inclusion of sexual and reproductive rights.  They note the importance of the Committee advising the UNSC on a substantive equality approach.

The Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) stated in relation to Resolution 2122 that it represented a ‘high-water mark’ in commitment and the ‘pendulum’ swinging back to a more holistic approach to peace and security away from sexual violence, and celebrated the first mention of ‘root causes of armed conflict’.

But very few civil society groups noted or commented on the interaction between the two announcements that day or commented on the unusual step the Committee was making in telling the UNSC how to think about substantive equality.  Vivien Schmidt would urge us to use the theory of discursive institutionalism to examine this further.  Discursive institutionalism scholars consider the discursive processes by which such ideas are constructed in a ‘coordinative’ policy sphere and deliberated in a ‘communicative’ political sphere.[xv]  We could see the Committee’s comments as lying in the sphere of coordinative discourse, as one of a range of policy actors engaged in “the construction of policy ideas” trying to influence the communicative sphere.

Why did civil society actors not seize on the comments? Was the Committee too subtle? For international lawyers, it is a seminal moment when a discretionary policy framework, even one that is promulgated by the strength of the UNSC, crosses the line to a legal reporting framework, linked to a binding treaty.  It is also a legal norm entrepreneur’s dream.   Where were the celebrations?  States are legally bound to report to CEDAW on a periodic basis on how much money they are spending to promote women’s participation in peace-building and conflict prevention processes. Is this not a paradigmatic shift?

Possible Theoretical Readings of 18 October 2013

What would feminist IR and international law theorists say? Janet Halley might say it is a shining example of successful norm entrepreneurship, leading to more ‘governance feminism’ in the halls of power.[xvi]  Hilary Charlesworth might cautiously welcome the CEDAW comments, but warn of ritualism by states in the human rights treaty body system, and in the rhetorical commitment of states to the WPS agenda. Di Otto might agree with the Committee’s concerns that the narrowing of WPS to protection of women from a specific formula or ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is a dangerous trend, and may represent co-option of a feminist agenda:

These problems include a pattern of selective engagement with feminist ideas as they are instrumentalised to serve institutional purposes; an across-the-board absence of strong accountability mechanisms, even as the outside pressure for accountability grows; and the tendency for protective stereotypes of women to normatively re-emerge following an initial flirtation with more active and autonomous representations.[xvii]

Another useful way to think about the day might be theories of incremental institutional change, as WPS has developed to the point where there are resource implications for states.  As Mahoney and Thelen describe:

In our approach, institutions are fraught with tensions because they inevitably raise resource considerations and invariably have distributional consequences. Any given set of rules or expectations – formal or informal – that patterns action will have unequal implications for resource allocation, and clearly many formal institutions are specifically intended to distribute resources to particular kinds of actors and not to others. This is true for precisely those institutions that mobilize significant and highly valued resources (e.g., most political and political-economic institutions).[xviii]

Therefore we could argue that the WPS agenda represents incremental change by the UNSC into the realm of human security, but the recent UNSC narrowing of focus on sexual violence in conflict does not yield up power in either a discursive sense (women need protection) or a distributional sense. The CEDAW Committee as a discursive community could be seen as playing the role of a mediator in the civil society demand for more accountability and budget allocations.  The timing of the pincer movement on 18 October suggests discursive institutionalism at work.  The new links between CEDAW and the UNSC WPS agenda may have the potential for brokering a more powerful regulatory regime, especially around the collection of data.  The transformative agenda proposed by the Committee to make the UNSC widen its focus seems less clear of success.

Is 18 October 2013 One in the Eye for R2P Advocates?

By way of a provocation to conclude this examination of 18 October 2013 (W-Day), we might ask why WPS, supported by big pledges from the Group of 8 led by the UK, has become so narrowly focused on protection of women from a particular (but worthy) manifestation of conflict violence, ‘rape as a weapon of war’.  Laura Shepherd and Lucy Hall have taken up Di Otto’s concerns that as ‘R2P is still considered ‘high politics’ while WPS is a marginal issue’, then the fear is that wholesale integration could ‘subsume and silence WPS within R2P’.[xix]  I believe the sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) focus plays to a wide ideological group, both morally conservative and progressive on issues of gender identity, much like the anti-trafficking movement, plus it does not entail radical resource distribution or offer a real challenge to militarism or armament industries.  There is a concerted effort post-Libya critique for R2P advocates to push the alignment of the WPS agenda with R2P, which also has a very narrow focus on prosecution of SGBV in the context of the mass atrocities.

In 2010, Australian jurist Hilary Charlesworth published the seminal article ‘Feminist Reflections on the Responsibility to Protect’ in the lead journal Global Responsibility to Protect.[xx] At that juncture, she found that it was ‘worth engaging with concepts such as the responsibility to protect because they can unsettle the standard boundaries of the discipline and increase the possibility of its transformation’ but that the design of the R2P doctrine has been ‘influenced by men’s lives and the dominance of masculine modes of reasoning’.[xxi]  But she also found that the doctrine in fact offers ‘gendered and racialised accounts of peace and conflict and the capacity of intervention to defuse violence’.[xxii]

I argue that this remains the case based on my reading of contemporary conflicts before the Council in 2013 such as Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria and Afghanistan, and may have become more entrenched. The urge to intervene militarily was resisted in Syria, but so was the urge to provide humanitarian assistance.  But there has undoubtedly been recognition of this critique and more movement around the protection agenda of R2P advocates, in the area of the prevention of, and increased accountability for sexual and gender-based violence. This could be interpreted as a sign of engagement with a feminist agenda of women’s empowerment and participation, but also interpreted as a sign of the paternalist and essentialist gender politics observed in the founding documents of R2P, ‘bred in the bone’ as a concept.

The choice of language used by the Committee in paragraph 27(b) of the General Comment reminded me that in 2010, Charlesworth made very similar observations of R2P that the Committee is making of WPS:

For the doctrine to offer support for women’s equality, it would need to take into account a broader set of factors that impinge on women’s lives, including women’s economic marginalisation, the effect of militarisation and systemic discrimination against women. It would need to engage with the private subordination of women and the widespread violence against them outside the formal structures of the state. It would need to problematise the idea of intervention, recognising that it can exacerbate injustices by reinforcing particular forms of world order.  The responsibility to protect principle would also need to be framed more modestly, not as a single solution to atrocities, but as one strand of a complex response that draws inspiration and ideas from everyone affected by violence.[xxiii]

Let us see whether the events of 18 October 2013 represent a step in this direction.


Bell, Christine. ‘Women and peace processes, negotiations, and agreements: operational opportunities and challenges’, Policy Brief, The Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, 13 March 2013.

Charlesworth, Hilary 2010, ‘Feminist Reflections on the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 2(3): 232-249.

Chinkin, Christine and Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Building Women into Peace: the international legal framework’,Third World Quarterly, (2006) 27(5): 937–957.

Chinkin, Christine and Charlesworth, Hilary The boundaries of international law: a feminist analysis. Melland Schill studies in international law . Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK. 2000.

Cohn, Carol (ed). Women and Wars.  Cambridge: Polity. October 2012.

Davies Sara E., Zim Nwokora, Eli Stamnes, Sarah Teitt (eds) Responsibility to Protect and Women Peace and Security: Aligning the Protection Agenda. Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013.

Engle, Karen. ‘“Calling in the Troops”: The Uneasy Relationship Among Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention’, 20 Harvard Human Rights Journal 189 (2007).

Gardam, Judith and Michelle Jarvis, Women, Armed Conflict and International Law, The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001.

Halley, Janet, Split Decisions: How and why to take a break from feminism, Princeton University Press, 2006.

Mahoney, James and Kathleen Thelen, Explaining Institutional Change. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Olsson, Louise and Theodora-Ismene Gizelis, ‘An Introduction to UNSCR 1325’, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, (2013) 39(4): 425-434.

Otto, Dianne. ‘The Exile of Inclusion’ Melbourne Journal of International Law 10 (2009) 11-26

Schmidt, Vivien A. ‘Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’ European Political Science Review (2010) 2(1): 1-25.

Swaine. Aisling, ‘National implementation of the UN Security Council’s women, peace and security resolutions’ Policy Brief, The Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, 14 March 2013.

[i] See further Christine Chinkin, and Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Building Women into Peace: the international legal framework’, Third World Quarterly, (2006) 27(5): 937–957. Gardam, Judith and Michelle Jarvis, Women, Armed Conflict and International Law, The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001.

[ii] The full texts of the WPS core resolutions are available under the year of adoption from

[iii] S/RES/2106 (2013), Adopted by the Security Council at its 6984th meeting, on 24 June 2013

[iv] Louise Olsson and Theodora-Ismene Gizelis, ‘An Introduction to UNSCR 1325’, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, (2013) 39(4): 425-434.

[v] Christine Bell, ‘Women and peace processes, negotiations, and agreements: operational opportunities and challenges’, Policy Brief, The Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, 13 March 2013.

[vi] Aisling Swaine, ‘National implementation of the UN Security Council’s women, peace and security resolutions’ Policy Brief, The Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, 14 March 2013.

[vii] Katrina Lee-Koo, ‘Translating 1325 into Practice: Lessons Learned and Obstacles Ahead’ in Sara E. Davies, Zim Nwokora, Eli Stamnes, Sarah Teitt (eds) Responsibility to Protect and Women Peace and Security: Aligning the Protection Agenda. Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013.

[viii] Security Council Reporter, 2013. ‘Third Cross-Cutting Report on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ available at, accessed 13 March 2013, at p. 9.

[ix] Op cit.

[x] Inger Skjelsbaek, ‘Responsibility to Protect or Prevent? Victims and Perpetrators of Sexual Violence Crimes in Armed Conflicts’ Global Responsibility to Protect 4 (2012) 154-171 at p. 163.

[xi] For example, Charlesworth cites a UNIFEM study in 2009 found that only 2.4 per cent of signatories to peace agreements since 1992 had been women and that no woman had ever been designated as a ‘chief mediator’ by the United Nations, op cit at p. 245.

[xii] Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, ‘UNSCR 1325—Conundrums and Opportunities’, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, 39(4): 612-619.

[xiii] Geoffery Wiseman, ‘Polylateralism’ and New Modes of Global Dialogue, Discussion Papers No. 59(Leicester: Leicester Diplomatic Studies Programme, 1999), at p. 41.  ‘My working definition of this concept is: “the conduct of relations between official entities (such as a state, several states acting together, or a state-based international organisation) and at least one unofficial, non-state entity in which there is a reasonable expectation of systematic relationships, involving some form of reporting, communication, negotiation, and representation, but not involving mutual recognition as sovereign, equivalent entities”.’

[xiv] For example, see the NGO Working Group on WPS website, and Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), as well as a wide array of academic and activist groups. For similar R2P groups, see The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) at, and the Global Center for R2P,

[xv] Vivien A. Schmidt, ‘Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism’ European Political Science Review (2010) 2:1: 1-25 at 2.

[xvi] Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and why to take a break from feminism, Princeton University Press, 2006, at p. 4.

[xvii] Dianne Otto, ‘The Exile of Inclusion’ Melbourne Journal of International Law 10 (2009) 11-26 at 24.  See further Dianne Otto, ‘Power and Danger: Feminist Engagement with International Law through the UN Security Council’ Australian Feminist Law Journal 2010 32(2): 97-121.

[xviii] James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen, Explaining Institutional Change. Cambridge UP, 2009 at p.8.

[xix] Lucy Hall and Laura J Shepherd, ‘WPS and R2P: Theorising Responsibility and Protection’ in in Sara E. Davies, Zim Nwokora, Eli Stamnes, Sarah Teitt (eds) Responsibility to Protect and Women Peace and Security: Aligning the Protection Agenda. Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013 at p. 76.

[xx] Hilary Charlesworth, 2010, ‘Feminist Reflections on the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 2(3): 232-249.

[xxi] Charlesworth, op cit at p. 249.

[xxii] Charlesworth, op cit, at p. 249.

[xxiii] Ibid.

Susan Harris Rimmer, Australian National University

Geneva Day 5

Day 5 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

On the front page of the International New York Times (which I still call the “International Herald Trib”!) there is a photo of a Syrian woman standing in the middle of a rubble-strewn street in Aleppo. She has spontaneously put her hand up to cover mouth as bombs have just fallen. As I looked at her, I thought: Who is representing you here at the Geneva Peace Talks?

 As so often happens in the mainstream media (as versus online and print reports by feminist researchers and journalists), a woman is made the subject of a news photo, with a brief caption underneath, but then she – and in fact virtually all women – vanish when the full news article is written. This is what happened today. The Times inside story about the “scramble” to keep the faltering peace talks alive was a story about men, rival men, mediating official men, but all men – Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, the men of the Opposition, the men of Assad’s government, the men of the Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Qatari governments, the officers and conscripts in the Assad government military, the commanders and fighters for the Syrian pro-anti Assad militias, the commanders and fighters for the foreign Islamist militias….

At meetings yesterday, Syrian women civil society activists and their transnational feminist supporters, however, remained engaged. The 10 Syrian women from inside Syria, women active in civil society groups “on the ground,” kept up their rounds of meetings with various state delegations, with the EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, with staff of UN Women and with these independent “INGO’s” (the lingo for international non-governmental organizations, such as WILPF, ICAN, Kvinna till Kvinna and other feminist groups).

But it is not clear that simply doing these rounds of embassy visits is proving very useful. No government official offered to do anything. They did not expend any of their own political currency. They didn’t even offer to get them passes so they could get inside the building. Their meetings with these ten Syrian women representatives may just allow these governments to claim that they “care” about Syrian women without actually doing anything to insure that their important voices – their knowledge, their peace strategies – are inside the peace talk negotiating room.

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference.

Syrian Women Activists speak at UN Women Press Conference. Photo by UN Women, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One puzzle I heard voiced yesterday was why the UN Women staff here are setting their political sights so low, why are they recommending that the Syrian women push at most for “observer” status in the talks — to listen but not talk? Admittedly, they don’t even have that now, but why start with such a modest demand? Perhaps the UN Women staff are also just “ticking the box”? That is, are they, like their counterparts in the various embassies just eager to be able to say that they were “supportive” of the Syrian women, without actually rocking any diplomatic boats – and thus without actually altering the structure of the official peace talks? A puzzle.

But the feminist strategists working with the Syrian women are certainly not setting their sights low. In all the conversations yesterday, they worked on plans to get the Syrian women’s voices, ideas, knowledge and proposals into the room.

For instance, one of the plans crafted by one of Syrian civil society networks would implement regional ceasefires with the aim of delivering desperately need humanitarian aid — food and medicine. They say that all of Syria is not an active fighting zone. The country really is made up today of violent war zones (for instance Aleppo, where the Assad Air Force is bombing civilian areas), but also areas – even particular neighborhoods of cities such as Homs and Damascus – where there is now a precarious peace.

For instance, on the coast, there is currently little open fighting, but there has been an influx of people from other regions fleeing to the coast in the aftermath of violence in their own home regions. The coastal region is where many Syrians who identify as Alawite (the group that Assad’s governing elite draws upon for its male personnel), but it has been women from this coastal community who have taken the initiative to actively set up support systems for the incoming displaced people, a majority women with their dependent children, even though outsiders would see those people as “Sunni.”

The Syrian woman presenting this proposed region-by-region peace plan yesterday – from the pro-civil society group Madani – drew a diagram on a white board (around the table there were 13 of us — British, Northern Irish, Turkish, Swedish, American, Norwegian – today it was 8 Macs, 2 pcs). She stressed that in these unstable but not openly violent areas such as along the coast and certain neighborhoods of Homs and

Damascus, what was immediately called for was NOT armed UN peacekeeping soldiers. Rather, what was needed there were locally designated civilian peace monitors – to be recognized by all sides – to oversee the bringing in of aid. In addition, there could be external and locally trained mediators, who would spot rising tensions and intervene to address them before they erupted into open violence.

The other point that was emphasized in yesterday’s strategy meetings was that any and all civil society/women representatives needed to put into place clear “feed back”

mechanisms. One of the groups that has conducted surveys among Syrians doing peace work inside country – the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS) – has found that the people who were most trusted by Syrians were “those who came and asked us what we thought, then went off and DID something about that, and THEN returned and told us what they had done and asked us for our responses to that.”

All the women with experience not only in Syria, but in Northern Ireland, Somalia, and Bosnia, emphasized that creating the conditions for ceasefires and maintaining them, as well as keeping precarious areas back from the brink of violence is itself peacebuilding. That is, we shouldn’t imagine that this hard, smart work in the midst of war’s violence and dislocation to be simply preliminary to peace; it itself is peacebuilding. And, of course, right now it is women who are developing those crucial peacebuilding skills and crafting these important political concepts.

So, I head for the airport in an hour with all these new ideas and images in my head. But the story isn’t over. Here in Geneva, feminists from independent transnational groups and Syrian women representing civil society groups inside Syria are still meeting, still strategizing, still pressing governments, opposition leaders, and the UN to make the peace talks more realistic and more potentially productive by bringing Syrian women’s voices and ideas to the table.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.

Geneva Days 3 and 4

Days 3 and 4 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks

Wednesday, January 22, and Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

Back to drizzle after a lovely bit of blue above yesterday.

This morning’s International New York Times is full of the news of the rocky, acrimonious start of the official Syrian Peace Talks up in the mountain resort of Montreux. NOT A SINGLE WOMAN is mentioned or quoted in the long article.

Women seeking peace. Photo by Cynthia Enloe

Women seeking peace. Photo by Cynthia Enloe.

In fact, loads of women are actually outside the hall holding brightly colored banners calling for women to be meaningfully included in the talks. (You can go to Code Pink’s and WILPF’s websites for news and photos).

Back down here in Geneva, yesterday (Wednesday) the 10 Syrian women civil society activists spent their day in meetings with UN officials and with officials of various governments. The Norwegians have been esp supportive, as have the British. Last week, WILPF’s UN-based staff in its small but savvy NY office managed to facilitate a meeting of Syrian women activists with Samantha Power, the US delegate to the UN.

Really, the amount of persuading it is taking to pry open these Peace Talk doors is mind-boggling. And, of course, every Syrian woman who is here in Geneva or in NY has had to have her travel funded by someone, has had to leave her home area and make the risky trip out of the country – and soon must try to get back home again. Nothing that they are doing is easy.

In all the discussions, these Syrian women activists are underscoring the importance of creating civil society in wartime. They remind us at every turn that there has not been a history of civil society in Syria. The Assad (Senior and Junior) regimes have systematically sucked all the air out of civic space. For 40 years to be “political” has been shrunken to mean solely to be part of, or complicit with the regime. To be anything other than supportive, complicit or passive is in the Assad regime’s view to be a “terrorist.” In this sense, Syrians have been, until recently, even more politically deprived than Egyptians. Even under Mubarak, Egyptian women’s grass roots groups were allowed to exist so long as they labeled their fields of work “education” or “development.” In January, 2014, however, Egyptian civil society is beginning to look more like Syria’s in so far as the currently ruling Egyptian military is defining all civic activism as “terrorism.”

Thinking about Syrian and Egyptian women activists’ daunting challenges as they try to plant the seeds of civil society convinces me all over again that one of the most globally damaging political consequences of Americans’ post-9/11 “War on Terror” discourse has been its sharpening an instrument of repression in the hands of autocratic regimes.

These challenges notwithstanding, Syrian women activists have created the beginnings of a civil society – citizens’ actions independent of the regime, independent of any armed group, independent of any party machine. They have done this by acting locally, by fulfilling civic needs that the government will not address and the armed groups either cannot or will not address.

Thus delivering food and medical supplies to displaced people within Syria, people (a majority today are women with their dependent children – which is quite different from the conventional “women and children”) forced to flee their homes because of violence, has become a principal space in which Syrian women can act as genuine citizens. It has not been only women who have been doing this work, but, the Syrian activists told us, most men have been conscripted by the government’s military, have become fighters in the opposition, have gone into hiding, or have been wounded or killed. Thus it has been women who, now in the fourth year of the war, have taken the lead in most Syrian civil society groups.

This is why the Syrian women going from government mission to government mission are calling for an independent delegation representing Syrian civil society to be at the formal negotiating table: if civil society is at the table, women will be authentically at the table.

UN and government officials resistant to civil society women activists being “at the table” are saying to the women who go to see them, “It’s too early,” or “You’re not ready,” or “You aren’t organized,” or “You don’t have a plan to bring peace.” The women who have made it here to Geneva this week counter: “We have built networks of women active locally. We are ready, in fact we are more prepared more for peace than most of the men at the table. And we do have a plan.” The plan is a series of steps in order of priority. The first is a cease fire. The second is the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and the immediate ceasing of all imports of weapons. Both of these steps are intended to make the 3rd step possible: the delivery of humanitarian aid to the country’s most desperate cities and towns. Beyond the delivery of aid, their plan calls for women to be represented in all post-conflict institution-building and for the prosecution of all acts of violence against women.

Several changes have marked the year-by-year unfolding of the Syrian conflict, and, the Syrian women activists say, each of these changes have been gendered. First, while women were prominent in the leadership of the early non-violent pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, as the violence escalated, women’s visibility receded. That is, as militarization has spread, so has the masculinization of Syrian political life. Many of the women pro-democracy leaders have had to flee abroad; those who have stayed in Syria have turned to less visible local humanitarian work, which too often is erroneously imagined to be outside of political life. Now in late 2013 and early 2014 as formal peace talks have begun, even as tenuous as they clearly are, Syrian activist women are again becoming more visibly political.

A second change, the Syrian women report, has been the transformations of the structures of Syrian families and of the Syrian economy. The spread of violence has produced more and more women-led households. But, just as women have become more relied upon to provide for the economic survival of families, their economic opportunities have shrunk. Many of the new economic opportunities available in wartime Syria have depended on exploiting, not resisting, the violence.

For instance, some male fighters are now paid for fighting, not much, but enough so they begin to see fighting as an economic activity. In addition, some Syrian local village leaders have begun to see armed check points as money spinners. So they have been creating armed check points across roads around their villages at which they collect fees from any passing vehicle. In this way, some people have begun to have a personal economic stake in the continuation of the armed conflict.

Third, Syrian women here told us, as the conflict has become more violent and as the number of masculinized armed groups – Syrian and foreign – have proliferated, the targeting of women has become more pronounced. Trafficking of women and girls, sexual assaults on women, forced early marriages of girls, the arrests and torture of women, the tightening of control of women for the sake of ideological goals – all have increased between mid-2011 and early 2014.

That is, “War” is not a static condition. Armed conflicts are dynamic. Those dynamics are gendered. Crafting a sustainable peace agreement – and building a secure and civic society – in 2014 presents a different set challenges than it did even in late 2012.

I’ve been lucky to be able to sit in on several smaller strategy meetings during these days in Geneva. The transnational feminist groups that are in daily contact with Syrian civil society activists provide them with official contacts, with media outlets for their analyses and plans, with funds for travel so they can meet with each other, with chances to trade experiences and strategies with women who’ve experienced other wars and other masculinized closed doors.

The women active in these transnational groups – WILPF, Code Pink, Women in Black, Women Living Under Muslim Law, Madre, Equality Now, Kamara (the Cairo-based women’s rights group), ICAN (as well as US-based women’s peace groups such as WAND) – all are themselves in the process of constant reflection and learning, learning how to be supportive without being presumptuous, learning how to facilitate without becoming the “story” themselves. It is impressive to watch this on-going alliance-making among feminists in the most daunting of political environments.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.

Geneva Day 2 Part C

Day 2 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks (Part C)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

We’d taken a break for finger food lunch and coffee and just to pause so we could digest all that we’d been hearing. The 4 newly arrived Syrian women also got a chance to get their bearings.

We all reconvened. First was a short, but powerful talk by Shirin Ebadi, the fearless Iranian human right lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She speaks English, but asked if she could offer her thoughts to us in her native Farsi, with a translator, so that she could say exactly what she meant. She began by apologizing to the Syrians present for herself and for all those Iranians – and she said there were many – who opposed the Iranian government’s current militarized interventions in the Syrian conflict (the Iranian government is a major backer of the Assad regime and directly supports the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militiamen’s cross-border interventions in Syria). Shirin then widened her message, energetically arguing that, time after time, external military interventions have worsened the violence endured by people inside the war-afflicted societies, while also shrinking the chances for a sustainable peace agreement. People crowded into the room broke into spontaneous applause when this part of Shirin’s talk was translated.

Without a break, we segued immediately to the next session. The four newly-arrived Syrian women took chairs in the inner semi circle, where they were joined by Madeleine Rees of WILPF and Lena Ag of Kvinna till Kvinna. I was asked to serve as moderator. Our task was to specify what were the particular obstacles to women civil society activists getting a place at the peace talk table. Madeline, with direct experience in Bosnia where she had served as Mary Robinson’s Special Representative for the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights, told us that she has repeatedly witnessed so many elite men’s dedication to the “medieval” narrative: “Only men with guns can bring peace.”

Madeleine urged each of us all subvert that conventional militarizing, masculinizing narrative everywhere we hear it. She pushed us to go further, to articulate an alternative and more realistic narrative: civil society activists, many of them women, bring to the table their knowledge of local conditions and their commitment to creating sustainable peace and meaningful security in ways that produce a more genuine security; it is these attributes and skills that has the best chance of producing an agreement one that fosters citizenship and political transparency.

Lena’s contribution underscored these points. She described Kvinna till Kvinna’s recent cross-national detailed study of the dynamics that today continue to favor masculinized peace negotiations. She reminded us that this was in spite of the UN Security Council’s members (including, of course, the US and Russia) in 2000 – 14 years ago – having voted to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 1325 On Women Peace and Security (what many women in the room refer to simply as “1325”). 1325 commits both the agencies of the UN and every UN member state to take actions that will insure that women are not just treated as “victims,” but are treated as serious players – that is, that women have an effective voice in all peace agreement processes, in all post-agreement transitional political arrangements, and in all on-going post-war state reforms and peace-building development. Thus it is in flagrant violation of their own formal commitments, Lena reminded us, that the key political players in so many of today’s peace processes and now this international Syrian process marginalize women civil society representatives.

From left to right: Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF; Susan Alloush; Gracia Namour (Elham’s interpreter); Elham Ahmad, and Rim Turkmani

From left to right: Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF; Susan Alloush; Gracia Namour (Elham’s interpreter); Elham Ahmad, and Rim Turkmani. Photo by WILPF (

The Syrian women who had just recently arrived then gave nuanced accounts of what women are experiencing but also what women activists are doing in the midst of the ever-escalating violence. With the support of Karama, a Cairo-based women’s rights group, some of them have formed the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace. Mouna Ghanem, trained as a public health professional, is among its co-founders. They have tried to bring together the scattered women’s groups working locally inside of Syria. Mouna said that 1325 was beginning to become more familiar to many of those activists, who now saw it as giving their demands for inclusion in the peace talks international recognition. She noted that these women, many of them trained in law, social work, and medicine, have been working to deliver humanitarian aid, neighborhood by neighborhood, to document violations of human rights in the midst of the violence, to create micro-ceasefires allowing food and medical supplies to reach Syrians isolated by violence.

Rim Turkmani, the astrophysicist who had spoken earlier in the day, told us that doing this sort of work “on the ground” was really effected by specific local conditions. For instance, she explained, in one neighborhood of a larger city there might be 5,000 armed fighters, most locally recruited, surrounded by 20,000 civilians. In that instance, local people – many of whom personally know the male fighters amongst them – can wield significant influence. Under these conditions, local civil activists stood a good chance of creating a temporary cease fire.

By contrast, Rim explained, if the violence had escalated to a point where living has become intolerable, forcing thousands of residents to flee, then the fighters might number 5,000, but the local residents will have have been reduced to, say, 2,000. Under those conditions, creating even a short-lived cease fire is unlikely.

Each of the four Syrian women were determined that women in Syria, no matter how difficult their immediate situations, should “not be passive.” They wanted both younger women and older women to demand that they be taking part in all sorts of community decision-making, that they craft their own plans and visions for a future Syria.

Despite the now-spiraling sexual assaults and kidnapping of women – perpetrated by those warring men who see women as mere currency in their rivalries with other men – these Syrian women insist that Syrian women should not be imagined by themselves, by the international media and agencies, or by us, their listeners, as mere victims. Syrian women, in all their diversity, were people with a stake in the direction their country took; they were people with skills and knowledge. That is, Syrian women were citizens.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.

Geneva Day 2 Part B

Day 2 of the Syrian Women’s Peace Talks in Geneva: Prelude to the Official Syrian Peace Talks (Part B)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cynthia Enloe

I’ve had the chance to go out for a walk along the lakeside — a couple of hardy Swiss were IN SWIMMING — it’s about 35 degrees here….

 So, to continue ….. Yesterday morning, Tuesday, after hearing the Northern Irish, Sri Lankan and Guatemalan women peace activists describe how they managed to get women’s collective foot in the formal peace talks door, we heard from the women sitting next to them in the semi circle (the rest of us were in outer rings of a semi circle). First, two women from Bosnia: they reported that that women from Bosnia – but also from Serbia and Croatia – scarcely had any voice at all in the 1995 US brokered Dayton Peace Accords that ended the devastating four-year war in the former Yugloslavia. Like the current Syrian talks, the Yugoslav all-male negotiations were held far from the society in conflict: at the Dayton US Air Force base in Ohio. As an aside, one of the Bosnian woman said it was indicative that these peace talks were held on a military base!

 Looking back now, the Bosnian women have concluded that one of the most damaging aspects of the US-brokered Dayton Accords was that they included a new CONSTITUTION! That is, it was bad enough that the peace agreement excluded women (and there did exist scores of women’s groups in early 1990s Yugoslavia – one of the most prominent being the Belgrade Women in Black), and that these constitutional arrangements were not subject to an open popular vote, but even worse – with the US government taking the lead – was that by inserting a new constitution in the peace agreement, ethnic differences among the women and men of the now-fragmented Yugoslavia were hardened into legal and institutional barriers. This has made Bosnian women’s efforts over these last 17 years to build a genuine post-war civil society that crosses alleged ethnic identities almost impossible.

 Constitutions matter. Writing a new constitution is integral to any transition from warring, fragmented society to a new civic culture. A constitution can either nurture societal reconciliation and the building of a sustainable peace or, contrarily, a constitution can perpetuate masculinized elitism and social distrust and insecurity. Women civil society activists, thus, need to be inside peace talks; they also need to have influential roles inside any constitution-writing assembly.

Three women had joined the semi circle from the Western Sahara to share their own experiences with us. Two of them gave their presentations to us in Arabic, with their third colleague translating. You really get to see how the English language has become so dominant when you’re sitting amidst women from a dozen countries; the common language that, say, Bosnian and Western Saharan women had to use to share their feminist ideas was English, even though English is each woman’s own 2nd or 3rd language. Then, for any present-day transnational efforts, those people privileged enough to have learned English are those most likely to be invited and to have their thoughts heard. Paying for translators is part of broadening women’s international participation.

These Western Sahara three women stressed how INeffective all the peace talks have been between the Moroccan government and the people of the Western Sahara. Women, they explained, have been totally excluded. Consequently, over the years — they are now in year 14 of making their lives in what were intended to be “temporary” refugee camps! – women who’ve become active in local affairs have tried at least to organize as women inside the camps and to get women into positions of some influence within the camps’ leadership.

Still, worst of all, these three women told us, they today feel as though “no one thinks about us any more; the Western Saharan conflict is not on anyone’s mind.” I sat there thinking, that’s true. I think about Syria, about the Congo, about South Sudan, but I don’t even try to keep track of what has been happening to Western Saharan women.

In a short coffee break Tuesday I chatted with a woman who’d come to listen from one of the big Geneva-based international aid organizations. Her specific job there is to insure that her colleagues’ work is “gender-sensitive.” (I won’t give the organization’s name because, given how few staff people in that building are assigned the job of monitoring gender equity, it would be too easy to track her down). On Tuesday this woman was fuming. Only the day before she had gotten an email message from one of her senior male supervisors telling her that she should take care of the procurement of sanitary pads for delivery to women refugees. But this committed staff woman has nothing to do with procurement – that’s an entirely different department. As explanation for his odd request, this senior man said, “I don’t do women.”

This, of course, is a large international organization which, on paper, assures the global public that it is dedicated to gender mainstreaming…..

The second of the intense morning’s sessions then got underway. Four Syrian women now living in exile spoke about how personally distressing it was to see their country descend into violence. Two women described an effort they’d launched here in Geneva to bring Syrians of all backgrounds and political affiliations together over Syrian food, using recipes from all regions of the country. No talk of politics, religion, or even of the conflict was allowed…the point was just to be together, to remind each other how much they shared as Syrians.

 These Syrian women — as women from any country would – have quite dissimilar understandings of what their society had been like before the outbreak of violence in 2011 – that is, before the Assad regime made military force its response to the non violent pro-democracy public demonstrations calling on the government to reform. Some of these Syrian women, living now outside Syria, for instance, recalled a pre-war society in which they felt secure: “Women could walk at night in Damascus without any fear.” Other women, by contrast, recalled that, while before 2011 there wasn’t overt violence, there was systematic political repression aimed at anyone who dared to be critical of the government. So, even among this handful of women, there existed two quite different understandings of history and of “security.”

Rim Turkmani, Syrian peace activist. Photo by Oxfam,

Rim Turkmani, Syrian peace activist. Photo by Oxfam, retrieved from Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One young Syrian woman, now in exile in France, gave an example of how the less visible violence had been transformed by 2012 into a more visible violence. “I had never been political. I was leading a pretty comfortable life. Then one day, after soldiers had started shooting civilians, I saw Assad on television laughing as the news of the killings was shown. That was it for me. I decided I had to do something.” She joined a small group of women who were trying to provide the simplest forms of support to those families who had lost members to the violence. On Easter, she and a friend decided to distribute chocolate Easter eggs to children in these grieving families -“We wrote messages both from the Koran and from the Gospels on the eggs.” But while on their rounds they were arrested by police for distributing the chocolate eggs and taken to a prison. “They put us in a cell next to a torture room, where we could hear other prisoners pleading to be killed rather than be subjected to more torture.” Eventually, she was released and fled to Paris. Now she runs an on-line FM radio station for Syrians.

 Just at this point – we were all very quiet – there was a commotion outside the glass wall of the room. Cheerful welcomes and much hugging. Syrian women from inside Syria had just managed to arrive! This was no small feat — receiving international funding for the trip, getting through check points, obtaining visas….

 In ‘Day 2, Part C’, I’ll report on what these women shared with us.

This blog originally appeared on Code Pink’s website. Reproduced here by permission of the author.