How Feminist is the United Nation’s Women, Peace, and Security Agenda?

In this article, SOAS postgraduate Ruth Artiles Valero focuses on the state-centricity that characterises the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security Agenda’s foundational pillars. It explains how and why an adherence to state-centricity and an authentically feminist approach to international relations, are most likely mutually exclusive.

One could well argue that the UN’s ‘gender mainstreaming’ goal has been shrunk in such a way that it no longer deserves the “feminist” label, and this would not be an understatement. Curiously, it is this very label the one which has enabled an all-too-simplistic championship of Resolution 1325, having been described as ‘one of the most inspired decisions’ of the Security Council and as a genuine commitment to women’s participation, global gender equality, and an advancement of international peace and justice. It culminated in a call for the inclusion of a gender perspective in peace building processes, expressing the need to draw attention to the specific protection needs of women and girls in conflict. However, the gap between the ambitions laid out by the WPSA and contemporary, global realities, are very significant. 

In late 2000, some of the enabling factors influencing the drafting of resolution 1325 in the Security Council included the large international attention received by the sexual violence in the Yugoslav wars of secession, the intense horror experienced by women during the eastern DRC conflict, and the surge of women’s peace movements in West Africa in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the WPSA’s attention to sexual violence, and rape in particular, created links between ‘women’ and ‘security’ which were not precisely accurate, nor helpful.

Rape as a weapon of war – a method “cheaper than bullets” with which to terrorise and even eradicate populations and national identities –  is  the subject around which the WPSA has focused most. As Carol Cohn (2008) noted, “the redefinition of rape as a war crime, rather than a ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’ ‘boys-will-be-boys’ inherent aspect of war, [will create] some deterrent effect”. This is an important first step when it comes to accomplishing “negative peace”, defined primarily by the absence of conflict or violent acts. However, it remains off-limits within the WPSA to address the intersections of, say, gender and ethnicity or sexual orientation, as well as the gender regime that makes a physical, sexual attack on a woman a blow against the “honour” of men and the community they both belong to (to name just one of the various possible impacts).

So long as these subjects are considered “off-limits”, how likely is it really that rape will stop being used as a weapon? How genuinely feminist are these measures? A feminist approach is grouped in the broader category of theoretical reflectivism because it involves theorising beyond state-centric understandings of war and looks instead at how international politics affects and is reciprocally affected by masculinities and femininities. In addition, the core concepts which are employed in the field (war, peace, security, nations) are themselves gendered, seeking to problematize the very politics of knowledge construction. 

The focus on rape as a weapon of war has created new hierarchies and forms of exclusion. The process of equating a threat to women’s bodies as a threat to national security has demonstrated that the ultimate concern is national securitisation and not the elimination of sexual violence per se. For instance, the WPSA framework explicitly states that individual forms of sexual aggression are not sufficiently threatening or socially destabilising as they do not fit in the “weapon of war” paradigm. Curiously enough, a study by Peterman et al., (2011) showed that even in eastern Congo, the majority of sexual violence during times of conflict was perpetrated by average, non-combatant civilians and within marriages. Moreover, there is a myriad of forms of violence experienced by vulnerable women constantly that go beyond the “sexual assault” category. Examples include physical, financial, emotional, verbal, psychological, digital, cultural, and spiritual (or religious) abuse. 

With this considered, it is apparent that a clear emphasis has been placed in state security over the feminist goal of equality and justice, giving way to a process which is ultimately obscuring and over-simplifying the violent structures that lie beneath the current world order. In the end, there is an uninterrupted continuation of a dynamic in which neither the perpetrator nor the victim gets the chance to ‘speak’, despite the fact that the securitised subject has been broadened. With WPSA having been created as a response to the movements carried out by women at the grassroots, it is concerning that such few UN national action plans (as of 2014, only about a third) specify civil society in their drafting. Thus, the WPSA has mostly empowered technocrats and gender experts when it comes to designing, implementing, evaluating and measuring public policies, rather than women at the bottom.

In introducing gender inclusion simply as an ad-on to the status quo system of peacebuilding, rather than truly reinventing it through a feminist lens, the WPSA continues to make use of the master-narrative of top-down strategic studies which decontextualizes issues of war and violence. For instance, the inability to acknowledge the pronounced asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians resulted in measures put in place by Resolution 1325 never yielding tangible results in the conflict. In other contexts, the WPSA may actually become an obstacle to achieving gender justice and security especially when laid out next to Western examples. In applying homogenised notions of norms which would make an impact in liberal, Western, democratic nations (such as mere inclusion of women in decision-making processes), the WPSA is further contributing to silencing the real struggles which are faced by women worldwide, as engrained power relations, context-specific norms, and meaning systems are left unscrutinised. 

In regards to women, the WPSA has focused on the themes of women as natural peace-makers, positioning women as genuinely interested in the long-term or future, women’s participation as likely to make peacekeeping more effective, women as less corruptible than men, and women as crucial to economic prosperity. It is debatable how feminist this stereotyped consideration is. Clearly women, like men, do not fall under a homogenous block, especially when taking into account groups of men, women, and individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Not only does this not provide us with a real picture of who women and other vulnerable communities are and what they do, but can bring about very serious, counterproductive consequences. For instance, the immutable-looking labels which the WPSA has attached to the concept of “women”, means that alternative femininities (such as queer, dynamic or postcolonial femininities) can easily be excluded (again) when failing to embody and/or enact this construct. The overly-simplistic narrative has fetishized rather than solved these pressing issues. 

The simplification of this situation has also facilitated its commodification. Used in everyday language, the idea that in contexts of war women are unanimously vulnerable because of their susceptibility to acts of sexual violence, has been normalised. This is worrying. The moral, ‘humanitarian’ imperatives for the safety and equality of women and men, which have emanated from this logic, have also been used as justification for (counterproductive) Western intervention in war zones. Moreover, numerous reports have even indicated that within the aid world, agencies go as far as to compete with one another for primacy in “conflict-related sexual violence” as an issue-area. This is reflected through behaviours known as “victim appropriation”, and is also appreciated in situations where information is purposely withheld  from other agencies/coordinating bodies. 

Feminism is a genuinely useful political and analytical tool because it contemplates social and power dynamics which happen on deeper levels. However, all this shows the many problems which arise when we decide to label measures as “feminist” when they are not. It can therefore  be determined that meaningful outcomes in the field of feminism are unlikely unless international institutions are seriously reinvented. Authentically feminist accomplishments and state centric conceptualisations of ‘security’ are mutually exclusive.

Image Credit: Bernd Untiedt, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

From Bosnia in 1992 to Libya in 2011, military intervention to protect civilians during war appeared to herald a new era — the era of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Now, R2P has all but collapsed in the wake of conflicts in Syria; does humanitarian intervention still have a future?

As an undergraduate student in the U.S., I spent my first summer of university studying in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the site of the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Walking through the streets of the once-besieged Sarajevo and standing at the site of massacre in Srebrenica, I found myself carrying a central question: where was the international community during this conflict? Why, for all their military and political power, was Europe and the U.S. unable to stop such a horrifying war until it was too late for hundreds of thousands killed?

It is a question that I wrestled with once again a year later in Jordan, while speaking to refugees on the Jordanian-Syrian border who had fled rebel-held parts of Syria. This time, it was the very people who had suffered the conflict themselves who asked these questions of me: where was my country — the United States — during the siege of Aleppo, the destruction of Homs, the chemical attacks in Damascus? Why had we watched while thousands died, and done nothing?

Fifteen years ago, mass violence in Bosnia and Rwanda brought a similar kind of soul-searching amongst the international community, culminating in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect in 2004. The resolution, the first true codification of humanitarian intervention, compels the Security Council to act in cases of “genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law.”

While limited, for example only allowing for military force as a last resort when all others options are exhausted, R2P had noble intentions: to make “never again” — a phrase born from the horrors of the Holocaust and revived following the Rwandan Genocide — a reality.

I believed in R2P, despite its flaws; and I believed in the use of R2P as a tool to shape a more peaceful, more responsible world. But in the wake of the failure of the international community to respond to massacres in Syria, as well as Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere, a resolution that seemed to show such promise now appears all but dead.

In writing on the theme “What to do when your dreams of saving the world are shattered,” I’ve returned to the central issue I witnessed first in Bosnia and Jordan: the gap between the moral responsibility the international community claims to stand for, and the consistent failure of the world – and the U.S.  – to uphold these same principles when it comes to stopping mass violence.

The End of R2P?

When the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus in August of 2013, the United States appeared poised to launch the kind of military action that had characterized previous NATO intervention in Libya and Bosnia. This would never occur: Obama soon backtracked from military strikes, in response to both U.S domestic opposition and paralysis in the UN Security Council. His decision has since been described alternatively as the end of R2P and as the “epic failure of our age.”

While there is little doubt as to the failure of the Obama administration in find a solution to the Syrian Conflict, this singular event should instead be viewed as a piece of a larger story — one that recognizes the repeated failure of the international community to act to protect civilians in Syria, especially in the early years of the conflict. Unlike in Bosnia or Libya, efforts to invoke UN-mandated intervention under the Responsibility to Protect have consistently faltered, even in light of well-documented cases of government war crimes and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

This fault for this stalemate is often placed – not without reason – on Russia’s unwavering support of the Assad regime. Yet blaming Russia solely for the tragedy of the Syrian War obscures a far more fundamental, and potentially longer-lasting, issue at play: an eroding belief by the international community in the legitimacy of the West, especially the United States, to intervene on humanitarian grounds.

It is a belief that is unfortunately far from unfounded, given the historical misuse of intervention for regime change.

From the adaptation of the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya as a vehicle for removing Libyan dictator Gaddafi to the long history of U.S interventions in Latin American nations and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Western military action has more often than not be in the service of security or political, rather than humanitarian, goals.

Using intervention as a tool for non-humanitarian ends served only to compromise the central character of the Responsibility to Protect: the morality of protecting civilians in conflict, and the moral imperative of the international community to act, by force if need be, in situations where these lives are threatened.

Rather than representing a new age of apathy to human suffering, international inaction in Syria instead should be viewed as the result of years of misuse, mistakes and misjudgments in intervention that have sapped the international community’s confidence in the responsibility of Western foreign policy, and the sincerity of its words when it claims to act in service to a moral cause. Through these decisions, the U.S. and its allies have undermined their own narrative as a responsible and positive force in the world, to the benefit of the “sovereignty-first” narratives of autocratic countries which seek to see humanitarian intervention drastically curtailed – or eliminated entirely.

The tragic result is in a newfound impunity for governments to abuse their people, supported by Russian and Chinese warnings of American regime change that have grown all the more persuasive in recent years, from Iran to Venezuela.

Those who suffer the most from this change are the people of Syria, Yemen, Libya and more, for whom international efforts to stop mass violence appear more and more remote of a possibility – the large fault of which lies on the shoulders of America, Europe, and their allies.

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Nearly a three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, twenty-five years after the Rwandan Genocide, and fifteen years after the Responsibility to Protect, and the world has still yet to learn the lesson that mass violence in any part of the world reflects heavily on us all.

In the wake of the Syrian failure, there is new imperative to rethink the shared responsibility of the international community in conflict – a responsibility that fully grapples with the failures of interventions in Libya and Syria, that strives to reevaluate why we intervene, and that acknowledges what we sacrifice when interventions are conducted to support geo-political goals.  

Saving humanitarian intervention requires rethinking foreign policy assumptions long thought infallible, in exchange for the harder task of recognizing how often intervention has been misused and questioning the doctrine of the modern era of foreign policy responsible. The success of the Responsibility to Protect in the post-Syrian War era depends on acknowledging these past misdeeds and striving not to repeat the same mistakes, in order to ensure that the world is better prepared to act when the next instance of violence arises once again.

Only then can we create a more responsible form of humanitarian intervention, and move closer to fulfilling the central promise of “never again.”

Photo Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andre T. Richard, US Department of Defense. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.