Archive | March, 2014

Making Persons ‘Reappear’ in El Salvador

27 Mar

As many readers of this blog know, the vicious civil war that raged for years in El Salvador left many victims, including the mostly unhealed scars of families seeking knowledge of the whereabouts of children (now adults) who were ‘disappeared’ during military operations in the 1980s.  The combination of the sudden loss of a loved one followed by years of silence regarding their whereabouts is a pain that only few of us can imagine.   The pain only deepens when the ‘disappeared’ are children.

GAPW just spent an important afternoon with the staff of the Pro- Búsqueda Association (, a group of mostly younger professionals dedicated to lifting the veil of disinformation and deceit imposed by those seeking to cover up the truth of many hundreds of childhood disappearances.  Using sophisticated tracking software, Pro- Búsqueda has successfully reunited hundreds of disappeared children (now adults) and their loved ones. The organization also provides counseling services for families.  Many of these extraordinary stories can be founded on their website.

Staff at Pro- Búsqueda have noted with appreciation the cooperation they have received from many international experts as well as from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.   Pro- Búsqueda is assisting now on what will be only the fourth case to come to the Court from El Salvador.  However, the organization believes that over 900 cases of disappearances are entitled to their day in court, with the strong potential for reparations as well.

A major violation occurred in November 2013 when three armed men entered the Pro- Búsqueda offices, stole computers and set fire to some documents and files.  The attack, which was condemned at the time by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has thankfully not proven to be a fatal setback.  The offices we visited were filled with deep resolve, but also with the sounds of laughter.

One recommendation from Pro- Búsqueda and other groups working in this area is for El Salvador to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance ( and fully abide by its provisions, including ensuring “that any individual who alleges that a person has been subjected to enforced disappearance has the right to report the facts to the competent authorities, which shall examine the allegation promptly and impartially and, where necessary, undertake without delay a thorough and impartial investigation.”

That states have not done due diligence on matters of fact finding, investigation and ending impunity is why the work of Pro- Búsqueda and others working on enforced disappearances is so important.  Disappearing children is a grave crime.   From the standpoint of promoting peaceful societies, giving the disappeared from El Salvador the opportunity to return to their families and communities is among the most hopeful work we have witnessed anywhere.

Dr. Robert Zuber

An Open Letter to UN Permanent Representatives — Give the Disarmament Commission Another Chance

20 Mar

Editor’s note:  For many years, GAPW has lamented the decline in productivity of the UN Disarmament Commission.  Given some recent hopeful signs in disarmament and the fact that the DC is in the third year of a 3 year policy cycle, we believe that the upcoming UNDC is an opportunity for meaningful deliberations warranting the attention of diplomatic missions that might well choose to put their energies elsewhere. 


As most of you are aware, April 7 marks the beginning of the 2014 UN Disarmament Commission, the third year of its current policy cycle.   Ambassador Drobnjak has met with delegates to brief them on his own hopes and expectations for the three-week session and will convene another preparatory meeting on March 24. As he does so, we recall Ambassador Grima’s assertion from last April that the 2013 session did much to rebuild trust among delegations as a precondition for meaningful deliberations on nuclear disarmament and confidence building in the field of conventional weapons. This assertion may be as much an aspiration as a fact, but Ambassador Grima’s words at the very least underscore the need for more trustbuilding in disarmament matters as well as to increase the resolve of the UNDC to ‘test’ strategies that can build even more trusting and policy-effective relations among delegations tasked with disarmament matters.

Excellencies, this letter is a request to all of you to consider supporting another push for effectiveness in the UNDC in April, prioritizing time and energy from your missions to help support the possibility of deliberative movement that can provide real guidance to First Committee delegates. The UNDC now stands at risk of being overtaken by events as governments and civil society increasingly look outside the UN for the means to carry forward focused and technical deliberations on critical and emerging disarmament issues. A successful UNDC, resulting in clear if modest recommendations, can help erase the frustration of many inside and outside the UN that our disarmament structures are now simply and stubbornly inflexible.  

We recognize the challenge in asking for this commitment.  Our sense while speaking with many representatives of missions is that the UNDC feels too much like a long and tedious obligation that, as we all acknowledge, has failed to produce tangible results in many years.  GAPW has noted with concern many changes in the makeup of delegations to the UNDC over the years, the smaller numbers of diplomats who make the trip from Geneva or national capitals, the reduced ranks of diplomats assigned to cover the DC and its working groups, especially after the formal statements have been concluded.

With all that delegations need to accomplish on issues ranging from disabilities and the status of women to atrocity crime prevention and post-2015 development goals — not to mention other disarmament obligations — it is understandable that many of you would choose to minimize mission involvement in such a protracted and, especially in recent years, largely unfulfilling process.  But we also recognize that disarmament structures have undergone change in the past, they can be changed again, and it is worth our while to seize current opportunities to change them further.

As you all know, the UNDC is a deliberative body not a negotiating body.  It makes political judgments regarding the best paths forward on disarmament but neither creates nor endorses binding agreements. As such, there is little pressure regarding the establishments of precedents in disarmament negotiations, important given that the UNDC will be followed this year by the precedent-laden NPT review and the 5th Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms.   In addition, there is little pressure for the UNDC to issue comprehensive guidelines on disarmament matters.  Concrete, if modest, suggestions for how to move disarmament processes forward would be both sufficient and welcome.   As much as the global public craves solutions on disarmament matters, they can be provisionally satisfied with tangible policy movement of the sort that should by now be the UNDC’s specialized domain.

Failure to use this final year of the UNDC’s cycle to productive ends will further erode delegate interest.  It will increase the likelihood that states will no longer see the value in funding these sessions.  And, perhaps most important, failure of the UNDC might well encourage the Security Council to take up disarmament more frequently as a thematic consideration in a manner that marginalizes GA initiatives. The apparent inability of yet another GA process to live up to expectations will only embolden those who see the Council and the Council alone as the only effective body to take up these concerns.

GAPW’s clear position is that we need to keep disarmament firmly as a GA function.  But we also need to demonstrate that GA disarmament structures, especially the UNDC, can be less prone to gridlock or held hostage to an inflexible view of ‘consensus’ that belies the UNDC’s purely deliberative functions.  With all that is taking place inside and outside the UN, it is no longer clear that the UNDC will continue to have a key role in disarmament affairs if we cannot take measures now to make modest, limited recommendations to other parts of the GA which are more directly responsible for establishing and promoting disarmament obligations.

Excellencies, with all due respect for the multiple, important agendas taking up the time of you and your mission colleagues, we urge you to give ample attention to this session of the DC. We have noted with deep appreciation recent “openings” on regulating the global arms trade, fact-based discussion on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, hopeful collaborations among states as part of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms, Iran’s still-tentative recalibration of its own nuclear ambitions, efforts to address the impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, building transparency and confidence in outer space activities, and more.  With all that is now attempting to bloom, this could also be the season when we can replace structural immovability with a more flexible and collaborative tone.  This could be the year for deliberation that yields suggestions for moving forward on disarmament obligations that people worldwide are yearning to see.

Excellencies, you have assurances of our highest consideration as well as our support as the UNDC navigates its current challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Goodbye Sierra Leone, Hello CAR: On ‘new’ peacekeeping not being so ‘new’

12 Mar

With Ban Ki Moon overseeing the wrapping up of the UNIPSIL peacebuilding operation, fifteen years of UN involvement in Sierra Leone through peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations has come to an end. This note will not go into much depth about that process, as there are some competent histories of peacekeeping and peacebuilding in Sierra Leone[1]. Nevertheless, it’s aim is to highlight certain of its peacekeeping components (UNAMSIL), while demonstrating the value in reflecting on Sierra Leone operations as opposed to simply forgetting about them. Such reflection is pertinent in light of current proposals on a peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic (CAR), and wider debates on peacekeeping.

More or less at the same time as the UN is wrapping up its Sierra Leone’s commitments, the organization is preparing itself to deploy into the CAR. The descent of the CAR into the grave violence seen today has been well documented[2], as has analysis of the joint French (Operation SANGARIS) and African Union (MISCA) peacekeeping intervention.  The Security Council’s meeting on 6th March looked to directly address the worsening situation in the country through the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence in the country. Contributions to the meeting came from heads of humanitarian agencies (OCHA and the UNHCR, both of whom appeared to be doing a great deal of work on very little money), the Foreign Minister of the CAR (who gave a considerably emotional and powerful speech), the African Union (who sought to outline MISCA’s achievements, and not have their efforts pushed side by an international presence), as well as a number of member states.

Regarding the probable establishment of a UN operation, the view is very much that the deployment would have to be ‘phased’ – i.e. – robust at first, followed by a larger, more multifunctional force when security was more established. This model of peacekeeping is logical if international peacekeepers are to be deployed. However, the approach was described as being a ‘new approach to peacekeeping’[3]. This description is problematic: the experience of peacekeeping in Sierra Leone demonstrates that phasing operations in this way is anything but ‘new’. The description could become even more problematic if lessons from previous phased operations are not incorporated into new resolutions.

On an organizational front, the Sierra Leone missions incorporated a range of phased actors.  Through the second half of the 1990’s ECOWAS’s military wing, ECOMOG led a robust intervention, largely via the regional hegemon (Nigeria). A considerable number of these forces were ‘re-hatted’ – i.e. forces acting under a regional banner and transitioning over to working under a UN flag[4]. Moreover, the deployment of the UNAMSIL peacekeeping operation was supported by a robust, combat capable deployment from a P5 member – the UK. This allowed for a ‘phased approach’, wherein the UN/UK would push outwards to unsecured zones of operation to create secure conditions for a multifunctional peacekeeping force to undertake core peacebuilding functions.

Conceptually, this demonstrated the first signs of ‘post-Brahimi’ peacekeeping. UNSCR 1270 mandated the operation under Chapter VII to take ‘necessary action to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel and, within its capabilities and areas of deployment, to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence’. At the time, Protecting Civilians in peacekeeping mandates was a new phenomenon – UNSCRs 1265 and 1296 being passed in 1999 and 2000 respectively[5].

The use of Chapter VII to authorize ‘necessary action’ allowed peacekeepers to undertake more robust approaches to their duties when faced with belligerent groups.  This linked to the significant doctrinal efforts of the time, in particular the evolution of the ‘Peace Support Operations’ concept[6], which espoused a robust, combat capable military presence to start a mission, which would be phased out by a multifunctional peacebuilding presence.  Indeed, the principle author of PSO doctrine, Phillip Wilkinson, saw Sierra Leone as a conceptual test of that idea[7].

Finally, efforts were put into the transition from peacekeeping – the provision of negative peace – into peacebuilding – the provision of more positive forms of peace. The transition from UNAMSIL to UNIOSIL (later to become UNIPSIL) and the subsequent involvement of the Peacebuilding Commission demonstrated a commitment to longer-term peacebuilding

Sierra Leone demonstrates that ‘new models’ of peacekeeping have been undertaken in the past – but so what? The importance here is that the mission endured a significant range of challenges – some almost bringing the mission down. It is through acknowledging such failures that peacekeeping doctrine and practice develop, particularly useful in the context of establishing new operations.

Levels of enthusiasm towards ‘Robust peacekeeping’ varied considerably as the mission went on. Reports of contingents not willing to undertake offensive operations against rebels beset the operation throughout the first year of its deployment. This was compounded by issues of considerable in-fighting between contingents[8] linked to issues of re-hatting of ECOMOG Peacekeepers into UN ones[9]. The operation was also the ‘poster image’ for the oft-used concept of peacekeepers arriving in theatre with inadequate levels of training and equipment, a dilemma often faced when peackeepers are required to deploy rapidly. Even Secretary General Annan was quoted to have said ‘Anyone who believes, or says they believe, in multilateral affairs must be disappointed.’[10] These dilemmas were to contribute to the low point of the operation in the summer of 2000, when rebel groups took 300 peacekeepers hostage[11].

On a wider scale, issues with the Lomé Peace Agreement offered considerable lessons in the crafting of peace agreements[12], in particular, the awarding of Senior Ministerial Posts to those in the highest echelons of the principal rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front. Critiques over the minimal role of women in crafting peace agreements for Sierra Leone were also made. Moreover, assessments of the PBC engagement noted substantial difficulties with the coordination of peacebuilding, in particular the use of the Peacebuilding Fund without effective political agreement with the government on how the money would be used[13]. UNAMSIL was also one of the active missions to be highlighted in reports of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, at a time when the SEA went from being an issue swept under the carpet to one of the most damaging scandals to beset UN peacekeeping operations.

If history is constantly being reinvented by those who authorize and deploy operations, then there is a legitimate concern that the lessons of that history will not have been learned. This is not to say that the mission in the CAR is a ‘Sierra Leone’ engagement – no two conflicts are the same, neither should the response be. However, if the CAR operation runs into difficulties, suggesting that the difficulties are due to the fact that this is a ‘new’ type of operation will be neither honest nor sufficient. This is a critical matter when it comes to properly addressing and assessing significant security threats to human lives.

This leads one to ask what ‘new’ actually means. States in the C34, and fourth committee have often sought to highlight how peacekeeping today is substantially different from what it used to be. The C34 committee contained statements – both tinged with skepticism and optimism – that peacekeeping just wasn’t like it used to be. Given that peacekeeping in Sierra Leone was being undertaken 15 years ago, this judgment about the relation between ‘new’ and ‘old’ peacekeeping should be interrogated more deeply. Again, peacekeeping operations are deployed into highly violent societies. Consistently claiming to invent the wheel when the wheel has long been present will not help us meet current peacekeeping challenges.

It is not up to this article to proclaim Sierra Leone as a ‘success’ – that is up to the people of Sierra Leone to decide. Nevertheless, its importance in developing peacekeeping doctrine and practice is not to be sniffed at. What the mission did, how it did it, and the challenges it faced should all be kept in mind, particularly as the UN seeks to establish a peacekeeping mission to the CAR.

By all means consign peacekeeping in Sierra Leone to the history book, but do not consign its lessons to the trashcan.

Dr. David Curran, Peacekeeping Fellow

[1] David Keen, Conflict and collusion in Sierra Leone, New York, Palgrave, 2005

[2] Gobal Centre for R2P, ‘Central African Republic’,

[3] French Mission to the United Nations – 6 mars 2014 – République centrafricaine – Remarques à la presse de M. Gérard Araud, représentant permanent de la France auprès des Nations unies – found at

[4] United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations Best Practices Unit – “Re-Hatting” Ecowas Forces As UN Peacekeepers: Lessons Learned

[5] Curran, D. M.; Woodhouse, T., Cosmopolitan Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone: What can Africa contribute?, International Affairs. Vol. 83, No. 6, 2007 pp. 1055-1070.

[6] Joint Doctrine Development Centre, Joint Warfare Publication 3-50: Peace Support Operations. London: Permanent Joint Headquarters, 1998, (JDDC is now the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre – DCDC)

[7] Wilkinson, P, ‘Peace support under fire: lessons from Sierra Leone’, International Security Information Service briefing paper, June 2000

[8] Bullion, A, India in Sierra Leone: A case of Muscular Peacekeeping, International Peacekeeping, Vol.8, No.4, Winter 2001, pp.77–91

[9] The Guardian, Sierra Leone peace force accused of sabotage, 8 September 2000,

[10] See note 8.

[11] United Nations, Lessons learned from United Nations peacekeeping experiences in Sierra Leone, UN Best Practices Unit ‘Lessons learned’ report, New York,  United Nations, Sept. 2003

[12] Bright, D., ‘Crafting the Lomé Peace Agreement, Conciliation Resources Report, 2000,

[13] Actionaid, CAFOD and CARE International, ‘Consolidating the peace? Views from Sierra Leone and Burundi on the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission’, London, CARE International, 2007


Women Cadets Talk “Homeland Security”

11 Mar

This past weekend, Global Action teamed up with the New York Chapter of Women in International Security for a presentation at West Point to women cadets as part of International Women’s Day.

The cadets represented two service academies – at West Point and Annapolis – and were attending the Corbin Women’s Leadership Summit on the theme, “Beyond the Brass Ceiling: Educating, Inspiring and Empowering for the Future.“

The situation of many women cadets in the US service academies is challenging at best.   There have been a host of very ‘public’ incidents of discrimination and abuse that have undermined trust in the academies and raised concern from women, peace and security advocates.   There have also been some high profile military activities that portend a shift from conventional military operations to more ‘high tech’ engagements that substitute robots for soldiers and drones for ‘manned’ aircraft.

None of this was news to these cadets.  Indeed, we generally find that conversations on peace and security with military personnel (or personnel in training) are among the most stimulating discussions that we are fortunate to be part of.   For this session, we decided it best to focus more on their social environment and a bit less on their military obligations:

·       We highlighted the changing constellation of threats that need to be assessed as potential sources of conflict.   Not only does most of the conflict on the UN Security Council agenda take place within states rather than across borders, but there is a general recognition that future conflicts are at least as likely to arise from competition over resources, especially water, as well as lands and oceans whose ecological potential has already been seriously compromised by pollution and climate change.  In addition, cadets must prepare to participate in a new generation of multi-lateral peacekeeping operations as well as assess security factors such as the trend to more asymmetrical warfare with an array of non-state actors and their increasingly clever killing devices.

·        We highlighted the need to identify and enfranchise stakeholders across a wide spectrum of conflict prevention and response.  This is not about ‘hearts and minds’ so much as about willing hands.    We simply leave too many assets on the table when creating strategies for addressing conflict, and we desperately need to raise that involvement.   We drove the point home that the most powerful military that has ever graced this planet had more than its share of difficulty subduing one of the poorest countries in the world.   Our militaries, it seems, are simultaneously intimidating and insufficient to the tasks of preserving and rebuilding the peace.  We need more, and we need it from a wider range of stakeholders and their distinctive capacities.

·         We highlighted the need to rescue ‘service’ from its overly militarized contexts.   These cadets were quite prepared to acknowledge that their ‘service’ is only one of many forms and that, indeed, more service from more places would be most welcome.    My many relatives in the military would have made a similar acknowledgment, that service is more a lifestyle than a professional obligation.   For all our flaws as people, we took seriously the need to lend a hand where we could, to look out for our neighbors, to offer support in a crisis, to share skills that would otherwise be in short supply.  As our societies become more complex and anxious, the need for service – if not the interest in service – must grow as well.  As our militaries are not sufficient to the challenges of modern security, our notions of service are inadequate to societies drowning in distraction and self-preoccupation.

·         And this led to the final major point, the degree to which modern culture has tuned out the institutions, strategies and practices of the military (and others) on whom we depend to protect our ‘way of life.’ We don’t always like what the military does, but it is indispensable to keep connected with its people, like these cadets, who will carry out missions ostensibly on our behalf.   More and more, people in the US (and elsewhere) know little or nothing about what military personnel do on a daily basis, how they motivate themselves to perform, how they feel about the things they are being asked to do on behalf of a largely disinterested population.   I related stories of my church life in the 80s and 90s when service personnel would return to the US, often badly damaged in body and spirit, sometimes drug addicted, with few employment prospects, let alone access to sufficient physical and psychological care.   Most of them could handle the dangerous streets.  What was harder to deal with was the sense that they were being shunned by the very people they imagined it had been their job to protect.

This seemed to strike a deep chord with many of the cadets.  How do you defend people who don’t have any interest in their erstwhile defenders nor in any of the other activities that must take place in the world in order for us to have all the material comforts and distractions that we take for granted, the advantages to which we feel entitled, the career pursuits that have little benefit beyond the limits of our own tight social orbits?  How do you ‘defend’ people who see others largely as ‘markets,’ who are more bitter than grateful, who allow themselves to be absorbed by gadgets such that we don’t ever have to pay attention to the world beyond our phones?

The cadets came away with a clearer sense, perhaps, that our security is about much more than defending our perimeter through military bases sited in other countries.   It is also about the security of the homeland, ensuring that the cores of our cultures are active and disciplined and hospitable and fair, including and especially fair to women.  As citizens, these women gave every indication of being willing to see and acknowledge connections to global processes to which we are usually blind, as well as the needs in our neighbors towards which we are more and more content to remain willfully ignorant.

Dr. Robert Zuber

UN Panel Discussion Highlights Rule of Law Obligations

6 Mar

The Rule of Law thematic has been on the UN’s agenda frequently this winter with open debates and panel discussions taking place across complementary processes. From the post-2015 development agenda to the work of peacekeeping missions in conflict and post-conflict settings, it seems that there is ample space and opportunity for this issue to be integrated in many important security, human rights and development discussions.

Following up to the Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels, a panel discussion was held on 27 February 2014 focusing on rule of law, peace and security, human rights and development. The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson provided the introductory remarks and moderated the discussion. In his remarks, he highlighted that “[t]he rule of law, based on human rights, underpins peace and security.” Reflecting on the rule of law at the international level, he highlighted the role of the UN Charter and peaceful settlement of disputes while at the national level, justice and law are important in preventing conflict and mitigating grievances accordingly. Rule of law also makes significant contributions in fostering and promoting economic growth and building strong institutions which are integral to sustainable development and to the well-functioning of societies.

Specifically focusing on rule of law and human rights, Ms. Louise Arbour, President of the International Crisis Group, made the case for how rule of law and human rights are not interlinked because they are the same. Mr. Muna Ndulo, Professor of Law at Cornell University raised important questions about the conditions necessary for the rule of law to become a reality (in a peace and security context) and how its implementation can be monitored, including efficiency of services and accountability systems.

Speaking in her capacity as Director-General of the IDLO, Ms. Irene Khan iterated that the links between rule of law and development are mutually reinforcing. It is not enough for laws to be adopted, but they have to be properly enforced because there is risk that both laws and legal institutions can be mismanaged. Thus, it is hard to separate rule of law from development because it provides the basis for empowerment, eradicating poverty, and equitable access to services and resources.

During the discussion, many member states raised thought-provoking questions, including complying with the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice as well as the need for judicial review of the Security Council decisions. Moreover, further to the role of the Security Council, questions were raised as to what further steps can be taken to promote equal and effective implementation of all Security Council resolutions, including the peaceful settlement of disputes. Finally, questions arose about what to do to ensure that there is no duplication of efforts, between the UN and member states on addressing some of these issues. Emphasis was placed on national ownership, national sovereignty and ensuring that the concepts that are promoted by the UN, including in peacekeeping missions, are agreed on by member states and are based on practical situations.

The aforementioned discussions are welcomed both in increasing visibility around this issue but also in promoting rule of law as an integral part of good governance and functioning societies. At the same time, more attention could be given to identify how to increase awareness over this issue at the national and international level; and how to promote strong rule of law at the international level while fully respecting national sovereignty. These are some, among a plethora of similar questions that deserve more careful analysis, in hopes of fully integrating this concept among complementary agendas and promoting fair, safe and just societies.

Preparations are currently underway to shape the high level meeting this summer discussing Contributions of Human Rights and the Rule of Law  in the post‐2015 Development Agenda. Given the significance that was highlighted in this meeting regarding the role of rule of law in the development processes, perhaps there will be scope in the upcoming high level to build on current discussions to contemplate how the UN and member states can join efforts in strengthening rule of law at the national and international levels so as to promote the post-2015 development goals, from a human-rights centric approach.

Global Action is committed to following the development of this thematic in complementary and cross-cutting agendas very closely, especially as it pertains to peace and security which is integral to our mandate. Further inquiries and discussions about this matter are welcomed.

–          Melina Lito, Legal Adviser on UN Affairs, Global Action,

Our Responsibilities to Protect and to Promote

4 Mar

Editor’s Note:  The following was written by Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a student at the University of Southern Maine and a contributor to several RtoP-related projects in New York and elsewhere.  Dylan wrote this to coincide with the opening of the Commission on the Status of Women on March 10. GAPW, mostly through the efforts of Melina Lito, has done extensive work exploring WPS-RtoP relationships.

The project of promoting and facilitating gender equality has been and continues to be a daunting undertaking. With millennia upon millennia of learned and institutionalized gender inequity, it is little wonder that this challenge persists.

There is good news however. Since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000, the United Nations has worked actively and ardently on the “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS) agenda and there has been substantial progress. Despite this progress, there is still much work to be done in advancing the cause of gender equality and in addressing the unique and disproportionate burdens shouldered by women and girls in conflict situations.

Resolution 1325, the canonical WPS report published by the UN Secretary General in 2002, and subsequent Council resolutions (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122 – text available at: all enumerate the various and diverse array of obstacles and hurdles faced by women in matters of peace and security. These obstacles span the gamut from second-class social statuses in some societies to assumptions about the appropriate “place” of women to employment discrimination to enforced domestic or sexual slavery. There are two broad categories that emerge as central to the WPS discussion: the imbalance of female representation in positions of leadership and decision-making and the continued persistence of gender-based and sexual violence. Both are crucial in tackling the malaise of gender inequity and yet each contain within them potential pitfalls and drawbacks.

The horrors of gender-based and sexual violence are undeniable and such ravages demand redress. Women and girls are often primary targets in the midst of conflict as a means of waging psychological, emotional and physical warfare against a perceived enemy. The visible and invisible scars of such violence are unimaginable, except to those who bear them. It is vital to acknowledge the disparity in the way in which men and women experience war and conflict but it is equally important to resist the temptation to essentialize women and girls as occupying the exclusive role of helpless victim. Such unintentional characterizations, most often resulting from genuine compassion and concern, can nevertheless be destructive to the aim of affirming the agency and dignity of women and girls more broadly. After all, if you are only fit to become a victim then how can you possibly be anything else, for instance, an effective peace activist or negotiator?

It is far more important to achieve gender balance and inclusivity at all levels of institutional, organizational and societal structures. Such structures can vary in nature widely, from legislative bodies to dispute resolution entities to peacekeeping missions to UN organs. The critical point is to internalize gender sensitivities and responsiveness within all contexts, be they post-conflict transitions or peace negotiations or economic development efforts. It is widely understood that the exclusion of women from positions of leadership and decision-making prior to conflict in a given community will likely be mirrored in post-conflict settings. The UN is often a presence in all phases of conflict and can serve a vital function in leading by example. The obvious concern to deal with in these efforts is tokenism and patronization, which must be avoided.

Gender does not refer primarily to biology or physiology. It is a social construction, informed by the particular values, customs, traditions and assumptions attendant to a given community or society. The important thing to note, and something that the Secretary General noted in his report in 2002, is that these social constructions are learned and changeable. As is true with any other idea or conception, the law of dynamism is at work. Ideas are not static but rather are subject to constant reinterpretation and re-imagination. It is the provision of new ways of thinking about gender and the revision of old ones that will ultimately yield the lasting and sustainable changes to gender norms that currently form the core of discriminatory and repressive conditions across the world.

As already mentioned the UN is in a position to lead the way in the WPS movement and is doing so in some positive ways. The goal of 50/50 representation among men and women at medium to upper-level official positions within all organs and entities is a work in progress but laudable in that it is a codified and stated objective. Annual reports from the Secretary General on the continued advancement of WPS and its constituent line-items helps track progress and highlight gaps. The appointment of women to prominent high-level positions – including Mary Robinson, former High Commissioner for Human Rights and now Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, and Jennifer Welsh as the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect — function as good-faith efforts to ensure that women have seats at the various tables that form the basis for global governance. The creation of UN Women, an entity dedicated to the promotion of issues that affect women uniquely and to presenting policy prescriptions and analyses aimed at mitigating those issues, is yet another substantive and promising endeavor toward achieving the broad mandate set forth by the WPS framework.

It is also important to recognize the indispensable role that civil society plays in actualizing the WPS agenda. As an emblematic example, consider the efficacy of a coalition of women’s groups in Kosovo in 2013 that lobbied successfully to identify women and girls who were the victims of gender-based and sexual violence as war victims, thus rendering those affected eligible for compensation and reparations previously only available to mostly male combatants. Such activism and civil engagement highlights the power that women possess in catalyzing change and asserting their agency and relevance in post-conflict and transitional justice environments.

The UN and other official governance bodies do not possess sole proprietorship over WPS as a norm or its policy extensions. The goal of promoting gender justice belongs to us all, at every level of society and in every nation in the world. The lack of said justice is one of the most durable and pervasive disequilibria to afflict humankind and its ultimate resolution requires collaborative and innovative solutions. The first step is to recognize that women play diverse roles in all peace and security contexts, ranging from Sierra Leone women organizing peace marches to Guatemalan women facilitating community-based dispute resolution processes. Women are potent agents of positive change but of course they can also be both victims and perpetrators in the midst of armed conflicts. Regardless, women must be included in all processes designed to resolve such conflicts and must be consulted in crafting gender sensitive and responsive policies in all policymaking efforts. Normalizing the presence of women in positions of leadership can help undermine traditional assumptions that relegate women to secondary roles and lay the groundwork for new societal understandings about gender, which are essential to achieving gender equality in the long run. Peace and security and the maintenance thereof wil only be feasible when women are equal participants in all phases of relevant endeavors. Until then, advancing the WPS normative agenda and leading by example are the most vital and viable means of reaching the goal of gender justice.