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Madeleine Rees on the Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Madeleine Rees pens an analysis on the concept of power: who has it, how do we see it, how does it manifests?

Image credit: WILPF
Madeleine Rees
23 April 2019

Power is a strange concept… who has it, how do we see it, how does it manifests? Greta Thunberg the young climate change female advocate is powerful, arguably more powerful than the UN Security Council. She brings the truth that is needed to the echelons of power without fear or favour and it resonates. Why? Because our structures of power are a chimaera of the integrity of truth; and when we notice, they lose their apparent omnipotence and we look for that integrity elsewhere.

Why say that as we wait for the outcome of the Security Council’s annual open debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict? Because it matters. The debate matters. We imbue the Security Council with the power over peace and security because we are told it works that way. We nestle up to the members to advocate, to persuade, and to influence the outcome. And we should because we need to influence where we can… but let us get it into perspective.

One young woman, technically a child, can mobilise millions around the planet and secure meetings with decision makers. No one is saying it has worked yet but we all know about it. An uncompromising un-spoilt, un-coopted movement has been born which has a different kind of power.

In 2001, a coalition of NGOs worked with some States (with Namibia’s crucial leadership) to secure Round 1 of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda: the UN Security Council resolution 1325. Incomplete in its content, but the perception that the most powerful (in theory) institution in our over-institutionalised and over-structured world was finally taking seriously the obvious need to include women in matters of war, security and peace, meant progress had been made.

Fast forward from 2001 to today, now we have many resolutions, including one on Conflict-related Sexual Violence. A moral panic is how it was once described because it elevated what happens in war above what happens in peace… and women know only too well that the demarcation is only a matter of degree, of context and of uniform. War so often associated with glory and honour is discredited when one looks at the conduct of so many of the men who organise or fight in them. The continuation of the crisis of violence for women is also a crisis for the mythology of honourable conflict.

So do we like the elevation of our demands to address violence against women in the Security Council? Do we indeed see it as a panacea? No, we do not, but we realise that there are multiple tools needed to be able to tackle war, as there are to stop climate change. If we see law as a mechanism for change, then having the Security Council pass resolutions which demand accountability for Conflict-related Sexual Violence and which demonstrate the obvious frustration by some States (note particularly from Germany in its current draft) at the inability of combined efforts to end it, then we are in the right company. What we do not do is to pretend that the Security Council will be able to make the resolutions work. Not alone.

In 2014, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee famously said at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict organised by the United Kingdom: “Do not think for one minute you will end sexual violence in armed conflict. The only way to do so is to stop armed conflict.”

She is right.

The continuum of violence against women is the issue we have to address not just in conflict but from the home to the governance structures and everything in between. Research now shows that it is not a country’s gross domestic product nor its level of democracy which determines the likelihood of armed conflict, but its level of violence against women. Societies built on gendered fault lines are prone to violence. Empirical evidence is now backed up by natural sciences. Good that Germany is seeking to make that link in the Security Council. We feminists already knew it… but for sure we welcome it being recognised.

Multiple issues need to be addressed: Peacekeepers are part of the problem, and the solution is not to get women into peacekeeping operations, meaning we militarise women instead of demilitarising men, and leave them to their fates in a structure which is masculine to the core.

A failure to rethink peacekeeping so that it is based where power already is but which is removed by our interventions… with women. Imagine if the Security Council mandated the UN to work with women on the ground (without stealing their work and their funding, without taking control of them) in order to ensure gender analysis and inclusion. Doing this would go some way to address the power of patriarchy which positions men and women as opposites with competing interests and feeds on multiple discriminations to set us against each other. If this happened, then the UN agencies would feed that information accurately to the Security Council, who then could use law, not politics, to determine the next appropriate step.

A failure to rethink how peace should be funded, the need to look at the role of international financial institutions and how shifting their programmes of austerity (which cripple women so much more than men) into investments on services and economic activity which would change the gendered relations and enable serious attention to addressing climate change.

Instead think of Partnerships of power, a refusal to acknowledge a hierarchy and an ability to see and understand how it should work.

From a young woman like Greta to an institution which should and must respond to those who speak the truth when it comes to international peace and security. Climate change is a driver of conflict and Greta speaks the truth. Sexual violence is a driver of conflict and conflict-related sexual violence is inevitable whilst there is war. Ask women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo what needs to be done; human rights activist Julienne Lussenge has spoken three times at the Security Council and told them what they should do. As she says, she might as well have been wallpaper. WILPF can tell anyone about neoliberalism, militarism, the arms trade, the weaponisation of politics and how it affects our political economy. Do you want peace and security? Between us, we know how we could do it.

WILPF’s Peace Women programme in New York will be monitoring and live-tweeting the debate! For more information, check here.

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Madeleine Rees Portrait

Madeleine Rees

Madeleine Rees is a British lawyer and Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a role she has held since 2010. For most of her adult life, Rees has worked nationally and internationally to advance human rights, eliminate discrimination, and remove obstacles to justice. As Secretary-General of WILPF, Rees is leading the organisation’s efforts to work through national and international legal frameworks to advance a future of human security and justice for all.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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