The Needle in the Haystack: Finding the Women, Peace and Security Norms in the Gaza Conflict

Operation Protective Edge and the costs of war in the latest round of the Israel-Palestine conflict have dominated all our newspaper headlines in the past month. Images of harm and horror have come to be the stock and trade of the media reporting on the ongoing hostilities. International law has been repeatedly invoked in this war, although often in ways that suggest its breach and even impotence. The language of proportionality, civilian protection, the right of self-defence, and the limits on the use of force are all part and parcel of ongoing legal and policy debates as well as conversations around the world’s dinner tables. There is however, one notable silence in the conversation. Few, if any, legal rules concerning women have been invoked in the debates around competing narratives of the conflict. Is the omission surprising? Do these norms add to the legal and policy debates in any meaningful way?  For those of us who attended the Global Summit on Sexual Violence in London in June  — where world political leaders and scores of international organisations traded platforms on ending impunity for violence against women, argued for women’s participation in conflict resolution,  and reaffirmed their collective commitment to ending conflict-related violence against women  — the omission is glaring.  All the more so, when we have had multiple Security Council resolutions, G8 unanimity, European Parliament resolutions, and state commitments to declarations, protocols and national implementation plans for the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Given global recognition of the particular vulnerabilities of women and children in conflict settings, norm creation to address that reality,  the absence of norm invocation, norm adherence as well as the unwillingness to address the consequences of norm violations in the context of the hostilities in Gaza is deeply troubling. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda was launched by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (S/RES/1325) and was adopted on 31 October 2000. The U.N. Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues states:

“The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. Resolution 1325 urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. .. The resolution provides a number of important operational mandates, with implications for Member States and the entities of the United Nations system.”

The adoption of the Security Council Resolution was notable for several reasons. First, it formally acknowledged and addressed,  the need to incorporate women into processes intended to secure peace. Second, because the U.N. Security Council is recognized as the key global actor in the security arena, an actor whose resolutions are both determinative and binding, it was a powerful signal to the world that women’s security and protection was to be taken seriously. Third, the resolutions acknowledged the particular vulnerabilities of women in conflict settings, and affirmed that Parties to armed conflict were obliged to fully respect the international law applicable to the protection of women and girls, especially as civilians. Finally, the resolutions were about recognizing the untapped leadership potential of women as active agents in conflict, and their under-utilization in the realms of conflict prevention and resolution. Specifically, UNSC 1325’s Preamble expresses the core starting point:

“… that civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements, and recognizing the consequent impact this has on durable peace and reconciliation”

and further reaffirms:

“… the need to implement fully international humanitarian and human rights law that protects the rights of women and girls during and after conflicts”

In addition to UNSC 1325, the Security Council, with nearly universal support from states, has produced numerous sequential resolutions, including 1327 (2000) 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1989 (2009), 1960 (2010), 2106 (2013) and 2122 (2014). While a number of these resolutions specifically address and prohibit sexual violence in conflict (1820, 1888, and 2106) others (1327, 2122) pay close attention to the broader protection of women in conflict and their full engagement in peacemaking processes.

Should we be surprised at the invisibility of the full WPS agenda in the current round of conflict?  Actually, as I have posted here, what we have learnt about the women, peace and security agenda is that it is mostly about sex. We should not be surprised at all by the silence that follows from the systematic use of military force in Gaza by state and non-state actors with catastrophic consequences for women and children. The world’s leaders can be politically and concretely mobilized when women are being raped and sexually assaulted as the London Summit on Sexual Violence amply demonstrated.  But, the same leaders are silent on the applicable (sometimes the same) legal obligations when women are being bombed, living in fear of another indiscriminate rocket attack, used as human shields, maimed in collapsing buildings, unable to escape harm because overwhelming military force is being used in civilian areas when they reside, denied safe passage outside of a territory subject to massive military force and unable to protect their children from harm as the military forces around them advance and destroy.  These fundamental violations are, to use the language of the law of armed conflict, frequently categorized as collateral damage and that has little “real” relevance to the a more circumscribed simulacrum of the women, peace and security agenda. In real wars, the women, peace and security agenda is set aside, and the sway it holds with world leaders at Global Conferences when the stars of stage and screen are present is rendered irrelevant to the grimy realities of war. It is even less relevant, as ceasefire negotiations brokered by key states (the United States, Egypt, and others) are in play. And, while the UN Security Council Resolutions insist that having women be central to the negotiation of peace and security is one of the central tenets of the women, peace and security agenda, when real negotiations about important conflicts take place, states and their representatives simply move past the women, peace and security agenda without a second thought. Specifically, UNSC 1325, paragraph 8:

“Calls on all actors involved, when negotiating and implementing peace agreements, to adopt a gender perspective, including, inter alia: (a) The special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction; (b) Measures that support local women’s peace initiatives and indigenous processes for conflict resolution, and that involve women in all of the implementation mechanisms of the peace agreements;”

Secretary Kerry’s rousing words on International Women’s Day this year ring hollow as women and gendered harms remain sidelined in conversations about ceasefires, negotiations, opportunities, and stability in the region.

“In too many countries, treaties are designed by combatants for combatants.  It should come as no surprise, then, that more than half of all peace agreements fail within the first 10 years of signature. The inclusion of women in peace building and conflict prevention can reverse that trend. So how do we get there? Evidence from around the world has shown that deadly conflicts are more likely to be prevented, and peace best forged and protected, when women are included as equal partners.”

Yet, there is little talk of women’s participation in these negotiations, nor any formal recognition to be found that there has been wholesale negation of the women, peace and security obligations found in the security council resolutions that support these state obligations in Operation Protective Edge.  There is no real discussion of security in the women, peace in security agenda in such contexts because that might force an uncomfortable conversation about the collective ownership of the idea of security and give legitimacy to the controversial notion that security not only belongs to states but also to women and children.

[Editor’s Note: This post has been revised to include attributions for certain factual statements to the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues, Landmark Resolution on Women, Peace and Security.] 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).