Anticipating the appointment in the next few weeks of the highest-level United Nations official ever to promote the rights and status of women worldwide, peace advocates are demanding that the new office take on the issue of the unending violence against women in conflict zones—a plague that keeps spreading despite a decade of Security Council resolutions.
By propitious coincidence, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s appointment of the head of UN Women will be followed in the fall by a series of events marking the tenth anniversary of the first, groundbreaking UN resolution—Security Council Resolution 1325—demanding an end to the abuse of women not only by warring parties but also by UN peacekeepers, and the inclusion of women in peacemaking.
The Security Council, divided and dithering for months over whether this was really an issue it should be addressing, acted in unison in the end. It could not ignore the shadow of the horrific 1990s—rape camps in Bosnia, sex slavery in several African countries and numerous incidents where gender abuse had become a tactic of ethnic conflict. Regional war crimes tribunals and the International Criminal Court had made sexual abuse a war crime. It was time to act.
A decade (and three subsequent chiding resolutions later) there is not a lot to celebrate on the ground in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia. In fact, the abuse of women has been carried over into post-conflict civilian life, or been exacerbated, in places such as Liberia and East Timor, where domestic violence is often the most common reported crime. Barely twenty countries, out of the UN’s membership of 192, have prepared plans to act on Resolution 1325, whether or not they are in conflict areas. At least some of the plans, a UN official said, seem to be already on the shelf.
Thus the focus among women’s peace groups on the still-unnamed head of UN Women, an appointment Ban has delayed for more than a month because, officials say, he is still looking for the right candidate. Whoever it is, says Cora Weiss, a peace activist prominent in the campaign, the nominee must commit to dealing not only with the abuse of women but also with the deliberate exclusion of them from peace negotiations and other tables of the powerful. That task is not specified in the General Assembly resolution establishing the new agency, but it has four Security Council resolutions behind it, and peace activists are brandishing them.
"UN Women should understand that women will continue to be victims of sexual abuse and murder as long as women are not recognized as part of the authority at decision-making tables and at all levels of governance," Weiss said in a memo to colleagues working on this issue. In an interview, she said that this is not a matter of "making war safe for women" but of using their negotiating and other skills to prevent conflict and build societies to live in peace.
A coalition of like-minded women from around the world is working through the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders to bring attention to the opportunity now at hand to force conflict violence and sexual abuse of women on UN Women’s agenda for action, and not leave it to the inevitable commissions, panels and special representatives with plenty to say, but no clout with governments—let alone with lawless militias.