This 11 July, Bosnians commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, when Serb militias killed 8,000 Muslims. In 1995 Srebrenica was meant to be a safe zone, where Bosnian Muslims could seek refuge with UN peacekeepers as protectors. As Serb forces advanced, the outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers stood down and Serb forces took charge. They bussed women and girls away, then killed 8,000 men and boys. Bodies are still being exhumed and identified.
That massacre, like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when UN Security Council responses were inadequate and driven by member states’ political interests, prompted a new determination among world leaders to prevent atrocities. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) became a globally accepted norm in 2005. Its idea was clear: states committed to protecting their populations, preventing atrocities and genocide, and to taking ‘collective action [should] national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’ R2P was the modern iteration of the UN’s original purpose: the powerful have a responsibility to protect those with least power from war and violence.
It is not working. On 7 July the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released its latest report. Between November 2019 and June 2020, the parties in Syria’s war instigated 52 ‘emblematic attacks’ on civilian targets, including 17 against hospitals and medical facilities; 14 affecting schools; nine on markets; and 12 destroying homes. ‘It is completely abhorrent that, after more than nine years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives,’ said commission chair Paulo Pinheiro. ‘Children were shelled at school … entire families were bombarded even while fleeing … What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians.’
The facts are different
This was repeated in Yemen, Libya and other countries. The powerful are directly or indirectly enabling and benefiting from atrocities. In Yemen, the Security Council gave a green light in 2015 to the Saudi-led war, supported by the US, UK and France. Targeting of civilian sites and its devastating humanitarian impact were evident from the start. In October 2018, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Joseph Dunford said, ‘We’re working with the Saudis to reduce casualties.’ The facts are different: there have been an estimated 233,000 deaths and 3.65 million people displaced, and millions more are near starvation. The profits from arms sales are impressive: the US had $129bn in active sales to Saudi Arabia in 2019 and a deal worth $110 immediately and $350bn over 10 years, signed in 2017. The UK, which temporarily stopped sales in 2019 is resuming them. The UK’s international trade secretary Liz Truss said, ‘I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation.’ The UN has reported that 60% of civilian casualties are from air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition.
This raises serious questions about multilateralism and diplomacy: who is taking on the responsibility to protect populations in war zones? If warring parties perpetrate violence against civilians, who represents the interests of local populations if and when there are peace talks?
I was there as a refugee to speak about the families living in freezing conditions in the olive groves in Idlib, but the UN official said there wasn’t much they could do
These issues have shaped my life for years as an advocate for Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security; I founded ICAN and led the establishment of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL). Back in 2012, I looked out of the airplane window onto the parched earth of Somalia, as a member of the UN’s mediation team heading to Garowe for another round of negotiations. Famine threatened: we could see that from the bleached landscape and skeletal camels on the way to the UN compound. Somalia’s clan leaders, some in suits and ties, others in local dress, appeared with well-armed entourages, yet no one spoke of food or water. The politicians spent most of the time wrangling about their share of parliamentary seats and governmental posts, insisting on dividing these posts between the four major and one minor clans. The language of power-sharing was familiar to many.
As gender and inclusion advisor on the UN envoy team, I was mandated to work with Somali women so their participation would be secured and perspectives considered; there was no shortage of strong, active, vocal women. But among 200 delegates to the conference, a minority were women, very few of those genuinely active as politicians, lawyers, humanitarians and peacebuilders. The Somali political leaders brought their daughters and female cousins, not independent women who would challenge them. Since famine was a serious concern, many activists were focusing on urgent relief and not coming to Garowe to talk politics.
The negotiations turned into loud arguments over parliamentary seats and an unstated clear interest in salaries and benefits. These were discussions about power-sharing, but they should have been framed around responsibility-sharing instead. In diplomacy, words matter: while power denotes personal benefit and control over others, responsibility projects a sense of accountability.
I have found across time and geography that in crises and wars, women emerge as peacebuilders, with a profound sense of responsibility to protect their communities. In Yemen, five years into the war, members of the Mothers of Abductees Association (MAA) are persistent voices, drawing attention to and calling for the release of thousands of people abducted and arbitrarily detained by the parties in the war, particularly the Houthis. As part of the ceasefire agreement signed in Stockholm in 2019, the UN is responsible for negotiating the release of detainees, to build confidence in the agreement. For the families of the disappeared, however, MAA members — women between 25 and 65 — are often the best channel of hope.
Whatever means are necessary
In one recent case, an MAA member visited the family of a detained doctor and found that his mother was severely ill, his father had gone blind, and his wife had been diagnosed with kidney failure. She went to tribal leaders asking them to issue a formal letter to the authorities that had abducted the doctor, told them of the family’s plight and appealed to their traditional duties towards him. They mobilised the village to sign a petition asking for his release and vouching for his good character and conduct. She presented the letter and petition to the authorities, and called on contacts to press the case forward. Her efforts paid off.
The MAA uses whatever means are necessary: public demonstrations outside detention centres, social media campaigns, petitions, tribal traditions. In the 2,133 abductions, forced detentions and torture it has monitored, the MAA has secured the release of 944 people. The work is personally risky, but its members are relentless. While extraordinary, they are not alone.
WASL has members in over 40 countries affected by war and violent extremism, all locally rooted and adept at drawing on the law, cultural norms, religious teachings and tradition to build peace. In Cameroon, the South West/North West Women’s Task Force launched a public lamentation with 500 mothers in the streets crying together, shaming the government and militias to stop killings and rapes.
In Syria and Libya, women peacebuilders have established circles to provide space for dialogue and coexistence in rural and urban communities, working against the rhetoric and narrative of extremism and militancy. In Afghanistan’s Herat province, Hassina Neekzad has formed a 600-strong network of men (imams, village chiefs, youths and schoolteachers) and designed a programme of skill-building and dialogue to enable them to resolve conflicts non-violently, and protect the rights of women and children. This has led to a qualitative shift away from violence, including a decrease in recruitment into extremist groups. In Pakistan and Nigeria, the work focuses on preventing local women and youths from joining violent extremists, providing them with positive alternatives, combining psychosocial support with religious narratives, livelihood skills and a social network.
The motivations to become involved in peacebuilding vary among these women. Some have lost their children to violence and vowed to stop the cycle of war. Others have a calling to help those in need. Before the wars, they were teachers and architects, poets, engineers and housewives. They are drawn together by an extraordinary commitment to caring, to reaching out to the other side, even if it is painful. For many ‘doing nothing’ is a luxury they can’t afford. Colombian Rosa Emilia Salamanca says peacebuilding requires willingness to acknowledge that there are different truths in every conflict; Hamsatu Allamin in Nigeria, Visaka Dharmadasa in Sri Lanka, and Mossarat Qadeem in Pakistan all stress the search for the humanity in others.
Caring for the victims and those affected by the violence and creating the middle ground for dialogue must be balanced; people evolve into peacebuilding. Muna Luqman from Yemen, who founded Food4Humanity, started providing relief for sick children, mediating their safe passage out of affected communities; when she saw them recruited and armed, she started a campaign to give them pens and books instead. Though threatened and forced into exile, she continues her work: ‘Before the war, 80% of conflicts in Yemen were over water and land. Since 2015 these issues have exacerbated and been exacerbated by the war.’ Luqman’s organisation has fixed water stations to resolve tribal disputes and get girls to school; during the pandemic it is providing water and distributing protective gear. With others, such as the Peace Track Initiative, it has called for a ceasefire and become a force of moral authority.
‘I felt oppressed’
The humanity of these women’s work is surreal contrasted with the geopolitical narratives of global powers. This January, WASL member Najlaa al-Sheikh, founder of Kareemat, a Turkish-based organisation for Syrian refugees, was invited to the Syrian civil society room at peace talks in Geneva: ‘I was there as a refugee to speak about the displaced women and children and families living in freezing conditions in the olive groves in Idlib, but the UN official said there wasn’t much they could do. I felt oppressed when the Russian delegation told me conflicting parties have to leave “their” land.’
Her experience illustrates the fundamental flaws inherent in contemporary peace processes, designed on the basis of inter-state two-party talks. These are predicated on the assumption that warring parties are legitimate, which should be questioned given their record of attacking their own civilian populations and breaching international laws of war. Too often there are no legitimate leaders with constituencies. Many of the Somali transitional leaders I met had lived in the US and Canada for years, disconnected from changed realities in their country. The Enough Project, which tracks the political economy of wars, demonstrates certain states have not failed, but been hijacked by violent kleptocratic networks that benefit from the war economy.
Talks are often founded on the assumption that there is a ‘hurting’ stalemate, with neither side winning or losing but both ripe or tired enough to compromise. The concept of hurting is rarely valid for today’s wars. Global or regional powers that fight through local proxies pay a low cost financially and in human life. Russian, Turkish and Iranian women did not live under trees through a winter in Idlib, with no access to running water, no means of washing during their periods. There were only Syrians. Yet at the talks in Geneva, only people like Najlaa al-Sheikh persisted in raising their voices: a Syrian refugee with the least power in the room shouldered the greatest burden of responsibility.
Fostering peace ground up
The real assumption is that the parties that matter most are the violent ones. This conflates the ending of war with the bringing of peace, an idea left over from a past of inter-state wars where parties could end violence, agree a ceasefire line and retreat to their homes. In our globalised, pluralistic world, conflicts have highly localised and globalised dimensions. The front lines are in our communities, so peace has to be fostered from the ground up, as well as from the leadership down. As the past 30 years show, those who care most about local populations will be local peacebuilders, most often women, and increasingly young people.
Twenty years ago, women peacebuilders mobilised to demand recognition and inclusion in the peace and security that the UN Security Council, European parliament and the OSCE address. Security Council resolution 1325 is the most recognised outcome of that campaign, with nine further resolutions. Over 80 countries have national action plans committing to inclusion and there are global networks of practice.
Research shows that the full inclusion of women in peace processes, particularly where there are robust movements and sustained participation, leads to more sustainable outcomes. Yet regardless of culture or geography, and despite many existential differences and disagreements, warring parties agree and unify on one issue: they always reject the demand for the inclusion of independent women’s peace delegations in the process.
Parties that take little or no responsibility for protecting populations — their treatment of women is a key indicator — will naturally resist those with the weight of moral authority, who represent the real concerns and experiences of communities enduring violence. The onus lies with the international community, the UN as an institution, and committed member states to reform peacemaking to include peacebuilders, who are an essential counterweight to those who wield power through the barrel of a gun. They come with moral authority as the conscience of their communities and a credible track record of bearing the responsibility to protect.