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Women and atrocity prevention: an article by Karen Smith

28 Oct 2020 16:15

An article by Karen Smith, Special Adviser on the responsibility to protect

In a year of many milestones for the women’s rights, and women, peace and security agendas, we also mark the fifteenth anniversary of the adoption of the World Summit Outcome Document, in which all United Nations Member States unanimously committed themselves to protecting their populations from the gravest of crimes and violations – genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. While the responsibility to protect lies in large part with governments, it is a shared responsibility and we all have a role to play. This includes  civil society organizations and individuals, and in this effort,  women remain at the forefront.  

We now know from evidence-based research that there are clear linkages between the promotion and protection of women’s rights and the prevention of atrocity crimes. Many scholars[i] have highlighted this connection, calling for greater emphasis on women’s roles in atrocity prevention efforts. While the importance of gender equality and the equal and meaningful participation of women in United Nations and global agendas has been made evident in recent years, the link with the responsibility to protect has been more implicit.

This year’s report by the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, entitled ‘Prioritizing prevention and strengthening response: women and the responsibility to protect’, aims to address this gap by reflecting on the connection between women and atrocity crimes, including the impact that these crimes have on women and girls; the vital role of women in supporting the prevention of atrocity crimes and the protection of vulnerable populations, and the steps we all must take to fully integrate gender into our collective campaign to prevent and respond to  atrocity crimes. 

All four atrocity crimes and violations associated with the responsibility to protect have a gendered impact, as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity can affect men and women differently. For example, women and girls are often disproportionately affected by trafficking, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, rape and other forms of widespread and systematic sexual and gender-based violence.  Regrettably, accountability for these crimes remains elusive. We need to do more to end impunity for serious crimes committed against women and girls, as well as to strengthen the capacity of national institutions to ensure accountability for their commission and therefore act as a deterrent to prevent such crimes in the future.

Gender-based discrimination and inequality is a significant risk factor for the widespread or systematic violence that constitutes the essence of atrocity crimes. Sexual violence in conflict sits along a continuum in societies that have subjected women to discrimination, stigma, and lack of equal legal and political representation for a sustained period of time. This is why a systematic approach to preventing atrocity crimes – at the national, regional and global level – requires mainstreaming gender into early warning systems through the collection of sex-disaggregated data, amongst others.

While it is vitally important to recognise the different ways in which women are affected by atrocity crimes, particularly sexual and gender-based violence, it is perhaps even more important to pay due attention to the roles that women play in preventing and responding to atrocity crimes. There are countless examples of women’s contributions to early warning, conflict resolution, peace operations, peacebuilding and justice and accountability. Thanks to the courageous work of remarkable women around the world, action is being taken to better predict and prevent atrocity crimes, respond to protection crises and support the survivors of past violations. In every part of the world and across many different sectors, women show the courage, determination, and skills needed to make a difference. But despite women’s work at the forefront of crises on the ground, they continue to face obstacles at every step. Women remain largely underrepresented and underestimated in decision making and conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding processes; field missions, and security sectors around the world. They continue to face social pressures and stigmatization, abuse and exploitation. Confronting this is important, because holistic atrocity prevention will only be possible if women’s equal and meaningful participation is prioritized at all stages and in all relevant institutions and processes.

At a practical level, it also requires that those of us working in atrocity prevention – whether in international and regional organisations, governments or civil society – collaborate with our colleagues who are advancing gender equality and women’s rights. In the case of responsibility to protect focal points, for example, this could mean identifying areas of collaboration with officials designated to advance the women, peace and security agenda. Together we need to collectively mobilize to eradicate discrimination, pursue equality and ensure gender responsiveness in the responsibility to protect agenda to support women as agents of atrocity prevention and protection.

[i] See, for example, Sara E. Davies, Zim Nwokora, Eli Stamnes and Sarah Teitt (eds) (2013) Responsibility to Protect and Women, Peace and Security. Leiden and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

Ms. Karen Smith was appointed as Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect on 7 January 2019. Currently a lecturer in International Relations at the Institute for History at Leiden University, Netherlands, and an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Ms. Smith has a research focus on non-Western contributions to international relations theory, as well as on regional and emerging powers, South Africa’s foreign policy, and the changing global order.