How Gendered Experiences Shape Processes and Practices of War and Peace

Jennifer Amy Leigh, The University of Law, UK

Jennifer is currently a full-time Civil Servant and part-time Graduate Diploma in Law student at The University of Law. Previously, she graduated from The University of Manchester with a MA in Politics and from the University of Liverpool with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature. Jennifer has studied abroad at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, and IILM in Delhi, India. 


This article considers the gendered nature of conflict. It argues that war is not a patriarchal preserve and that gendered experience extends conflict beyond its usual boundaries. Women are shown to be affected by war, as the term is broadly understood, in a variety of ways, although the full extent of female experiences has not yet been assimilated into conflict discourse. It shows that the usual demarcations between war and peace do not reflect gendered experience, and the examples of the Congo and Korea are used to illustrate this point. The value of social constructivism in providing a theoretical framework for gendered experience is war is also considered, with reference to female experiences in World War One. The example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is examined in even greater detail, particularly in respect to women’s experience of violence, sexual or otherwise, and their unwillingness to discuss it. Attention is given to the role of peace, which is defined not as the absence of war, but as the absence of insecurity and other forms of violence not usually associated with traditional conflict. The role of gendered experience in shaping peace processes is also considered, especially women’s participation is peace-building and the secure establishment of peace after conflict. It is suggested that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences in the narratives of war are to be fully appreciated. The importance of avoiding stereotypes is made apparent.

Recent developments in the nature of warfare have had profound consequences for gendered experiences both during and after conflict. While war has traditionally been defined as either an international military struggle or a civil conflict between opposing forces within a state, it is now increasingly understood as ‘a sustained campaign against something undesirable’ (Concise English Dictionary, 2011: 1628). Indeed, today’s wars are referred to as ‘wars’ against drugs, guns, and terror (Kerrigan, 2017; Winkler, 2011; Rogers, 2004), partly, but not exclusively, fought within civil societies, including women and children holding only a limited knowledge of the war in their streets. This essay will show how war and peace can be viewed through the prism of gendered experience and, more importantly, that a full appreciation of the gendered nature of conflict is vital if the processes of modern warfare and peace-making are to be fully understood. This essay will use theories which stress the role of male elite power interests, as well as those which argue that the end of conflict is merely the prelude to the reassertion of patriarchal, social relations and ‘gendered dynamics’ (Borer, 2009: 1172). It will show how gendered experiences extend war beyond its hitherto geographical and temporal frameworks and bring value to the idea that peace should be ‘built’ rather than simply ‘declared’.

It is vital from the outset to understand the different ways in which women are affected by war and post-conflict situations. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 recognises that, at the most basic level, men and women experience conflict differently. The Resolution encourages international actors to increase women’s participation in peace and security processes and incorporate gender perspectives into post-conflict initiatives. An example of these principles being successfully applied is the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Yet whilst Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (2016: 275) rightly identifies WPS as “the dominant discourse framing women’s advocacy and action in international affairs”, she also explains that until recently, the types of conflict likely to fall within the WPS agenda’s remit have been narrowly defined as those which lie within the denotation of traditional armed conflict. Presumably, the long-running siege of Mosul (2016-2017) would be included, whereas the 2012 racist murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi woman, in California would not (Sjoberg, 2013; Katrandjian, 2012). Presumably, the 2017 attacks in Borough Market in London would also be excluded. The exclusion of these events, which do not fall within traditional definitions of armed conflict, is significant since it increases the risk of gender essentialism by which the gender is understood according to physical characteristics. This limitation in the WPS agenda’s remit is particularly significant as the terms for inclusion have been defined by male-dominated security institutions. For example, while the first session of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) briefed states on the role of women in combating terrorism and extremism, the CTC has not to this date negotiated with the WPS, leaving the latter playing a peripheral role in the terrorism discourse. Ní Aoláin concludes:

“the superficial inclusion of references to women in the context of addressing terrorism and advancing counterterrorism strategies should not be read as a form of meaningful intersection between the WPS agenda and by now well-established post 9/11 international security regimes […] The parallel reality is that, despite over a decade of intrusion into the peace and security arena, women find themselves (yet again) at the wrong party” (2016: 289).

One conclusion which might be taken from this is that despite the WPS agenda’s attempt to include gendered experiences in conflict and post-conflict narratives, the full range of women’s experiences have not yet been fully accepted into the discourse of conflict prevention and resolution.

Defining War, Defining Peace

It can be argued that the traditional demarcations between war and peace do not allow for the full expression of gendered experiences. To see war as the incidence of violence between two or more states and peace as the absence of such an incidence generally obscures women’s experiences in war. This is the argument of Chris Cuomo (1996: 42), who sees war as “white noise in the background of social existence”. Thus, while certain women in the Congo perceive the motivations of soldiers to commit rape as intimately connected with the conflict, and regarded as the ‘spoils’ of war, other women experience war in less traditional contexts (Card, 1996). For example, Catherine Moon detects war in the behaviour of women prostitutes in the development of the Korean De-Militarized Zone (1997). Indeed, viewed from a broader perspective, events such as the death of Alawadi lay outside the conventional divisions between war and peace. Several feminist scholars (Elshtain, 1987) have argued that to distinguish between war and peace is similar to distinguishing between the public and private roles in civil society. Once such a distinction is removed, the ways in which gendered experiences shape the processes and practices of war and peace become clearer.

As such, it is important to identify a theoretical framework by which these gendered experiences can be more clearly understood. The theory of social constructivism, according to which the thread of gender identity is “woven, moved, stretched” as women and men take their places in the social world (Messner, 1990), has attracted some attention in regard to this issue. Michael Messner explains that “gender identity, rather than being viewed as a ‘thing’ which people ‘have,’ is thus conceptualized as a process of construction which develops, comes into crisis, and changes as a person interacts with the social world” (Messner, 1990: 419).

An understanding of social constructivism allows us to gain a new perspective on gendered experiences. For example, during the First World War, particularly following the introduction of conscription in 1916, women’s gender identity significantly developed; the effects of this development extended far beyond the Armistice of 1918 and the peace treaties that followed. Conventional historical analysis has highlighted the way in which the involvement of women in WWI aided the campaign for female suffrage. Yet social histories of the 1920s shows how pre-war patriarchal societies sought to restore women to their traditional roles, while several women rejected any easy categorisation and certainly any restoration of pre-war complacencies (Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf are two contrasting examples) (McKibbin, 1998). In this context, peace can indeed be interpreted as a process, one which has an impact far beyond the conventional stereotype. Hanley’s (1991) thesis shows how the widespread perception of the solider on the front line as the main victim of war frequently prevents us from acknowledging other victims and the effect of war on gendered experience. This also:

“discourages questions about war as a continuous condition […] eerily reminiscent of the motel room Patrick Purdy left behind when he set out for the Stockton, California schoolyard where he would spray the playing children with bullets from his assault rifle, killing five and ultimately himself. His room at the motel was empty but for a company of toy soldiers […]” (Hanley, 1991: 31-32).

The fact that Hanley’s analysis stretches from the First World War to the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1989 reveals the long history of tensions in gendered behaviour in the context of war and peace. However, detailed analysis of a more recent peace process will allow us to understand gendered experience more comprehensively.

The Example of South Africa

A highly persuasive account of the gendering of peace concerns one of the most famous peace and reconciliation movements. Tristan Anne Borer’s analysis of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) shows that women were reluctant to talk about the sexual violence experienced during the apartheid era. Indeed, women were far more willing to discuss offences committed against male relatives rather than offences against themselves, a point illustrated by testimony concerning sexual violence (Borer, 2009). Rape, as argued by Diken and Lausten (2005), is a prime strategy of warfare. In their work on the Congo, Baaz and Stern (2009) show women were often raped by soldiers from their own country as well as by peacekeepers who were supposedly their protectors. Yet, among the 21,000 testimonies given to the SATRC, only 140 mentioned rape (Borer, 2009: 117; South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998: 296). One explanation for this outcome is that, according to its definition, the TRC was interested in gross violations of human rights (GVHR) confined to killing, abduction, torture or severe ill treatment. Notably, Borer (2009) does not argue that rape surely qualifies as severe ill treatment. However, she does show that in its desire to pursue racial injustices, the TRC underestimated the degree to which “patriarchal power relations were integrated and used to bolster the power of the oppressors within indigenous communities” (Goldblatt and Meintjes, 1998). The TRC was clearly aware of its deficiencies in this area and stated in its final report that the definition of GVHR adopted by the Commission resulted in a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women. This evidence indicates how the processes and practices of peace can be misconceived when insufficient attention is given to gendered experience, and to the social constructivist role played by women in post-conflict situations.

The South African example is equally instructive in other ways. Though an understanding of women’s experiences is essential to the process of peace, women in South Africa were reluctant to describe assaults due to a sense of shame. Added to this sense of shame, black women generally feared that testifying against the men who raped them would bring shame on the post-apartheid government. Indeed, many of the alleged rapists held government office positions and some were prominent members of the ANC (Borer, 2009). In this context, it can be argued that truth was particularly dangerous for post-conflict reconstruction. In addition, women who testified to events of rape suffered before they themselves rose to significant positions in the ANC would be seen as ‘weak’ from a male standpoint, assuming they had ‘allowed themselves’ to be placed in such a situation. Ultimately, the TRC acknowledged that women had indeed suffered from gross violations of their human rights, yet did so without undertaking a full investigation of those violations, an inquiry which may have been further hampered by the widespread reluctance of men to acknowledge the acts of sexual violence committed (Borer, 2009).

The South African example is also helpful for understanding present-day South African society. Sjoberg (2013) and other scholars (McEvoy, 2009) have shown that peace needs to be ‘built’ and is “not something that can be imposed from the top down by political elites but something that must be constructed from the bottom up with citizen participation” (Sjoberg, 2013: 180). The absence of such participation in South Africa has led to a failure to implement fundamental changes in ordinary women’s lives, despite many black women now occupying significant government positions. In Borer’s view, the failure of the TRC to address these issues means that the chances of implementing such changes are made “immeasurably more difficult when one key institution devoted to raising awareness about the culture of human rights – such as a truth commission – turns a blind eye, no matter how unintentional, to the plight of women” (Borer, 2009: 1186).

Perhaps a positive conclusion to be drawn is that the absence of a full analysis of gendered experience could enable other post-conflict societies to understand the rigour needed if the process of peace is to be fully completed.

Broader Conceptions of Peace

If gendered experience is to be fully assimilated into the reconstruction of peace in post-conflict situations, a much broader understanding of the nature of peace is needed. As discussed, peace is not merely the absence of war, but also the absence of violence and insecurity. Birgit Brock-Utne (1989) persuasively suggests that peace should encompass justice and equality rather than simply an end to war. The replacement of violence and insecurity with justice and equality can be achieved only if certain areas of gendered experience are addressed. Brock-Utne suggests that these areas include wife-beating, unequal working conditions and free speech, and may also include an end to sweat shop labour and gendered divisions of labour and resources. Women working in factories whose rights are infringed by the demands of war, those forced into prostitution, and those whose domestic safety is threatened, can all begin to shape peace processes by bringing their situation to the notice of relevant authorities. However, such willingness to give evidence may be limited, particularly in societies where war is closely linked to ideals of masculinity.

In societies where masculinity and militarism are particularly intertwined, the proclivity for war can be a structural rather than an incidental issue. Gendered experience can shape the process of both war and peace by showing how war is often perceived as the conventional image of “(masculine) warriors” protecting “(feminised) civilians” (Sjoberg, 2006). Such notions of protection are often far removed from the reality of feminine experience of war. Women are not necessarily protected in such situations and when they are, such protection may be dependent upon a loss of other rights such as the freedoms of expression and self-determination. Susan Rae Peterson has argued that war is a ‘protection racket’ whereby the lives of those ostensibly protected are risked to justify the making of war (Peterson, 1977). Indeed, some people justify the making of war by reference to the protection of the idealised ‘female’, a process which frequently entails the subjugation of women. This is one of the reasons why military propaganda has typically focused on the victimisation and murder of women by enemy combatants in order to motivate men to volunteer for service. Victory can legitimise exploitation and provide an excuse for violence if that exploitation is resisted.

The analysis above underlines the crucial role of gendered experiences in shaping peace processes. However, to take the first steps towards achieving this goal, it is vital that the theoretical positions underpinning peace activism are fully understood. The essentialist position places innate male violence at the root of war, making a clear link between war as it is commonly understood and violence in domestic situations (Kelly, 2000). Moreover, it is argued that attacks on women in war are evidence of a male desire to possess women as property, given that property, if defined broadly, can include productive labour and reproductive capacity (Turshen, 2001). In addition to physical assaults, women in war are made responsible for tending to the injured, caring for the young, and playing their part to ensure that another generation will be produced. This view clearly does not reflect the full range of gendered experiences in either war or peace, and fundamentally limits women to the traditional reproductive and nurturing roles. As Louise Vincent suggests, peace-builders who rely on such stereotypes:

“are reinforcing rather than assisting the fundamental revisioning of prevailing relations of gender dominance which justify women’s exclusion from the public sphere of work and politics on the basis of their putative special responsibilities and proficiencies as mothers” (2001: 5).

There seems to be a double-knot here, in that the evidence of the WPS suggests that women’s roles in peace-building are limited partly because of an essentialist outlook, and such a limitation refers to both male and female failing to be considered when peace processes are underway. It is these deficiencies which clearly need to be addressed if war is to be fully understood and peace built on secure foundations.


Evidence suggests that gendered experiences have shaped the processes of war and peace far more in recent years than has historically been the case. It is now understood that women’s experiences include more than simple nurturing and, just as significantly, that male roles in conflict and conflict resolution can be stereotyped as well. El-Bushra et al. (2005) has pointed out that women engaged in peacebuilding have been described as ‘weaving’ peace or supplying a ‘warm blanket’ of peace. Although such words reflect essentialist preconceptions of women’s roles, gendered experience is generally viewed as more concerning. Social constructivism offers opportunities to reveal the depth and variety of gendered experience. Gradually, an understanding of these two positions is filtering into peace processes. At the same time, the deficiencies outlined in South Africa, the Congo and elsewhere, not to mention the limitations of the United Nations in this regard, reveal that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences are to be completely reflected in post-conflict contexts. This may change both the lives of everyone involved in conflicts and the complex processes of reconciliation that follow them.


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Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace: Assessing the effectiveness of UNSCR 1325

Joshua Ellis, University of Cambridge, UK

Joshua Ellis is a final year student at Queens’ College, at the University of Cambridge, reading for an undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences. His main area of interest is the issue of identity in conflict.

The unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Resolution 1325 (henceforth UNSC 1325) in 2000 provided the foundation for the international Women, Peace and Security Agenda (George and Shepherd 2016, pp. 297-306). Since then, eight further resolutions have reinforced this agenda, addressing gender-based violence in conflict and calling for increased participation of women in peace processes. UNSC 1325 is therefore seen by its supporters as a turning point, or “watershed” moment (Anderlini, 2010) in the relationship between the expectations of civil society (especially women’s organisations) and the actions of the international system, particularly the Security Council. Moreover, UNSC 1325 created awareness of the normative framework that governs issues pertaining to women, peace and security. Many in fact view this as its greatest success. However, by taking a sequential view of the stages of conflict – from pre-conflict setting through to the peace process – it will become clear that UNSC 1325 has not adequately addressed the gendered dimensions of conflict. Rather, it has failed in three key areas: pre-conflict and the militarisation of society, during conflict itself, and in peace processes. Given the resolution’s four pillars of prevention, participation, protection and peacebuilding (George and Shepherd, 2016), this failure amounts to a serious criticism of the resolution. In this sense, in order to assess adequacy this essay will identify the failure of the resolution to achieve these stated goals. We shall see that this failure has been encouraged, and at times exacerbated by a series of conceptual flaws. The first section of the essay highlights the failure of UNSC 1325 to address the pre-conflict stage. Gendered issues that stem from the militarisation of society pose a security threat to both men and women, and the failure of the resolution to take this period into account limits the scope of the resolution. The second section focuses on the conflict stage itself. The narrow definitions adopted by the resolution along with its strong liberal flavouring have seriously weakened UNSC 1325’s ability to address issues of sexual violence during conflict and the basic rights of women. The final section, on the peace process setting, highlights some of the achievements of the resolution in increasing female participation in peace negotiations. However, it notes that these improvements have been somewhat limited, and are often void of significant meaning.

Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace

Before we can begin our discussion of the adequacy of UNSC 1325 in addressing the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by ‘gendered dimensions’. For the purpose of this essay, it is important that we recognise the breadth of this term. Gendered dimensions do not solely refer to the violence against women in conflict or their participation in peace processes. Whilst this is certainly part of it, one cannot for instance escape the sexual violence that victimises men during conflict. Hence, it will be useful to move away from the liberal conceptualisation of gender found in UNSC 1325 (Shepherd 200, pp. 383-404). Thus, it is important that we acknowledge the gender perspective, as opposed to the just the status of women. That is to say, we consider the implications of conflict and peace for both men and women, through the prism of gender analysis. In other words, asking why the differentiation of power impacts men and women differently. This understanding will allow us to consider gendered dimensions in much more depth, thereby providing a better lens through which to analyse the success of UNSC 1325.

It is also important to be aware of the definition of security, as it is integral to this essay. Gendered dimensions of conflict in particular revolve around questions of security. So much so that UNSC 1325 sets as its goal the ambition of protecting the security of women, and preventing their security from being violated. However, the definition of security has expanded. It is no longer seen as the “absence of violence”  (UN Women, 2015), but also includes political, economic and social dimensions. In this sense, we see a further flaw in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 to deal with the gendered dimension of conflict, as it embraces a narrow definition of security and to a large extent it thereby neglects the broader security rights of women in particular.

Pre-Conflict Setting

Beginning with the situation before the onset of violence, we see a clear failure of UNSC 1325 to address the gendered dimensions of the pre-conflict process, most notably militarisation. Militarisation, or the build-up of a country’s military in preparation for conflict, presupposes a close relation between the political and military elites (Enloe, 1983). It brings with it pressures for men to take up arms and for women to loyally support the men. It often forces men who do not wish to fight into imprisonment or exile. This is a clear gendered consequence of militarisation, creating an environment that punishes men for not submitting to pressures of masculinity which have apparently decided he should be a solider and fight. UNSC 1325 fails to acknowledge this gender-selective issue of conflict, with no reference in the preamble or operative clauses. In fact, UNSC 1325 fails to address this period of conflict, choosing instead to focus on war-time sexual violence, participation in peace processes and the post-conflict vulnerability of displaced women. Therefore, a key problem of UNSC 1325 is in its limited scope.

In order to understand the severity of this implication, it is important to explore in more detail what happens during the pre-conflict stage. Impending conflict stokes the fires of national patriotism. This divisive discourse is often accompanied by a renewal of patriarchal familial ideology (Cockburn, 2001, p. 19) where women are reminded they are the keepers of the hearth and home and men are reminded that their duty is to protect the women. We see this in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As national feelings intensified in the lead-up to the Bosnian War, women were urged to leave paid employment and attend to their “national duties” (p. 19). Moreover, in extreme forms of patriarchy, men’s honour is seen as depending on women’s purity. Women who seek to escape this code are killed with impunity. For example, Butalia (1995) identifies ‘honour killings’ in the context of communal strife in India as a gendered consequence of this period of militarisation. UNSC 1325 fails to prevent these acts of violence associated with the pre-conflict stage where masculinity is emphasised and patriarchal narratives are enforced. In that sense, the limited scope of UNSC 1325 seriously undermines its ability to adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace.

Conflict Setting

Even when we move to look at conflict more directly, flaws in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 remain. First, touching on its limited definition of security – as we have already briefly discussed – the resolution fails to address issues such as the security of the right to health or the right to education, all of which have gendered dimensions in conflict. Second, UNSC 1325 is inspired by the ‘weapon of war’ narrative and deterrence logic. I shall draw on Kirby (2015) who argues that both these approaches undermine efforts to address gendered dimensions of conflict violence and terror.

Let us deal with each of these flaws in turn. In relation to the failure of UNSC 1325 to protect the gendered dimensions of an expanded understanding of security, the security of women’s education provides a particularly enlightening example. Modern forms of war have ended the public/private distinction and often it is the civilians who are worse affected. As we have seen, the supposed masculinity of the armed forces has meant that in conflict, civilians are predominately women. The story of Malala, shot on a school bus in 2012 or of the schoolgirls who were abducted in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram in 2014 serve as evidence of this gendered violation of the security of basic rights. In other words, girls’ education is threatened particularly by conflict, thereby widening the gender gap in school enrolment. Moreover, girls are frequently left at home due to their family’s strategy to cope with insecurity. This is a result of gender norms that privilege boys over girls. Whilst clause 8C of UNSC 1325 mentions the Human Rights of women, it emphasises those that relate to the constitution such as electoral rights. Furthermore, Clause 6 touches upon “rights and particular needs of women”, but it does not adequately expand on the rights it is referring to, or perhaps more importantly on how to protect such rights from gendered discrimination in conflict. Instead, the focus of the resolution is on security from violence and therefore it does not adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict.

Let us focus then on the aspect of security that UNSC 1325 pays particular attention to that of gender based violence “particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse” (UNSC 1325, Clause 10). The view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ is seen most clearly in Clause 11, which calls for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes relating to violence against women and an end to the provision of amnesties. In other words, the underlying implication here is that responsibility lies with the few and not the many. It is not possible to speak of prosecution in terms of the many who commit the act of rape or sexual violence. Nor is the reference to amnesties applicable to such perpetrators. Rather, the resolution clearly adopts the rape as a weapon of war narrative and assumes that responsibility lies with the few who orchestrate this tactic. There are examples from history, which can be invoked to support this narrative. For example, McKinnon as part of her broader argument on rape as tool of genocide (2006: 219) notes that in the Rwandan Genocide, Hutu men raped Tutsi women en masse as part of the attempted destruction of that ethnic group. In some cases, leaders such as Laurent Semanza ordered these assaults. However, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that this exclusive focus on military actors’ neglects high levels of civilian and intimate partner violence that occurs in conflict settings. For example, in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a household survey revealed high levels of intimate partner sexual violence, despite a general fixation on atrocities by armed groups. In the Kivu region, the number of incidents of civilian and intimate partner violence surpasses 400,00, making it the most prevalent form of violence in this conflict zone (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). Hence, when the continuum of gender violence is reduced to strategic military rape, many incidents will fall outside the purview of public policy. We can see therefore that UNSC 1325 is symptomatic of this failure, and as such it curtails its adequacy when addressing gendered dimensions of conflict.

We have already touched upon the deterrence logic that forms the backbone of the resolution’s approach to gendered violence in conflict. However, the hypothesis that increased prosecution will deter future atrocity further weakens the capacity UNSC 1325 to adequately address gendered violence in conflict settings. The “need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions” (UNSC 1325, p. Clause 11) increases the chance of spoilers in peace processes, thereby potentially lengthening the period of sexual assault. On a strong interpretation of the ‘weapon of war’ thesis, responsibility for rape lies with senior figures. This is an idea we have already explored. If one were to remove the incentive of amnesty for a cessation of harmful activity, the fear of prosecution would deter guilty parties from coming to the peace table. This would extend the length of the conflict, not just violent crimes against women. Moreover, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that as a consequence of pursuing deterrence logic, where reliable systems of prosecution do not exist, sexual violence will increase in proportion with the perception that it will not be addressed by justice systems. Whether one accepts this argument or not, it does not alter the conclusion we seemingly reach that UNSC 1325 fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict, especially that of rape and sexual violence.

The final pitfall of UNSC 1325 with regards to gender-based violence in conflict is that it does not reflect upon the consequences of gendering sexual violence. It pays no attention to the male victims of sexual violence in conflict. Whilst male victims of rape in conflict may not be as common as women, it is still an important issue. The failure of UNSC 1325 to address this dimension further demonstrates the insufficiencies which stem from the resolution’s liberal leaning of defining gender-based violence in terms of its relation to women. In DRC, 24% of men were victims of sexual violence, 80% of whom experienced sexual violence during periods of conflict (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). However, when war rape is understood as something done by men to women, and therefore patristic on heterosexual dynamics, male victims are often ignored. This gendering of victimhood can motivate homosexual rape, forcing men to occupy the role usually reserved for women. Therefore, the narrow way in which UNSC 1325 defines security, along with its gender specific approach to sexual violence presents an exclusivity to the way in which it addresses the gendered dimensions of conflict. When we take its view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ and its reliance on deterrence logic, the resolution fails to stand up to any notion of adequacy in addressing gender-based violence – a key gendered dimension of conflict.

Indeed, gender-selective violence in conflict that specifically targets males need not be sexual in nature. In fact, Jones (1994, p.67) notes that in the former Yugoslavia the most “serious atrocities committed against males primarily on gender grounds” were executions aimed at eliminating physical resistance to Serbian occupation. He goes onto argue that the Serb ‘militarised masculinity’ was defined against the subordinate masculinity of their male victims. Puechguirbal (2010, p. 177) recognises the failure of UNSC 1325 to address such issues as symptomatic of the resolution’s position within the liberal peace agenda.

The transformative ability of the resolution has therefore fallen somewhat short of the enthusiasm that surrounded its unanimous adoption in 2000. This concern – that the potential for success of UNSC 1325 has been overstated – is shared in the literature. Cook (2009) supports the aforementioned argument, maintaining that the resolution is “poorly formulated” and its language reproduces the “restrictive gendered framework” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) of the liberal peacebuilding agenda. In other words, UNSC 1325 engages with women as “gendered and vulnerable actors” (Puechguirbal, 2010, p. 173). This not only limits the scope of the resolution, as we have seen, but it also contributes to “restrictive assumptions about where and how women can contribute” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) to the peace and securities project. This is most apparent in the peace process setting.

Peace Process Setting

Aside from its concentration on gender-based violence, the main thrust of the resolution concerns women’s participation in peace processes. On reflection, the resolution in this regard has not been without success, albeit incremental. There has been a rise in the number of references to women in the text of peace process, from 11% prior to 2000, to 27% following the adoption of UNSC 1325 (UN Women, 2015). Whilst the percentage is still low, it is a positive trend. Moreover, the overall participation of women in peace processes is ‘inching’ upwards. The Philippines is an example of this success. The peace agreement that ended 17 years of negotiations between the Filipino government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed in March 2014, had strong provisions on women’s rights. Half of the articles mention mechanisms to engage women in governance and protect them against violence. This was seen as a direct result of women participating in negotiations. Furthermore, the important shift came in 2001, a year after the adoption of UNSC 1325, when two women were appointed to the five-member government panel. By 2014, a third of this panel were female (UN Women, 2015).

However, a more nuanced approach questions the real significance of this example. An improvement in numbers does not mean that women are able to effectively influence negotiations and shape their implementation. Sarah Taylor (2008, no pagination), a member of Human Rights Watch, recognised that “it is not enough to acknowledge the right of women to participate in peace processes”, but instead one must actively seek to facilitate their inclusion, and ensure their equality in decision making processes. In Somalia for instance, during the 2001 peace process, women were allocated a quota in all six reconciliation committees. However, any decision required the authorisation of a leadership committee of male clan elders. Hence, it is in this regard that UNSC 1325 has failed to adequately address the gendered dimension of peace processes.


We have therefore seen that UNSC 1325 quite clearly fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of both conflict and peace. However, in order to show this, I have expanded the original mandate of the resolution. It did not seek to tackle the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace as such, but rather the original intention of the resolution was to establish a normative framework going forward that protected women from gender-based violence in conflict and ensured they would be included in peace processes. There is an element of political necessity here, which my arguments ignored. To construct a resolution that aims to adequately address the entirety of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace would not be feasible. Its sheer breadth would undermine the political will to implement, let alone the practicality of funding such a project.

In this sense, the most pertinent arguments that relate to the success of the resolution on its own terms are reflected primarily in its failure to protect women from gender-based violence in conflict, and the extremely slow pace of improvement in women’s representation in peace processes. The rape of 500 women in DRC in 2010 just miles from a UN peacekeeping station exemplifies this failure. George and Shepherd (2016, pp. 297-306) note in their review of UNSC 1325 that the main pillars of the resolution include participation, prevention and protection: the resolution focused on “the protection of both the rights and bodies of women” and addressing the issue of women’s role in peace and security governance. Therefore, in the specific terms of the resolution itself, it has failed to adequately address the issues it set out to resolve. Furthermore, in the broad terms of the question, UNSC 1325 has also failed to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict on account of its narrow definitions of security and rape, its failure to address gendered dimensions of pre-conflict militarisation and its enervating progress at generating equality for women during peace processes.


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Cook, S. 2009. ‘Security Council Resolution 1820: On militarism, flashlights, raincoats and rooms without doors – a political perspective on where it came from and what it adds’. Emory International Law Review. 23, pp. 125–139

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Enloe, C. 2005. ‘What if Patriarchy is the Big Picture? An Afterword’. In: Mazurana, D. E. and Roberts, A. R. and Parpart, J. L. eds. Gender, Conflict and Peacekeeping. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield

George, N. and Shepherd, L. 2016. ‘Women, Peace and Security: Exploring the implementation and integration of UNSCR 1325’. International Political Science Review37(3), pp. 297-306.

Jones, A. 2009. Gender Exclusive: Essays on Violence, Men and Feminist International Relations. New York: Routledge

Kirby, P. 2015. ‘Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Preventing of Sexual Violence Initiative and its Critics’. International Affairs91(3), pp. 457-472

MacKinnon, C. 2007. Are women human? Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Puechguirbal, N. (2010). Discourses on Gender, Patriarchy and Resolution 1325: A textual analysis of UN documents. International Peacekeeping 17(2), pp.172–187

Shepherd, L. 2008. Power and authority in the production of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. International Studies Quarterly52(2), pp. 383-404

Taylor, S. 2008. ‘NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, Security Council Debate on Women Peace and Security’, Available from:

Atrocity Prevention, 15 Years Since the Adoption of R2P: Interview with UN Special Adviser on R2P Dr. Karen Smith

Interview by Georgiana Epure, Charlotte Abbott and Emma Bapt

In 2005, governments unanimously agreed that they have both an individual and a collective responsibility to protect (R2P) populations, not just citizens, from four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. In 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the position of the Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect and since 2009 the Secretary-General has been publishing annual reports on R2P clarifying and developing what this concept means and what ‘tools’ it needs in order to be implemented more effectively. Fifteen years after the adoption of the R2P, we talked with Dr. Karen Smith, the UN Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. Our interview touched on a series of issues that range from how the coronavirus pandemic affects atrocity prevention efforts to the role that religious leaders have in countering incitement to violence, and the relation between R2P and the Women, Peace and Security agenda – the topic of the Secretary-General’s upcoming report on R2P.


Recently, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to the ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’ sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. What is the state of the R2P norm in an age of increasing nationalism where more and more leaders legitimise hate speech, which may lead to hate crimes and other early warnings of atrocity crimes?

The rise in hate speech that we have seen accompanying a rise in nationalism and populism in many parts of the world underscores the fact that R2P is as relevant as ever. States – including their leaders – must be reminded of the responsibility they have, and the commitment they made in 2005, to protect their populations (including minorities and migrants). It is important to note that no country is immune from hate speech and its potential violent effects. During the current global pandemic, we have seen a worrying trend in which already vulnerable populations are targeted by hate speech and sometimes violent behaviour, based on accusations related to the spread of the coronavirus. The UN Secretary-General recognised the importance of addressing rising hate speech when, at the beginning of last year, he tasked the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to coordinate the development of a UN-wide Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which is currently being rolled out, and has recently been supplemented by a guidance note on addressing COVID-19 related hate speech. Importantly, the Strategy and Plan of Action calls for more rather than less speech, underlining the importance of protecting freedom of expression whilst addressing hate speech that incites violence.

In May, the UN Security Council was close to voting on a resolution calling for a global ceasefire that would enable the international community to focus on ending the coronavirus pandemic. Conflict, fragile societies and the threat of atrocities may severely impact nations’ ability to confront COVID-19. Do you think the pandemic will reshape the way in which the international community thinks about global responsibilities and basic universal rights? 

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly has serious implications for the responsibility to protect, not least because it is likely to significantly increase the risk to already vulnerable populations. We are already witnessing that those parts of the population who already face high levels of risk – including ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, refugees, the poor, and women, are facing increased risk to their safety and their livelihoods. In many countries minorities have become the target of hate speech and in some cases even violence, based on their alleged association with the spreading of infections. In the development of national and global responses to the crisis, it is essential that any action takes into consideration the potential implications for the risk of atrocity crimes. Some of the lessons being learned in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak are also relevant for atrocity prevention. These include the obvious, but consistently under-prioritised, fact that prevention is better than cure. Similarly, the importance of early warning – whether with reference to conflict, pandemics, or atrocity crimes, has been underlined. Like many other global governance challenges, the virus does not respect borders and therefore a multilateral, collective global response is really the only viable solution. Worryingly, over the past few years there has been a trend towards weakening multilateral institutions and, as part of growing nationalist and populist sentiments around the world, a general questioning of multilateralism. We must therefore also see the current crisis as presenting the international community with an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the current global order, and which issues should be prioritised, in the interests of building a better world.

Role of religious leaders

More and more attention is directed towards bringing religious leaders into efforts to prevent and counter incitement to violence, including identity-based violence. Last year, Ms Federica Mogherini, then European Union High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced a new EU-sponsored Global Exchange on Religion in Society to connect and empower civil society actors who are working on faith and social inclusion. Notably, in 2017, under the stewardship of the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect,  the UN Secretary General launched the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes. Where do we factor in an approach to R2P that mobilises members of civil society and focuses on particular areas (i.e. religion) for prevention purposes within the more common state-centric R2P approach? Is this a sign of a shift in approach, or R2Psimply diversifying its prevention ‘toolkit’?

While it remains the primary responsibility of states to protect their populations from atrocity crimes, this is not to the exclusion of other (non-state) actors. Particularly with regard to prevention, it is obvious that individual governments cannot build tolerant, resilient societies without the support of civil society. Many civil society actors can and have been playing important roles. These include women, youth, and religious leaders. As mentioned earlier, we have witnessed a disturbing rise in hate speech in recent years, much (but not all) of which targets religion. It is here that religious leaders can be particularly important in promoting tolerance and preventing incitement to hatred amongst their followers. As part of its Plan of Action for Religious Leaders, the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has worked with religious leaders from across different world regions and faiths to come up with a strategy that outlines specific targets aimed at preventing hate speech through enhancing education and capacity building, fostering inter-and intra-faith dialogue, and strengthening collaboration with traditional and new media. Religious leaders are undoubtedly essential partners in the fight against atrocities.

R2P focal points

Last year the Global Network of R2P Focal Points welcomed its second regional focal point (after the EU): the Organisation of American States. Why is it important that states and regional actors have such a focal point? What does the fact that most, if not all, R2P focal points are based in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say about R2P? Doesn’t this pattern in a way contradict R2P’s focus on domestic prevention?

The global focal points initiative is another stepping stone to wider implementation of R2P. The idea behind having such focal points in governments and regional organisations is that they are tasked with raising atrocity prevention as a priority across the work of governments, whether that be conflict prevention, development assistance, or education. While it should, in essence, matter less which ministry the focal point is based in, but rather how active they are, the fact that most focal points to date have been appointed in ministries of foreign affairs does tell us something about how most states still view R2P. While the international community’s responsibility to assist prevention efforts and respond to the commission of atrocities in all states is of course an important element of R2P, this should not override the primary responsibility of states to protect their own populations. In this regard, more needs to be done to emphasise the importance of thinking of R2P in domestic terms – even in states where the commission of atrocity crimes seems unlikely. As mentioned above, we are seeing a worrying rise in intolerance, hate speech and incitement to violence in many countries, and these risk factors should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

Women, Peace and Security agenda

Many scholars and practitioners have noted that R2P lacks a gender lens. Where do you situate the Women Peace and Security agenda in the process of making the R2P norm more gender sensitive? Given R2P scepticism, do you think that moving towards merging these two agendas might risk bringing down the WPS agenda’s consensus power?

The criticism of R2P lacking a gender lens is partly justified. While explicit reference to gender is, for example, limited in tools such as the Framework for Analysis, in practice, there is greater emphasis on the role of gender inequality, gender-based violence, and the role of women in particular in assessments that are done using this tool. Having said that, there is certainly room for improvement, and a need to think more systematically about how to incorporate gender more effectively into R2P but also – and this is important – to make atrocity prevention an integral part of the WPS agenda. To this end, this year’s SG report on R2P will focus on this exact issue. It is particularly relevant given the significance of 2020 for both agendas – 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for women’s rights, 20 years since the passing of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and 15 years since the adoption of the R2P during the World Summit in 2005. I don’t think that highlighting the areas of complementarity have to mean merging the agendas. It is more about recognising the potential for mutual reinforcement that already exists.

Measuring R2P success

Despite the rich literature on R2P, much of it documents where R2P went wrong, and numerous scholars argue that it is obsolete or a “hollow norm”. Are there any success stories? The bigger question is: how do you measure R2P success today?

It is always easier to identify and focus on where things went wrong – this is also how we have been trained by the global news cycle. The focus on where R2P has not been successful is also linked to the emphasis on the use of military force to respond to atrocities. If we agree that the ultimate aim of R2P is to prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place, this is where we should measure success. This, however, is difficult, as it often leads us down the path of counterfactuals. Conflict averted and atrocities prevented are not newsworthy, and it is often difficult to say what would or could have happened had certain steps not been taken. There are, however, some examples of where collective action by states, regional actors and the international community successfully prevented the likely commission of atrocities. One often-cited case is Kenya, following election violence in 2008. Another is The Gambia. When the outgoing president Jammeh refused to hand over power to his elected successor and ordered troops to be deployed to act against the civilian population, ECOWAS deployed a mediation team. They were supported by the UNSC, the AU, EU and key states. When the mediation failed, ECOWAS deployed a coalition of military forces to protect the civilian population. Eventually President Jammeh stepped down, and ECOWAS forces remained to oversee the transition of power. These are two clear examples of the responsibility to protect in action.

A word for young people working on atrocity prevention

What advice do you have for young scholars and practitioners who are interested in working in the field of atrocity prevention?

I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this field to pursue it – there is much work that remains to be done, both on the academic side and in practice. In terms of students working on R2P and atrocity prevention: while there is certainly a place for theoretical work on issues such as norm evolution and contestation, my experience has been that there is an even greater need for policy-oriented research that can help to advance the implementation of the responsibility to protect in a very practical way. For example, this year’s Secretary-General’s report will focus on women and R2P. While there is evidence-based research showing a clear link between gender equality and women’s rights and a state’s propensity for conflict, much research is still needed to explicitly highlight the links between these issues and atrocity prevention in particular. Similarly, there is still much to learn about what causes atrocity crimes to be committed, and what types of responses are effective in preventing them in different contexts. More research is essential if we want to strengthen our prevention efforts. With regards to working in the field of atrocity prevention, I would underline that there is a need for individuals who are committed to prioritising atrocity prevention across all fields, so do not be discouraged if you do not find a job in an organisation specifically dedicated to it. What we need is for atrocity prevention to be mainstreamed and prioritised across domestic and foreign policy making, development cooperation, education, and so forth.

After a series of thought-provoking answers from Dr. Karen Smith, the interview came to a close with the R2P Student Journal engaging in role reversal. We invited Dr. Smith to state the most important and redundant questions regarding R2P today. In her opinion, the most important question related to the norm’s implementation: ‘How can we ensure effective prevention of atrocity crimes?’, whilst the most redundant question is: ‘Is R2P still relevant?’.