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Why Does the Security Council Have Few Teeth? A Reflection on Women and Armed Conflict 20 years after Beijing 1995

2 Mar 2015

Why Does the Security Council Have Few Teeth? A Reflection on Women and Armed Conflict 20 years after Beijing 1995
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

The Beijing Declaration was key to establishing a series of momentous UN Security Council Resolutions on women in wartime, including the declaration of rape as a war crime. Much money and effort has gone into implementing elements of the Resolutions but women still tend to remain marginalised, if not completely excluded from peace talks and levels of violence, particularly sexual violence, still remain very high in some contemporary wars. I suggest that this is not surprising because attention has not been focused in the right place. Until we understand why some (not all) men choose to commit such violent acts against women, during and after wars, we are unlikely to curb or prevent this violence. Until there is a serious commitment to working alongside local women in genuine partnership during peace-keeping and peace-building endeavours, the UN Security Council Resolutions are likely to remain fundamentally flawed.

Donna Pankhurst is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. She has a history of research and teaching in the areas of gender, conflict and development, particularly focussing on Africa.

Why Does the Security Council Have Few Teeth?

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 set out ambitious aims for change to address gross inequalities between women and men’s experience throughout the world. In the chapter on Women and Armed Conflict, there were six Strategic Objectives, which embodied the position that “peace is inextricably linked with equality between women and men and development”. They highlighted the fact that breaches of women’s human rights commonly took different forms from men’s; they tended to be ignored by most commentators and legislators; and they were not showing signs of decreasing.

The Declaration was publicized at the same time as widespread news coverage of the genocide in Rwanda, in which sexual violence against women was used as a key genocidal weapon. It also referred to the much-reported violence against women in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. These events had a deep impact on UN perceptions of the need to protect civilians during war, particularly women and children. In 1992 the UN Secretary General at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had formulated a new approach for the international community to take in addressing future events, known as the Agenda for Peace, which set out a moral agenda for the UN. He called for the international community not only to intervene more during conflict but also to be involved in peace building after a ceasefire. It is here that many people considered that attention ought to be turned to the plight of women, and in particular their experience of sexual violence during war. Together these events and expressions of global concern led to a brighter spotlight being shone on the Beijing Declaration than many who participated in its formulation might otherwise have anticipated.

The Beijing Platform for Action declared that “The equal access and full participation of women in power structures and their full involvement in all efforts for the prevention and resolution of conflicts are essential for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security […] they are still under-represented in decision-making positions. If women are to play an equal part in securing and maintaining peace, they must be empowered politically and economically and represented adequately at all levels of decision making.” So as well as its key concern with women as victims and survivors of particular kinds of violence during wars, the Platform also expressed an expectation that women had particular roles to play in bringing about lasting peace. In both these senses there was an implicit understanding that there was something intrinsically distinct about women’s experiences and abilities which warranted more attention from the international community. The impact of the dramatic accounts of women as targets of wartime violence, and a renewed international concern about the way in which the international community had responded, clearly provoked concern at the UN. It has nonetheless been asserted by many that extremely effective lobbying by women’s organizations, which built on the Beijing Declaration, provided the required extra impetus to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000).

Security Council resolutions on women and war

Resolution 1325 was a wide ranging statement calling for an overhaul in attitudes and training of UN personnel, with quite specific recommendations, in order to promote women to prominent positions in what some might call ‘peace activity’, or even the ‘peace industry’, it also included the need to work closely with women at local levels. It highlighted the need to protect women and girls from violence in conflict settings and re-stated UN positions on human rights in this regard. It put responsibility for the changes required squarely with all states.

But passing a Security Council Resolution was not sufficient to bring about the changes hoped for in the Beijing Declaration. There were indeed some important changes, particularly in the visibility of individual women in prominent positions in the UN and in some peace processes. Nonetheless in subsequent wars the killing and torturing of women continued, along with the usual prominent media coverage of female victims, and women continued to be marginalized in, or even completely absent from, peace talks and peace-building policies.

Further Security Council Resolutions were passed in recognition of the lack of sufficient change. First was 1820 (2008) which condemned sexual violence as a weapon of war and for the first time declared rape and other forms of sexual violence to be war crimes. Again this was an enormous, and somewhat unexpected, victory for lobbyists. It acknowledged that such acts continued to occur, and in some situations had become systematic and widespread, reaching “appalling levels of brutality”. It noted that the UN was “deeply concerned also about the persistent obstacles and challenges to women’s participation and full involvement in the prevention and resolution of conflicts as a result of violence, intimidation and discrimination, which erode women’s capacity and legitimacy to participate in post-conflict public life, and acknowledging the negative impact this has on durable peace, security and reconciliation, including post-conflict peace building.”

These astonishing achievements, at the heart of the global security machinery, came about through a number of lucky circumstances, but fundamentally because of the NGO activity, particularly by women’s organizations, that led up to the Beijing Declaration and continued afterwards. Five further UN Security Council Resolutions followed (1888/2009, 1889/2009, 1960/2010, 2106/2013, 2122/2013) which all sought to bring about the real changes that Resolution 1325 had originally called for, recognizing that the results were disappointing.

These Resolutions were unexpected by many. Activists had thought it would take much longer to achieve this much from the Security Council. Military and political leaders, and activists, involved in peace keeping and peace building were often bewildered as to what in fact they were supposed to do. The lack of experience of taking women’s views seriously, let alone empowering them to play key roles, presented profound challenges to organizational cultures, and indeed to individuals. Efforts to support them in making appropriate changes were not instant, and in many cases have been reported as being piecemeal, poorly-resourced and ineffective.

But little change on the ground

In the meantime, wars have failed to change with regard to the two key challenges of Resolution 1325: violence against women and girls; and women’s participation in decision-making. Even where UN missions have been present, the training of key actors to change their outlook and practices remains only partial and not very effective. There are now many reviews and studies of these limitations available, and the UN itself has acknowledged that unless there is major change in how 1325 is implemented, the issues are set to continue. Sexist attitudes of leaders and UN personnel persist, and ignorance of, as well as blatant disregard for, the experience of women during wars is still widespread.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for instance, various wars and conflicts have taken place since 1996 which have involved extraordinarily high levels of violence against women and girls, even in locations with a UN presence. Furthermore DRC is commonly referred to as having experienced some of the highest rates of rape anywhere in the world. Leaving aside the issue of whether this is indeed the case, and the extraordinary challenges in measuring the rates of sexual violence under any circumstances, there is a lot more that has not been changed by the Security Council Resolutions. They did not enable UN personnel or local leaders to intervene effectively to prevent such violence, nor did they provide effective deterrents against committing such acts.

We now know a lot about the wide variety of women’s experiences during and after wars, and that they are often distinctive from those of men. Nonetheless women’s stories still tend to be eclipsed by male accounts and men’s preoccupations. Gender blindness persists in conflict analysis, conflict resolution, and peace building, as well as in the political strategies of governments of war-torn societies and the leaders of international agencies that support them. Women often take on new roles during wars, but this capacity is often not recognized once the conflict is over and women are often marginalized through ignorant decision making, or their roles even deliberately undermined, during peace building efforts. The Resolutions have made no impact on these elements of gender blindness.

The varied and sometimes extraordinary degree of sexual violence committed by men against women during and after war—within homes and communities, as well as by ‘the enemy’—is often held up as evidence of the depths to which humanity can drop. Much public commentary pointed to the Resolutions as an appropriate response by the international community, which identified a road-map to reduce, if not prevent, such types of violence occurring in the future. The challenges of implementation have received far less attention, however, and there has been little or no public discussion about why this violence occurs.

Some but not all men commit rape during war

Violence against women committed by men in wartime tends to be attributed to a range of issues to do with how men are expected to behave—what it is to be a man, sometimes referred to as their ‘masculinity’. Generalized comments are made about rape, for example by soldiers in DRC, being used as a weapon of war; learned from foreigners; believed to give power before battle; seen as a right; used as a punishment. But it is also said that it is an outcome of a loss of men’s status and the collapse of law and order, along with the impacts on men of very long periods of violence in the civilian population.

Such ‘explanations’ are common elsewhere, along with the view that once men are involved in warfare they become more violent not just to ‘enemy women’, but also to women in their own societies and families. Yet more challenging is explaining the prevalence of violence against women that continues, and even increases, after the ends of wars—commonly known as the ‘backlash’. It is rarely contested, when asserted, that the very causes of war usually include the performance of certain types of masculinities, whether cross-cultural or culturally specific. There is even a recognized body of evidence and theorizing that gender relations can be seen as a predictor and even a cause of war themselves, which echoes the statement in the Beijing Declaration that equality is a pre-condition of peace. This link can also be found in recent declarations by the World Economic Forum. Yet we have to acknowledge that these ‘explanations’ are offered by observers more often than by perpetrators, and that research with men to investigate the reasons why they commit violence against women from their own point of view is extremely rare indeed.

So we need to know more about how men’s behaviours and characters are supported and encouraged to become more violent towards women both during and after wars, while recognizing that not all men are in fact violent. Insights gained from such a focus might be the only way to disrupt the construction of such masculinities that emphasize aggression and violence, and instead promote those which direct strength and courage to working for peace and against violence. The philosophy behind Resolution 1325 is that if we can empower women, they will be able to have an impact on such processes. But there is little evidence to suggest that this has happened on any significant scale anywhere. On the contrary, there is some evidence, which is not surprising to social scientists, that women sometimes play key roles in encouraging men to become more violent in the first place, particularly in urging them to become combatants. There is also clear evidence that men are sometimes overtly manipulated by political and military leaders specifically to engage in violence against women and girls for a variety of reasons, but that same authority is rarely used in the same way to encourage them to stop.

Furthermore, not all men commit the same levels or types of violence, even within the same military organizations. The scant research that has actually been undertaken with men reveals that there are some who resist this behaviour even at the cost of standing up against a forceful military hierarchy which endorses it. Even in DRC no one has suggested that all men commit rape. These men who resist violence tend to remain hidden in war and post-war narratives, in spite of efforts by NGOs and intergovernmental organizations who seek to support them as role models for younger men, such as UN Women’s HeForShe programme. So if the UN and others are serious about preventing such violence, shouldn’t they be seeking to support men who reject it? The Resolutions do not make any provision for this kind of activity.

Few governments choose to recognize the serious impacts of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on their military forces, even where they acknowledge this as a key reason why ex-combatants remain violent after wars, and commit violence specifically against women and girls. This is a highly complicated issue which still remains under-researched. The United States Army does partially acknowledge the problem but still has a long way to go in addressing it. The British government has been sufficiently concerned about the high numbers of former soldiers in prison for violent crimes that it has undertaken several investigations, although it continues to deny that there is a major problem, and fails to follow its own policies on monitoring mental illness. If these two powerful states are not able to address these serious issues effectively then it raises serious challenges in contexts where states are weak, let alone where informal militias form the main fighting forces. Local populations are therefore highly likely to remain vulnerable to acts of violence even from demobilized forces, as well as being likely to suffer from undiagnosed PTSD themselves.

The fundamental problem of misogyny remains

Given the number of resolutions made by the Security Council on these matters, why are gender issues still not central in mainstream discussions about war, security and peace? Why do so many academics in the field of conflict analysis regard these issues as marginal and even exaggerated, and do not even read the research on the topic? Why are security experts and peace builders not focusing on men’s masculinities? It is difficult to see alternative explanations besides gender blindness at best and outright sexism at worst.

It is therefore perhaps likely that no matter how much international intervention to prevent wars and violence takes place, or how much women and others act to resist it on the ground, until or unless we unpick what is at the root of some men perpetrating wartime violence against women, whilst others do not, war may well continue on its current trajectories. Rather than expect the victims and survivors to fix the problem of war and post-war violence against women alone, there is a need to focus attention on diagnosing the causes, and working alongside both women and men to find ways to stop these crimes from occurring in the first place. The Security Council Resolutions contain many laudable ambitions but they may remain largely unimplemented without a renewed dedication to understanding and challenging the causes of gender blindness and direct violence against women.

    Donna Pankhurst is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. She has a history of research and teaching in the areas of gender, conflict and development, particularly focusing on Africa. In recent years she has been analysing gender-based violence in so-called ‘post-conflict’ contexts, with an increasing focus on men, and explanations for why they commit acts of violence against women. Relevant publications include Gendered Peace. Women’s Struggles for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation, UNRISD and Routledge, 2007; and ‘Sex Wars and Other Wars. Towards a Feminist Approach to Peacebuilding’ in Development and Practice, 13, 2 & 3, 154-177, 2003


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.