On Dec. 16, without fanfare, President Barack Obama issued an executive orderestablishing for the first time a global American policy to advance women’s roles in making and keeping peace. The absence or marginalization of women from international security affairs has been a cause of much United Nations attention for more than a decade, right up to Security Council level. But progress has been paltry, at best. When big decisions are made or discussed, women rarely get seats at the table.
The move by the Obama administration to integrate women effectively in issues of peace and security is the latest in a series of recent policy decisions and statements that are in tune, coincidentally or not, with current UN campaigns.
With mass protests and revolts against corruption, repression or misgovernment demanding new policies and more participatory politics from the Middle East to India and China, the United States is aiding democracy-building programs similar to those of the UN.
Michael H. Posner, the American assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, is well known internationally. A former president of Human Rights First, he led that organization’s delegation to the 1998 Rome conference that created the International Criminal Court. Earlier, he also led a successful campaign for the first US asylum law and has been a vocal supporter of humane working conditions globally.
On health issues, Eric Goosby, who serves as the US global AIDS coordinator, came from an internationally active AIDS foundation in California and works closely with the World Health Organization and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. He says that partnerships with international organizations are crucial.
Protecting Gay Rights
The Obama administration has been notably forthright on gay rights within the UN system, ahead of many countries. On Dec. 6, a White House memorandum to US government departments and agencies, as well as embassies abroad, put US foreign policy firmly behind the global protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“By this memorandum I am directing all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons,” the president wrote. “I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation.”
The US policy was not welcomed by many countries where homosexuality is banned or criminalized and, moreover, flies in the face of American campaigns against gay marriage.
Within days, the UN issued its first comprehensive report on the rights crises facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. That report, from the high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said that violations of gay rights globally demands a response, citing evidence of murders, kidnappings, assaults, rapes, psychological threats and “arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
In other recent American statements on international issues, Stephen J. Rapp, ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, gave a largely positive speech to an assembly of governments meeting in New York to assess the work of the International Criminal Court.The court is independent but works closely with the Security Council; political opposition in the US still prevents it from joining the court.
‘Progress’ for Women and UN Peacekeeping
Maria Otero, under secretary for democracy and global affairs in the State Department, praised the UN’s work in bringing the private sector and international business into discussions of human rights in an address at George Washington University.
The new US policy directive about women, formally titled the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, has heft. It was jointly developed by the Pentagon, State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, under White House guidance. All government departments and agencies are required to develop action strategies within five months.
The policy covers a gamut of actions from prevention of conflict – in which women and children are now often the most vulnerable victims – to strengthening women’s leadership roles in peace negotiating, enhancing broad protections from gender violence, stopping trafficking and holding accountable the perpetrators of abuses in conflict areas.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the policy in a speech on Dec. 19 at Georgetown University, which has announced plans to establish an institute for women, peace, security and development. In her speech, Clinton noted “important progress” in the UN and its peacekeeping department since the adoption by the Security Council in 2000 of Resolution 1325. That was the first such action taken by the council calling on nations to address both the dearth of women in peace issues and the violence against women in conflict zones and society more generally. Four later resolutions sharpened the demands.
These steps requiring action have also been taken in NATO, Clinton said, and now the US joins the campaign. “We have enough anecdotal evidence and research that demonstrates [involving] women in peacekeeping is both the right thing to do and the smart thing, as well,” she said. “It’s right, because, after all, women are affected disproportionately by conflict; they deserve to participate in the decisions that shape their own lives. And it’s the smart thing because we have seen again and again that women participating in these processes build more durable peace.”
Cora Weiss, president of the New York-based Hague Appeal for Peace and a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and an adviser on UN resolutions on gender violence and women in conflict, welcomed the presidential order.
“It’s remarkable in many ways, and uses some strong language for a government,” she wrote in a response to the policy announcement. “Most important, they call for mobilizing men to advance the role of women, and that is essential.” She also noted that the plan addressed the need to raise awareness among civilian contractors, who are largely unaccountable in many missions abroad.
But Weiss has reservations. She suggests that a full-time official be appointed to monitor how the plan is carried out and that its provisions applied to American personnel and not just foreign actors. Weiss is also concerned that the plan runs the risk of appearing to draw women into making war as well as peace.
“The women who drafted 1325 in June of 2000 were not interested in legitimizing war by putting women in the military or at the war tables,” she wrote. “We came together because our voices were never heard, and also because we were interested in preventing war by bringing women to tables where decisions to go or not to go to war were debated.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.