Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund made history in 2014 when she was appointed the first female force commander of a United Nations peacekeeping mission — in this case, Cyprus. Still in active duty in the Norwegian military, General Lund, 58, gives lectures and advises the Norwegian Defense University College in Oslo. Although she is proud to have made history and wants to see more women in the world’s militaries, General Lund has no silver bullets for peace.
Nevertheless, as the lone woman in such an elevated military position in Cyprus, she believed she had to work harder to prove herself in this role than a man might feel pressured to do. To make a difference, she reached out to women in the long conflict to help move the opposing sides closer together.
The original peacekeeping mission was set up in 1964 after violence flared between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island. In 1974, the mission’s role expanded to supervise a cease-fire and maintain a buffer zone between the Greek Cypriot-governed half in the south and Turkish Cypriot territory in the north. The UN renewed negotiations toward creating a unity government in January 2017 after many previous attempts, although the sides are still far apart.
In a phone interview with her from Oslo, General Lund said the military is just one point in a peacekeeping process that demands all hands — female and male — on deck. She also said she was eager for another post in the UN.
The interview was edited and condensed from the original conversation.
Q. You were the first woman to command a UN peacekeeping force. Tell me about your personal experience as force commander from 2014 to 2016 for the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus.
A. As a woman, they [the people of Cyprus] trusted me and I trusted them. I reached out to the whole community. I created a network with female officers and noncommissioned officers from the UN and the ROC National Guard [Republic of Cyprus] and even brought the two first ladies [from the Greek Cypriot side and the Turkish Cypriot side] together to inspire the peace process and to encourage women to take a role in unification. Women are 50 percent of society, so I made sure I publicly spoke to show them that this is an effort that they need to get involved in.
Q. As UN-led negotiations were renewed in January 2017, what do you think must happen to unify the Greek and Turkish Cypriots?
A. Cyprus is a beautiful country. They really have everything they need in terms of natural resources to do well. But accurate history needs to be taught in schools. Most students don’t have the facts about what happened in the 1970s [when Greek nationalists staged a coup on the island in 1974 to incorporate Cyprus into Greece, propelling Turkey to intervene, resulting in a divided island since 1974.] With the facts, you can reach solutions. When I was there, I supported a technical committee on education in 2015, and a technical committee on equal rights was established in 2014. So many children and adults don’t know the facts about the divide or do not remember when Cyprus was one, so that prevents real resolution. So both sides have to give. When you give, you will get, and I think that is most important. They have to focus on the generation to come. They cannot change what has happened, but they have the opportunity to change for the future generation. It’s all about will and if they have strong statesmen, they can do it.
Q. What can countries learn from the UN’s efforts to ensure gender equality in militaries and in UN peacekeeping missions?
A. First of all, everyone should be treated equally in order to serve his or her country. Norway was a member of the UN Security Council when it adopted Resolution 1325 in October 2000 [mandating equal representation of women at negotiating tables and in other peace and security arenas]. There is no difference when it comes to what men and women can do. For countries that haven’t done it yet, I’d advise military leaders to express to women that they are needed in order for the military actually fulfill its purpose. Without women in some areas, you cannot fulfill the task. For example, if a woman has been gang-raped by men, she will most likely approach a woman in uniform rather than a man. And men that are raped will, I think, also approach a woman soldier rather than a man. These issues — sexual violence in conflict — have not gone away, unfortunately. The military is one thing, but you need to really work on the whole society. The military should, in a way, reflect the society. If you really mean that you’ve adopted Resolution 1325, then you need to do it all over within the society. Norway has adopted [Resolution 1325] in full strength by introducing conscription and a gender-neutral policy.
Q. What are some of the most important roles women can play on the ground in resolving a conflict?
A. I think the values of women are good in a conflict situation. Because of how we are raised — you are talking to everybody, you want to get friends from early on — women use much more to talk than to use physical strength to show or to get something, you know? And [for civilians] it’s also most likely less terrifying, frankly, to have women in uniform to talk to you rather than a big male who looks like a really tough guy. So I think, sometimes, it is easier. Women’s presence may make the military more approachable.
Q. What would you tell a woman who is on the fence about joining the military?
A. Young women should go for it. Get out and get some UN experience because the UN and military needs leadership. The UN is the place where you can meet people and get experience. When you get out and go through some tough times — and there will be times when you’re tested on your abilities — you learn so much about yourself. This is something you can take with you for the rest of your life, even if you go to a civilian career. You become an ambassador for your country. And you will have a network of friends all over the world, which makes the world a better place.
Q. So you want to be a force commander again?
A. I would definitely like to do it again. I felt like I was a test case for other women to lead, and I think, I hope, I did well. For my career, in Norway, we have to get out of the military at age 60 — it doesn’t matter your rank. I hope that I can continue to work as a consultant or adviser for organizations like the UN.
Shana L. Childs is a media-relations specialist for the Institute of International Education, based in New York. Previously, she was a public-affairs specialist for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C. She has a master’s in multimedia journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in sociology from Spelman College.