Paula Donovan, an AIDS and women’s rights activist, is the co-executive director with Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization. In her work with the United Nations, she has acted as a special adviser to the U.N. Aids Envoy and recently attended the 10-year anniversary of the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1325, which pledged to more greatly involve women in peace negotiation and post-conflict rebuilding. The opinions expressed in this article are her own, and do not necessarily represent Women, War & Peace.
The truth is as simple and dreadful as this: U.N.S.C.R. 1325 has failed women.
On Oct. 26, the United Nations Security Council met to “take stock of progress” since the passage of its own Resolution 1325 10 years ago. One after another, U.N. functionaries and government representatives of over 80 countries took the floor to express gradations of mild disappointment, reciting the approved texts of their capitals with a level of dispassion seldom seen in the real world. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deposited his own carefully crafted understatement into the mix by video, the first speaker among many to refer to 1325 and its sister resolutions as “historic landmarks.” And then he calmly read from his teleprompter that “we have failed to build sufficiently on these conceptual foundations.”
But even the thesaurus’ worth of euphemisms on parade in the Security Council that day could not disguise the U.N.’s wretched failure to act on its own resolution to clear space for women at all peace tables, both real and metaphorical. The unforgivable fact is that during the decade under review, women’s participation in formal peace processes actually declined; their participation in conflict resolution and peace-building is less evident in 2010 than it was before Resolution 1325 passed. To this day, no woman has ever been given the role of lead mediator in a U.N.-moderated peace talk. Over 10 long, violent years, more countries have engaged in armed conflict than in national discussions about how to implement Resolution 1325 — of 192 member states, just 23 have action plans.
No hint of that regression was evident within the Security Council’s bland “special session” chambers, where the diplomatic challenge is not to face the facts in their indigestible state, but to beat them to a pulp and sandwich them between aphorisms lest a stack of raw truth offend any one member’s palate: “We’ve traveled so far … there’s a long stretch still ahead … we’ll redouble our efforts and get there together.”
Inside that surreal room, the mere fact that all Council members had once unanimously agreed upon a resolution filled with good intentions and the concept of equal rights for women made Resolution 1325 “historic,” “groundbreaking,” a “landmark achievement.” Out in the real world, particularly where women live under constant threat of bodily invasion, a “conceptual foundation” of inclusion that exists only on paper is not a landmark; a resolution that urges, urges and further urges, requests, calls upon and encourages to no avail is not a turning point.
Speaker after speaker referred on Oct. 26 to global headlines from recent months: Militia attacks against villagers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had left no one dead, but upwards of 500 viciously raped, and all within miles of a U.N. peacekeeping station. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the four-day siege a “rebuke to our efforts thus far.” Others echoed that dismay and the empty promises to redouble efforts in the next decade, to try much harder, to put words to action, shoulders to the wheel — and in one particularly odious turn of phrase, to “let us look at the past 10 years as years of preparation.” Those words, inexplicably, were met with prolonged applause.
Had the victims of those particular mass rapes been present in the Council chambers — had they been invited to sit in, representing the millions of women who have been thrust into the center of conflicts but barred from the center of peacebuilding over the past ten years — it seems unlikely that they would have taken courage or solace from the Council members’ commitment to wind up the world’s longest and most deadly dress rehearsal, and finally let the performance begin.
Despite the fact that no such Congolese women were present, what the Security Council members and the top U.N. functionaries should have conveyed to them is this:
“We are profoundly sorry. We held peace talks in 2008 and did not ask you to join. During closed negotiations among belligerents, without your knowledge or permission, we offered amnesty to the men who raped you in exchange for our version of peace. You now live in a perpetually uncomfortable state that we comfortably describe as ‘post-conflict’ — a state in which every day and every night holds the threat of rape and mutilation. In 2009, you begged us to believe that combining U.N. peacekeeping forces and the Congolese army in an initiative designed to rout out one militia group would only lead directly to ever more brutal, retaliatory rapes. We proceeded against your pleas and advice, and just as you predicted, you were raped by the hundreds. The rapes continue to this day. This past July and August were no different. We failed, as we have failed so many times before, to respond to reports that your villages were under attack. Hundreds of you were raped en masse. We recognize that those attacks were different from others in just one important way: The media learned of them and exposed our failure to the world. We responded by dispatching high-level U.N. functionaries, as though mass rape were something new and suddenly in need of attention. We used the helicopters that could have prevented your rapes to airlift our U.N. officials into your region. When the officials arrived, they asked questions to determine where the U.N. had gone wrong; they conducted a ‘post mortem’ on your battered spirits. You are still waiting for the opportunity to take your insights and your experiences and your unique perspectives about how to build real peace in your ‘post-conflict’ country to a peacebuilding process.”
What the Security Council should have said is, “We beg your forgiveness, and we invite you to the table — not tomorrow, not some time before our next stock-taking session, not within the next decade, but today. Now we are begging you: please help us to build peace today.”
For a different take on Resolution 1325, read Sanam Anderlini’s related essay, Resolution 1325 is a Starting Point.